Shannon Heffernan took an unconventional path to become a community school director.
Originally from Maryland, she started dancing at a young age. From jazz to tap, modern, and ballet, she mastered different styles until deciding to major in dance at Goucher College. Shannon discovered dance therapy at school and knew it was the career for her.
“I’ve always been passionate about mental health, partly due to personal reasons and family reasons,” she said. “I wanted to work in that realm. That was my space.”
After graduation, she worked at a private practice and discovered her expectations were different from reality. Services were inaccessible for many due to cost or insurance restrictions. She decided to pivot to social work and moved to New York in 2017 to pursue a master’s degree.
Shannon was sure that she wanted to work with children in a clinical setting, but after her first internship at a community school, she began to second- guess her decision.
“My instructor was a community school director, and she swayed me,” Shannon said. “She said, ‘You’re not going to be clinical. The things you’re getting more excited about are schools and finding different interventions in a school-wide space.’”
Soon after meeting Ron Cope, Children’s Aid’s deputy director of Bronx school programs, at a community school event, she began working as a social worker at our Whitney Young Jr. campus in the Bronx. After two years, she was promoted to assistant community school director.
In April 2023, Shannon started a new role as community school director at C.S. 61, one of the oldest community schools in the Bronx, which serves students from 3-K through fifth grade.
In addition to academics, students and their families receive a host of services to set them up for success. Shannon works with Children’s Aid staff to build strong relationships with students and families and to build bridges with Department of Education staff.
“We look at a school not just as a place where students learn academics, but also as its own unique community and microorganism,” she said. “There are a lot of different buckets – health and wellness, social-emotional learning, family engagement, attendance. This is a model that is like, ‘Hey, we have to be able to hit all these buckets to help not just the students thrive, but also the family and community as a whole.’”
Since Shannon is fairly new to her role and the C.S. 61 community, she leans on her staff to educate her. Her goals for the upcoming school year – expanding wellness support, emphasizing social-emotional learning, exposing children to new opportunities – cannot be executed without them, she said.
“They come with a lot of expertise and strong abilities,” she said. “The Children’s Aid staff are very much family. You can feel the love and support. Working in a school is hard, so to come into a space where there’s so much life is really nice and refreshing.”
While some may view little connection between Shannon’s beginnings as a dancer and her current role, she argues that social work requires just as much creativity as dance.
“Social work is a very creative field. I don’t think it gets emphasized a lot,” she said. “You have to use creativity in all of those stages – building rapport, building engagement, assessing, evaluating. There is creativity sewn throughout that. Being able to adapt and to improvise – all of that came from dance.