While following her dream, Ashley Dawson helped build the foundation for social workers in the Edmonds School District (ESD) and held the hands of many students as the first student support advocate and social worker for MTHS. Seven and a half years later, Dawson moved into a similar position with the Lynnwood Police Department (LPD).
Dawson spent her last day as a Hawk on Monday, Nov. 13 and started at the LPD the following day.
Initially, the Everett Police Department approached Dawson to recruit her as a social worker for a new program. The LPD did the same and Dawson underwent an intense evaluation process with both organizations, which included background checks and the police departments interviewing her and several of her associates.
The LPD was first to offer Dawson the position and she accepted.
Settling in at MTHS has cemented Dawson’s love for what she does. The school’s nurturing environment that has carried Dawson throughout the years opened a new perspective, allowing her to appreciate and interpret individuals with more complexity and sincerity.
“There’s something about [MTHS] that is unlike any other school. I really think that Mountlake Terrace is probably the only school I could work at, honestly, because of the culture that exists in this building around looking at kids as a whole person and I think that Greg Schwab really established that early on of recognizing that there is more to a student than just what presents itself on the outside,” Dawson said.
Coworkers at other schools have expressed their jealousy of MTHS to Dawson for the strong chemistry amongst staff and students.
“There’s something special in the water here at [MTHS] that I think is different than any other school,” she said. “This building has had this understanding that we really need to really support everything that’s going on for a student.”
Dawson believes every person in the school has a clear niche due to the close-knit community and diversity of the school blending well together.
“Pretty much everyone here knows why they’re at Mountlake Terrace High School. It’s for a good reason, it’s intentional that people are here to serve kids in need because we have a unique population here. I’ve loved it here because of that,” Dawson said.
Along with providing physical necessities, Dawson hopes she’s acted as an emotionally supportive figure in students’ lives, valuing and validating them.
“I hope students have felt like they have a voice and that they can fall and mess up and be scared and ask for help and know that someone’s there for them. I think that that has been really important for me to be someone who shows kids they matter because again I don’t know that a lot of our students here get that message at home,” Dawson said.
Seven and a half years ago, being delegated to work at MTHS has been nothing short of destiny for Dawson.
“At the end of the day, I feel incredibly lucky to have been placed at this school and to have formed the relationships I have with so many staff here. Mountlake Terrace is truly an incredible community of caring people and of kids who have so much to offer,” Dawson said.
Along with leaving MTHS, Dawson leaves behind a legacy that helped created a place for social workers in schools and also leaves an important message to every student—past, present and future.
“I don’t think I’m going to get to say goodbye to every student that I’ve ever worked with and so I think that my hope would be for it to echo in their hearts and in their minds that they are cared about and loved and supported and that this is a safe place for them to be who they are and so I hope that message is heard and that’s something that since I can’t say it to every single student, I hope that that gets out there in one way or the other,” she said.
Her most memorable moments are comprised of “knowing that a person leaves [her office] feeling a little stronger and a little lighter.” Conversely, Dawson has trouble handpicking one specific memory of her time at MTHS.
“There’s not something singular that stands out, it’s more continued little things. In social work, we don’t have really big, huge accomplishments that happen often because we’re working with people who have a lot of challenges and barriers,” she said. “And so early on I’ve learned that we celebrate the little things because if we don’t, we end up being burnt out by the many things that don’t go so well.”
Holding these “little things” closely to her heart, Dawson tears up thinking of the legacy she’s left at MTHS.
“That’s something that makes me a little bit emotional. I think the legacy I hope to leave behind is that every kid matters and that there’s something really special and important we learn that from kids if we listen and if we take the time to do that and if we see them for who they are,” she said. “I think that as a staff, more and more, we are learning that as we grow and I hope that I’ve set an example of what it means to be there for kids.”
Among the cluster of duties Dawson has taken on, she wishes her efforts to make students feel valued will carry on throughout the rest of their lives.
“I hope the legacy is not just that I was able to provide food or housing or things because that was such a small component of my work but more that students were able to be active participants in their school because they had someone who could support them,” Dawson said. “I hope that kids have a memory of someone at this school whether it’s me or anyone else that we have created; a place that they remember with good memories.”
She describes her job as having a “full circle effect.” In fulfilling students’ basic needs, they’re able to focus on school and contribute to the community. Among these needs are helping students to “not be distracted by the growls in their stomachs or the holes in their shoes or not getting to sleep in a warm bed the night before.”
Prior to landing at MTHS, Dawson built her repertoire by working in Spokane to provide resources for the homeless. Afterward, she joined Hopelink, a nonprofit social services organization based in King County, to coordinate family development. She also gained experience in a community jobs department in which she guided young parents who needed to complete their education by helping them build “community service or job-type skills.”
