Somewhere between the shelves of nails and pliers, hooks and cement, Annette Oropeza (MSW ‘87) ran into what appeared to be a tall stranger calling out to her by name in thea isles of Home Depot. A one time gang member and student she counseled more than 12 years ago when he was a far shorter middle school student, the man was eager to tell her of his latest success. “Ms Oropeza!” she recounts him telling her excitedly, “I’m moving to Florida to go to college!”
But then, not ten minutes later, another ex-student walked by. “My girlfriend is having a baby,” the 16-year old told Oropeza, his head hung low. “And I got kicked out of school.”
“Unfortunately, you can only do what you can do,” says Oropeza of her work with students as a Life Circumstance Counselor and Mental Health Services Coordinator for Roosevelt Middle School in Oakland, California. The school is considered one of the most ethnically and linguistically diverse schools in the Oakland Unified School District, most of whom are Latino, Southeast Asian and Chinese immigrants. More than 85 percent of the student body qualifies for free or reduced lunch. “If you’ve got skills and your heart is in the right place,” says Oropeza, “Even if it’s not apparent, you are doing some good.”
Oropeza offers one of her favorite anecdotes to illustrate her point. “I was working with a nine year old at Alameda County Health, and all he wanted to do was play checkers,” she says. The boy had been referred for serious behavior problems in the school – he was violent and often disruptive in class. “Every week I tried to ask questions and he would just tell me everything was fine and sit with his head down playing checkers. A few months into it I got a call from his teacher. ‘I don’t know what you are doing with him,’ she told me, ‘But he is now one of the best behaved children in class.’ Later, I asked him what had happened. ‘Why are you behaving so much better?’ I asked. ‘Because I come here!’ he told me. Unbelievable!”
Now in her position at Roosevelt as a counselor, Oropeza works daily with kids struggling with poverty, neighborhood crime and family issues and consults with parents and teachers. But she also wears many other hats as a social worker in the public school system, running the Coordination of Services Team (COST) at Roosevelt Middle School which consists of MSW interns, personnel from the school/community clinic, a family advocate, resource and ESL teachers and school administration.
“We meet as a team and are totally data-driven,” says Oropeza of the COST group. The team works together closely to design interventions for individual students and to choose new school-wide programs targeting specific issues. “I think schools are moving more in the direction of wanting to address the whole child,” says Oropeza. “It’s important for social workers to come in with the idea of wanting to help a school move toward a more holistic model in order to better serve the child and neighborhood.”
Working in the Oakland schools grew out of Oropeza’s own experience growing up in East L.A., at a time and place when “girls took Home Economics and boys became auto mechanics.” But once she moved to the Bay area and began taking Chicano History classes at Meritt College, Oropeza found her calling. “I decided I had to do something in education to help those kids who are like me,” says Oropeza of her decision first to study sociology and later to pursue her MSW at UC Berkeley’s School of Social Welfare.
Oropeza enrolled in the children and families track at Berkeley, but in her first year she was placed at Berkeley Mental Health for her field work. Under her mentor Maria Vargas (MSW ‘79), she gained valuable experience diagnosing patients and doing clinical work – skills she would have never received in a strictly school-based placement. “It was the best thing that ever happened to me,” says Oropeza, “It was a great experience.”
Oropeza also learned the importance of collecting and using data to inform her practice while at Berkeley and received a Pupil Personnel Services Credential. During the second year of her MSW program she worked with two age groups in two different schools—an alternative high school in Oakland called the Zapata Street Academy, and La Esquelita Elementary School, where she got her first taste of direct counseling with kids. “It just fit,” she says. “It was what I wanted to do.”
And as her students can attest - she does it well. Karen, a shy girl now graduating from Roosevelt, recently asked Oropeza to be a sponsor at her upcoming Quincenera. “She has come such a long way,” Oropeza says of the girl who entered middle school more interested in her social life than academics and struggling in school. But by the beginning of 8th grade Karen decided to become a conflict manager and work with Oropeza. “She just blossomed,” says Oropeza. “And now I can see that change in her - the maturity, the sense of purpose. The hard times she went through gave her a perspective.” Just like it did for her mentor, Annette Oropeza.