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Alumni Stories: Elizabeth Booth '87

A School Social Worker Fights the Achievement Gap One Student At A Time

by Julia M. Plevin '09

There are those who wander and there are those who are lost. And then there are those who never wander and never seem to be lost. School social worker Betsy Booth's ('87) career path has been straightforward and driven by her unrelenting passion for working with children and doing her part to overcome the achievement gap in education.

While at Dartmouth, Booth thought she wanted to be a teacher.  Although she did coursework in education, Booth was a psychology major. She chose the major because she was interested in people, specifically how people learn, and because she knew she was passionate about education and teaching. As a social worker, she finds her psychology major to be continually useful and often applies her knowledge of mental health to her job.

After graduation, Booth took her first job as a teacher. She wanted to get out of the Northeast. After growing up in New York and attending Dartmouth, she was ready for a change of scenery. She interviewed all around for her first job and finally decided to head to Jacksonville, Florida to teach middle school math. After a few years of sunshine to increase her level of Vitamin D after four years in frigid Hanover, she decided Florida was not the right place and she missed seasons. Also, she wanted to teach younger children. She decided to move to Milwaukee, Wisconsin to teach fourth graders. Her certification was in elementary education and she enjoyed the opportunity to teach all subjects.

After four years in Wisconsin, Booth picked up and moved once again to Chapel Hill, North Carolina. She knew she was ready for a change but wanted to stay in the school environment. She debated between going into counseling or social work, but finally reasoned that social work had the opportunity for a lot more variability than school counseling.

Part of the reason Booth decided to go into school social work was that she had been well-trained as a teacher to teach academic subjects but realized that more time was taken up with non-academic issues, such as housing and hunger, that are not covered in education classes. Booth wanted to be able to take pressure off the teachers so that they could focus on teaching the academic subjects and ease the concerns of students so that they could better focus on academics as well.

Booth received her Masters in Social Work from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. The school was a perfect fit in terms of academics and location. She had moved around the country and was now ready to settle in a location where she could imagine planting roots. In the Social Work program at UNC, students spend half of their time doing practicum work. Her first practicum was working with parents who were court ordered to attend parenting classes due to child abuse or neglect. During her second year she completed a school social work placement at Estes Hills Elementary School. At the end of the year, the social worker at the school left and Booth was hired. She has been the social worker at Estes Hills ever since finishing her Masters program in 2005.

While she has been in the same school and her job is steady, it is continually filled with new challenges. Her role is to act as a link between home and school for children and families who are disconnected from school or other resources. Many of the parents she works with have not had successful school experiences and do not feel positively towards schools.

There are countless challenges and every day is really different. When dealing with families that are below the poverty line, issues such as mental health, financial needs, housing needs, and interpersonal needs with parenting are just a few concerns that come up any given day. Booth's day-to-day at work is quite varied. She describes her job as a balancing act between the work she does with families and the work she does with teachers to make them better understand and communicate with families. She makes home visits, works with community agencies, assigns interpreters to help the growing Latino population, conducts individual and small group counseling, and deals with crisis management.

As challenging as her job is, Booth finds social work to be very rewarding. She is involved with a mentor program that has grown during her time at Estes Hills Elementary School and has been very influential for the children involved. She also notes that mentoring is a two- way street and that the mentors often say, "I don't know how much I am doing for this kid but boy has he changed my life." She carefully matches the mentors with the kids so that they can form real, lasting relationships that are rewarding and helpful for everyone involved.

Booth enjoys being able to see kids and families grow over time - coping with challenging situations, increasing their academic success, and building their self-esteem. As rewarding as it is to watch children mature and help parents improve in their own careers, it is hard for her when a family moves out of the school district and she can no longer keep track of them. She is left wondering how they are doing and hoping that the work they have done together sustains and the family continues on a positive path.

Booth has no plans to move on from her role in the future because trying out something different would mean leaving people in her school district. The relationships she has made are too important to her and she would miss the kids and families who have been integral to her career and her life. She plans to continue her work and hopes in the future that all children are successful in school. Booth advocates for the needs of all children and worries about the achievement gap for African American and Latino students in her school district. She notes that her school district is one of the best in the state but it is "not successful until it's successful for all children. Until we can close the achievement gap, there is still work to be done."

Booth thinks that social work is an excellent career for Dartmouth students because it is full of great challenges for those who want to work with people to solve some of our nation's largest problems. A career with human contact is a rarity in today's computer-driven world and Booth has quite the variety of human contact. On any given day, she may eat lunch with a first grader, make a home visit to meet with a parent, then talk to a physician on the phone, or a million other things.

For Dartmouth students interested in social work, she emphasizes the importance of getting experience before going into a Master's program. Booth realizes that she is a better social worker for the years she spent teaching and thinks it is better to do work in the field first in order to be better able to decide what to do with a degree in social work. As for students interested in education she says, "Hold on to ideals but find a support system of mentors. Don't think you should do it all on your own and soak up as much as you can from mentor teachers whom you know."

Booth is firmly set on her path. She has never wandered and stays true to her belief that education is the one thing that could really change the world. As she continues her important work, Booth helps those who are lost and need help to find their way.

Last Updated: 6/21/12