School social worker of the year has passion for social justice, students

‚ÄčTulani Vaughn, who is a social worker at West Charlotte High, spent many weeks one summer trying to track down a student who'd dropped out of school. 

"I chased her all summer long," she said. "I'd stop by her house two or three times a day, early in the morning, late at night."

Vaughn finally caught up with the student, who agreed to return to school. She did extremely well, making the honor roll.

"She asked me, 'Who comes to someone's house at 7:30 in the morning? Are you crazy, lady? It's summertime! Who cares that much?' And I said, 'I do.'"

That care for students is the reason Vaughn has been named North Carolina School Social Worker of the Year. She received the award at the state social worker conference in Greensboro in October. Social workers are nominated by region and then evaluated by their peers. Vaughn said being recognized by her peers is the ultimate honor.

"This is probably the most substantial award I could have received," she said. "To be honored by people who do what I do and understand the job."

Michele King, social work specialist, said Vaughn is highly deserving of the award. 

"She is dedicated to enriching the lives of students," she said. "She is determined to advocate and support students who may not have a strong voice for themselves and empowers parents by providing knowledge and direction. 

The award is given in memory of Gary L. Shaffer, a former professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. 

"He was instrumental in terms of helping social workers get into schools and making sure we have credentials to do so," said Vaughn. "He was a pioneer of school social work in North Carolina."

Vaughn grew up in New York in what she describes as a "family of activists." She said her background helped shape her career decisions. 

"I was raised during an era where protests and riots were all focused on social justice. I had an older sibling who was a social activist and I wanted to find the best way to help improve people's lives."

She earned her bachelor's degree at the Rochester Institute of Technology and her master's at Columbia University. She is accredited in social work and is also licensed for clinical social work. She wasn't exactly sure what she wanted to do, but all of her career options focused on children. 

"That's where my passion is," she said. "Children are so important. They're waiting to be molded and shaped into into adults. With love and care, you can definitely help them. They are looking for help. Even the most difficult ones are looking for help."

After working in child welfare and adoption as a caseworker, supervisor and program director, she decided to become a social worker. She moved to North Carolina. Combining social work with public education seemed like a natural fit. 

"Education is such a powerful tool," said Vaughn. "As a social worker, I get to work with educators, help children develop character, work with parents and guardians, and help meet the needs of their families."

Vaughn joined CMS in 1999, working at Hornets Nest Elementary and Mallard Creek High before moving to West Charlotte. She said being a part of Project Leadership & Investment For Transformation (L.I.F.T.) has given her the opportunity to focus on high-risk students.

"Many of these students have given up on school or given up on themselves," she said. "I can work to get them motivated and identify their strengths. Graduation is still possible for them."

Graduation is one of Vaughn's favorite times of year. 

"Staff can be really happy to see all the positive impact we've had in students' lives. Many times, they will thank you so much for not giving up on them. When students graduate, you know that maybe three or four years ago, they didn't seem like they had a chance. Our graduation rate has improved over the last four years. We are working with a lot of kids that people would have given up on."

Despite having five children of her own, Vaughn finds ways to help students in her free time as well. She loves participating in triathlons and is now training for her first marathon. She is the track coach at West Charlotte and coaches a youth league over the summer. She also works with youth at her church. 

"Working with these kids is important to me," she said. "My husband and I just find a way to make it work."