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Social Workers in School

August 26, 2014

Today’s NYTimes op ed page features an essay by Daniel Cardenali advocating that schools serving children in poverty require the services of a social worker. I completely agree with this assertion since social workers possess a different skill set than guidance counselors, psychologists, special education case managers, and– in some cases– classroom teachers, the staff members who typically try to assume some of the responsibilities that a social worker could do more effectively. Here’s a key paragraph from Cardenali’s op ed piece:

The key is to put dedicated social-service specialists in every low-performing, high-poverty school, whether they are employed by the school district or another organization. This specialist must be trained in the delivery of community services, with continued funding contingent on improvement in indicators like attendance and dropout rates.

As I noted in the comment section, this can be accomplished economically by having school districts providing space for the Department of Social Service (DSS) staff in their schools. When I was a superintendent in MD in the 1990s we set up offices for DSS staff in two of our high poverty schools. The DSS agency head and I reasoned that we were needlessly competing with each other for scarce $$$ and his staff’s services and ours meshed. We saved DSS the costs for office space and he saved me adding much needed and arguably duplicative services. Moreover, it created opportunities for interagency cooperation and communication that helped the students and parents. Teachers could meet and confer with a student’s social worker face to face and share insights that would help them work with the families.

My experience in MD indicated that when schools duplicate social services it adds to the net costs to the public. When schools create partnerships with service providers it is a win-win. The best example of this was when the State mandated that we place a school nurse in each of the 42 schools in our county. At the time this requirement was put in place, we had four on our payroll, all of whom were paid on the teacher’s pay schedule which made them among the highest paid nurses in the region. By forming an alliance with the County Health Department whereby THEY hired and supervised the staff, we saved thousands of dollars in hiring staff and avoided the need to add another administrative position to oversee health services. Finally, as I wrote in an essay published in Education Week that I posted earlier, this kind of interagency co-housing helped break down the silos of confidentiality that work against providing the kind of support children in poverty need.

Cardenali concludes his essay with this paragraph:

Putting social workers in schools is a low-cost way of avoiding bigger problems down the road, analogous to having a social worker in a hospital emergency room. It’s a common-sense solution that will still require a measure of political courage, something that all too often has itself been chronically absent.

My take: it will require a measure of COMMON SENSE, something that seems to be completely lacking in Washington DC. This could be another case where a State will lead the way.

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