Elements of social work have been with Dawson throughout her entire life, starting with her childhood when her dad told her to think about what she loves to do and how to get paid for it. Her family were regular volunteers at the soup kitchen and local homeless shelters. Growing up in a low-income area, Dawson’s family often had friends staying in the house with them.
“I just started to develop this passion for helping people and then I was like ‘OK, so how do I make a career out of this?’” Dawson said. “And then I realized it was social work.”
She then grew from these roots and earned her master’s degree in social work. Working in a school attracted Dawson because she had a penchant for working with families as she had done all her life.
“I saw there’s this certain hope that comes from working with kids that isn’t always as apparent with adults because kids are at a formative stage in their lives where we can make an impact,” she said. “And then again, being part of an innovative program, a brand new thing, is really important to me and I knew this was something that not many schools had ever done before and I wanted to be part of that groundwork.”
If Dawson hadn’t taken this path in life, she hardly would’ve needed a detour; she wanted to be a teacher which would also “meld the two worlds” she loved.
“It was just very clear to me that I wanted to work intensely with people on more than just education—to really tackle the barriers that stand in the way of education, and other factors in their life,” Dawson said.
However, Dawson didn’t know what subject she was “passionate about to teach.” As she explored the options and learned about careers in social work, Dawson knew where she wanted to go.
Openings for Dawson’s former job position closed on Monday, Nov. 13. The interview process for a new social worker at MTHS began shortly afterward. Dawson hopes her antecessor will be passionate and hardworking because social work never rests.
“This job, there’s no time to stop, there’s no time to slow down. And so I hope that in passing the baton, the next person, literally, is part of the race that doesn’t end,” she said.
The history of social workers in the ESD began 11 years ago when the ESD funded and test piloted the implementation of social workers, starting with Kelly Christensen at Lynnwood High School, who still holds the job. After seeing Christensen’s impact on students, a few years later then-superintendent Nick Brossoit applied for a grant through Snohomish County to add three more social workers so each ESD high school would have one.
Dawson underwent an extensive interview process, which included acting out scenarios with students and doing a group interview with about 11 principals and assistant principals. However, those who were applying were simply applying for the position and not any specific school. Principals selected Dawson to work part-time at both BTMS and MTHS.
Following further success of the social workers in the ESD, four more were hired to work at each ESD middle school, allowing Dawson to fully dedicate her time to MTHS.
“We just continued to create and establish this program that really could work with families who have intense barriers that affect education. And so our main focuses are mental health, substance abuse, homelessness and just really working with kids around those things,” Dawson said.
While counselors share these duties, social workers focus on “intensive work that requires extra involvement” such as traveling with kids to support them. With this, Dawson’s job has allowed her to visit students’ homes, go to court with them, go to their counseling appointments and help students find housing.
The positive impact of social workers in the ESD struck a chord in the community and has led others to replicate and model this program in eight other local school districts.
Dawson’s transition into a new stage of her life remains bittersweet. Being a key player in setting this program in motion, Dawson invested her heart in proving the importance of social workers in high schools and faces sadness in moving onwards.
“This is my baby, like creating this program. It’s a lot for me to walk away from. It honestly was a devastating decision for me to make. I actually sat down and talked to Patrick Murphy, our former assistant superintendent, and then I asked him, ‘How do you know when it’s time to leave when you’re perfectly happy?’” she said.
When social workers were introduced to the ESD, community members were skeptical of their roles and questioned their relevance to schools. Dawson recalled people asking her why the school district hired her when they were also cutting positions, to which Dawson had to explain that they were funded by the district and not taking jobs from anybody.
“We really had to establish ourselves. I had to force myself into being a part of the teams and forming relationships and I think over seven and a half year that that now has happened,” Dawson said. “And so I hope that baton can be passed seamlessly [so] the next person has a lot of things already in place and so they will walk in through the door with enthusiasm and excitement and know that positive reputation that Mountlake Terrace has for helping kids.”
At her new position, Dawson aspires to still act as “a voice for the voiceless.” Working at the LPD will require direct service in working one-on-one, educating the community about issues, advocacy, building relationships and fostering old ones. Dawson finds herself “excited for the excitement that is around this position.”
“The momentum that is already there waiting is something that I can’t wait to jump into,” she said.
From working at MTHS, Dawson learned the significance of being resilient. Due to certain set standards in the school system, she found herself being “knocked down a lot” but came back stronger each time to continue to fight for what she believed in.
Much like when the social worker program began in the ESD, Dawson also faces doubt from others in regards to the meaning of her new position and has been warned that not everyone is excited for her job. Nonetheless, Dawson is standing tall and ready to face any obstacle.
“Everyday is a challenge. I hope to continue to love my job, I mean I get up at 5 o’clock in the morning happily because I know I’m coming to a place that I love. I hope I still have that same feeling in my new position too,” she said.