Social worker Robin Sischo is an “aura of calm” in the chaos of high school

Robin Sischo’s windowless office isn’t the coziest room at South Salem High School, but that doesn’t stop students from dropping in.

Nestled behind the school’s main office, her room has colorful posters on the wall and candy helps make the cramped space more inviting. But the social worker’s presence is the main thing that keeps students walking through her door.

“She turned my life upside down and I don’t know where I would be without her,” a 16-year-old student wrote in a letter supporting her Crystal Apple nomination. “She’s helped me with schoolwork and mental health struggles. She’s helped me with social issues at school. She was there when I just needed a laugh or a distraction … She’s there when you need a hug. She’ll sit in silence with you if you don’t want to talk but need a peaceful place to process your thoughts.”

Sischo’s job is to support students at South who struggle with issues outside of class — mental health challenges, homelessness, abuse and trauma.

She works regularly with about 40 to 50 students, serving as a listening ear and guide to other resources.

“I love watching them grow over time and transition to young adults,” Sischo said.

Though Sischo communicates with school counselors, the school nurse and South’s behavioral support workers, her role is distinct. She’s more available for walk-in student appointments than counselors with large caseloads, and her job isn’t focused on academics.

While other school employees often focus on how to get students to attend class or turn in homework, Sischo takes a wider lens.

“That might not be my priority in that moment. They’re homeless, they don’t have food and we’re expecting them to come to school and learn?” she said.

Sischo is a North Salem High School graduate. She began working in schools in 2018 after 24 years working in outpatient mental health, most recently for Marion County.

Being in a school is rewarding, she said, because she can see students in their natural environment and often form deeper relationships over the course of years.

She brings an “aura of calm” to the job, South’s counselors wrote in a nomination letter, and builds rapport with students gradually. They recounted one student who came to South as a freshman depressed and unmotivated. Sischo was the only adult he trusted, and he eventually told her he’d been the victim of sexual abuse.

Sischo said such disclosures bring a mix of feelings for her.

“I feel some relief for them that they’re able to finally talk about it,” she said. Her role as a mandatory reporter of abuse under state law creates challenges, she said, because students often feel betrayed that she can’t keep information about abuse in confidence.

Many of the students she works with struggle with depression and chronic thoughts of suicide or self-harm. She runs a group that teaches students dialectical behavioral therapy, a form of psychotherapy that helps people manage strong emotions.

“As long as Robin works in a school, the teenagers of the future will be in a better place,” her student wrote.

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

SUPPORT OUR WORK – We depend on subscribers for resources to report on Salem with care and depth, fairness and accuracy. Subscribe today to get our daily newsletters and more. Click I want to subscribe!

Rachel Alexander is Salem Reporter’s managing editor. She joined Salem Reporter when it was founded in 2018 and covers city news, education, nonprofits and a little bit of everything else. She’s been a journalist in Oregon and Washington for a decade. Outside of work, she’s a skater and board member with Salem’s Cherry City Roller Derby and can often be found with her nose buried in a book.