After her arrival at PHS in October of 1993, Lenora Keel has taken on a variety of roles as a social worker, including case management and assisting with students with learning disabilities or differences, social or emotional issues, and physical or developmental problems. Born in Newark and graduating from The College of New Jersey and the University of Connecticut, Keel worked at Deborah Heart and Lung Center, Princeton Medical Center, and Princeton House as a medical social worker for about six and a half years. In addition to her day-to-day job, she leads a group for girls called PULSES (Pride, Unity, Leadership, Self-esteem, and Sisterhood), has advised the Minority Students Achievement Network for the past 13 years, and spends time working with students and families with financial needs. Recently, she received the 2015 Ethnic Minority Affairs & Leadership Image Award from the New Jersey Education Association.
Why did you choose to be a social worker?
Social work was an area I was always driven [toward] … as a young person. I always enjoyed being the person who was there to assist my friends. I have a genuine interest in being a support to other people … It was a passion that I always had.
Why do you enjoy working with students?
It’s funny, because years ago I said when I first got out of school, “Oh my god, I do not want to deal with teenagers, I do not want to deal with the attitude, blah blah blah blah.” I guess God had a different path for my life and so … I’ve been here for over 20 years. I like being able to in some way influence their behavior, their outcomes, have some influence on their life in a positive way. To help them realize they have potential. I just like seeing the transformation that students make from the time they are freshmen to seniors … Many of these students will contact me and they’ll send me cards, come by and see me; I’ve been invited to graduations, and so forth. So it’s … just making those connections.
If you could pick your three favorite things about this school what would they be? Why?
I love the diversity of the school … the fact that there’s so many diverse people from so many socioeconomic backgrounds. And I think that’s very enriching because it gives everyone, for those who take advantage of it, the opportunity of kind of coming out of self and to know more than just your little cubicle from where you may have come from or might be. I like the fact that we can have students who are the wealthiest to the ones in-between to the ones who are struggling economically to be able to come together and have friendships, and to be able to share different thoughts and dreams … I love the relationships that are formed in this building over 21 years, with the teachers, administrators, my colleagues … and the opportunities—I think there’s lots of [great] opportunities in this building for students. Not all of them take advantage of them unfortunately, but they’re there. But I like [that we have] lots of great opportunities in this building if people take advantage of them.
Compared to the other teachers’ roles, what is your role at PHS like for you as a social worker?
Compared to the teachers, my role is quite different … Usually from the moment I walk in the door, either there’s a student or a parent waiting for me—if not when I get in, soon after I get in there’s someone here. So the teachers have … their classrooms, and they have wherever they need to be … My day’s a little different. I don’t have a steady lunch time because when a kid is in crisis or something, or something takes place I need to deal with it. My day is very busy in that there’s often lots of meetings, either scheduled or unscheduled. If I’m here working on a report and I have a student who comes in crying I need to deal with it. There are days when I’ve worked with kids with emotional problems like anxiety. They’re having a bad day, they just need to be somewhere, [and] I’d rather they be here … My day is just different in that I just don’t know what’s coming from day to day, so I’m here to just deal with whatever needs to be dealt with. I can’t always plan it.
Not a lot of students are aware of what you do for PHS everyday. What would you say to them to get them better acquainted with your role?
Well, fortunately, there are kids who never ever need my support, because I’ve had [adults] who’ve come back to teach and said, “Jeez, I never knew there was a school social worker or school psychologist.” And that’s okay. But I just want students to know that if you’re ever in need, or you have questions or issues, that a school social worker is here. A lot of what I do is confidential, so even when I have to send out my famous email to the staff asking for some sort of help, I never say who it is. I just say, “I have a student who needs this, so can we do that?” or “Can you help me with a bookbag, with a this, with a that, a family’s in need of whatever.” So I’m very good about the confidentiality, but I just want students to know that … between myself and the school [psychologists], we’re here to help a lot of the kids who are struggling on so many different levels.
Is there any significant person that you look up to?
[Firstly,] my parents; I had very hard-working, middle class parents. The values were clear—you go to school, you get a good education, you learn, you go to college, you make something of your life, you be a nice, decent person, you treat people right, the basics. Then I think this woman, Bonnie Watson … who was my very first supervisor … made me realize the importance of doing good paperwork and notes, putting things in writing … I’ve always been impressed with particularly minority women in position of authority and power, and women overall.