Down The Hall

Going the Extra Mile

Vanessa Dugo goes the extra mile to connect with families.

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Vanessa Dugo

Vanessa Dugo’s principal describes her as a leader who creates a “welcoming school climate for all our students.” From facilitating a Spanish-speaking parent outreach group to organizing peer mentoring for autistic students, Dugo goes the extra mile to connect with students and their families.


How did you become a social worker?

It was my experience working as a teaching assistant for children with autism that pointed me in the direction of the schools. The kind of work the school social worker did to educate and support families of young children with autism impressed me—I was hooked. I also knew that school social work would allow me to interact with students and the community.


What challenges to community outreach has your school faced?

We have a population of Spanish-speaking families that has slowly grown over the years, and we’re constantly working to meet the academic and emotional needs of these students. There’s a lot of disparity, so we want to make sure kids have opportunities to get involved, which is why we provide our Spanish-speaking parents with the resources to feel comfortable connecting and collaborating with their school.


How does your Family Engagement Outreach Group contribute to these efforts?

The Family Engagement Outreach Group was created to build a bridge between the school and our most at-risk families. Part of that process is encouraging parents to step into leadership roles. One mother in the group is a great example. She’s on our planning committee and comes to every single meeting. Other parents look at her and think, “Wow, she has the same background as me, and her son is in AP classes and got a scholarship.” When she reaches out to invite families to meetings, they’ve been really receptive.


What do you feel is the most important climate issue at your school?

We always strive to teach tolerance. Making sure the students in our Structured Teaching Education Program (STEP) are accepted across all settings is a high priority.


What are you doing to address this issue?

We work extensively to prepare teachers, students and incoming STEP students for their transition to our school. We have a Peer Buddies class that trains students in general education to be mentors to STEP students. 

Mentors in the Peer Buddies program learn how to support their peer buddies in a number of ways, including working with them in the classroom, playing games and joining them in extracurricular activities. Even more important, mentors gain a better understanding of what it’s like to have a disability.

The program is so popular, additional Peer Buddies classes had to be created in order to accommodate all of the students who wanted to participate.


What is the most fulfilling experience you have had in your job?

I love my job and can say that I am fulfilled most days. I have been fortunate to work extensively with our STEP students. Each day I learn how much they are capable of doing. When I see kids in the Peer Buddies program connect, exchange numbers and make plans outside of school, it reminds me why I decided to become a social worker in the first place.


How do you know you’re doing a good job as a social worker?

I know I’m doing a good job as a social worker when I’m busy all day. Students should feel comfortable approaching me when dealing with anything from a crisis to a bad day. It’s important to have the well-being of students at the forefront of your mind at all times.

Vanessa Dugo is a school social worker at Elm Place Middle School in Highland Park, Ill.

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