A brief talk with Michael Fiore is all it takes to get a solid feel for the passion and energy he brings to his job as social worker/home and school visitor for the Council Rock School District.
Fiore’s dedication and commitment come through with every word, and are two of the reasons he recently was named state School Social Worker of the Year by the Pennsylvania Association of School Social Work Personnel.
Fiore, 49, has for the last 15 years been the school district’s social worker covering Council Rock High School South in Northampton and the eight schools that feed into it. His colleague, Stephanie Warshaw, covers the district’s other high school, Council Rock North in Newtown Township, and its five feeder schools.
Fiore, who was nominated for the award by Neshaminy School District social worker Barbara Furphy, said he was surprised by the honor because he had nominated Warshaw for the award and was hoping she would get it.
“I was making calls and lobbying for Stephanie and not getting a lot of good feedback, which kind of made me mad,” Fiore said. “It wasn’t until I attended the banquet that I realized I was getting the award. I was really pulling for Stephanie, but I am honored by the recognition.”
The “home and school visitor” part of Fiore’s title means a large part of his job is tracking frequently absent students and finding ways to get them into school more often. That can mean talking to these students or their parents, visiting their homes, or finding out about and helping with any other issues that might be contributing to the absences.
Since Fiore’s nine schools include 5,000 students, it’s impossible for him to make all the home visits necessary; social workers from outside agencies, including Bucks County Children and Youth, also make many visits.
“We do whatever we can think of to get kids back in school,” he said.
Fiore said his other duties are basically doing whatever is in his power to help struggling or troubled students get the help they need to succeed in school and life. That includes connecting with the appropriate social service agencies to get assistance for students and their families with things like mental health issues, drug and alcohol abuse, unemployment and other financial problems.
“If we can assist with these things even a little bit, it helps students get to school and do well there,” Fiore said. “I like the challenge of figuring out ways to help, in a new way sometimes. There are only so many resources out there, so it’s rewarding when you can think of ways to pull in help from somewhere. There is so much pressure on the kids — I guess a lot of it coming from social media. It seems your whole life is under a spotlight all the time. I think society is in the midst of figuring it all out, and that makes things tough on students.”
That kind of empathy and understanding are part of what makes Fiore so good at his job, said Council Rock South Principal Al Funk.
“He’s a guy who goes above and beyond every day for students and their families,” Funk said. “Mike has great communication skills and he’s a problem solver. I think that’s a unique skill set to have. The issues he deals with are complex and heavy, and Mike has the ability to keep things in perspective and work toward solutions.”
One of those heavy issues is suicide. As trainers for Council Rock’s suicide prevention program, Fiore and Warshaw work with school district counselors, psychologists and other staffers — and outside agencies — to help students who might be thinking of taking their own lives.
A less “heavy” part of what Fiore considers part of his job as a school social worker is helping with all the various community service and giving projects going on in the school district.
“There’s some kind of giving effort going on virtually all the time in Council Rock schools,” Fiore said. “The philosophy is not just to teach science and math, but to teach students to help one another and others.”
On a recent day at Council Rock South, he helped students pack care packages of food and hygiene items for shipment to U.S. soldiers in Iraq.
Fiore also helps with school district food drives around Thanksgiving and other times of the year and various other projects. Helping others makes students feel better about themselves and strengthens society as a whole, he said.
And it’s a stress reducer for himself, Fiore added.
“I have a hard job, talking to suicidal kids and dealing with people who are struggling with lots of stuff,” he said. “So these other things, the giving projects and the good they are doing and happiness they bring, help keep my soul alive.”
Fiore grew up in Central Bucks and graduated from CB East High School in 1986 before he went on to Penn State University and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in psychology in 1991. He now lives in Doylestown Township with his wife, Patti-Jean, and their two daughters, Kellett, 17 and Catherine, 12.
Fiore always wanted a job helping people. He credited a counselor at Penn State for steering him onto his career path. Fiore was a juvenile probation officer for 15 years before he got his current job in Council Rock.
With all the pressures and anxieties facing students, schools could use more social workers, Fiore said.
“The recommended ratio is one for every 750 students, and I’m one for 5,000,” he said. “But I like that I deal with students K-12. I know them all throughout their school years and they get to trust me and trust what I say. Part of my rap in talking to a middle school student who I’ve known and is having a problem is saying, ‘Look, we’re going to get through this and you’ll be shaking Mr. Funk’s hand (at graduation) in a few years.’”
Getting students to that moment is the bottom line, Fiore said.
“You’re so out of luck and so behind the eight-ball if you don’t have a high school diploma now,” he said. “It always feels good to me and all the others who play a part in the success of students in Council Rock when, every graduation, we can look at maybe 20 or 30 graduates who have had struggles and say ‘we all got together and got them through somehow.’”