Simultaneously Redefining the Role of Schools and Social Workers
Avni Gupta-Kagan and Robert Lominack, Achieve Columbia
By redefining the role of the school social worker, we
can allow schools to be life-changers for children
Nationally, 21% of children in our public schools live in poverty, and 25% suffer from multiple adverse childhood experiences (ACES)—trauma. In many communities both of these numbers are significantly higher. While the root causes of these issues might occur outside the classroom, the effects are felt every day by teachers and administrators. Yet, up until now schools have viewed these challenges as beyond their scope and impossible to address. The results are not surprising. Students are not successful and teachers feel overburdened and unsupported. However, by focusing on one essential pillar of school structure, this proposal makes the school a supporting force in a family’s life—rather than yet another agency to contend with.
School social workers—more than anyone else in a school building—possess the training and skill set to address the systemic issues outside of school that impact students while they are in school. However, in most districts, they are relegated to the margins of the school. Therefore, they end up spending their time merely bringing families to truancy court or providing basic service coordination for individual children. Few districts have really defined the role of the social worker as the one who understands the root causes of behaviors in a family and who is the key connecting point between families and teachers, and all the agencies that play (or should play) a role in the lives of children and their family members. If students and families could build relationships over years with social workers, who also are building relationships with government agencies and learning their intricacies, we could see a dramatic change in the lives of children. Someone would have a wide-angle lens on the family, and be able to help a family navigate complicated waters.
Students often have multiple aspects of the public welfare system working in their lives— food and nutrition, housing, mental health, health care, legal, and education. While each of these providers have a clear role, they operate in distinct silos. When families are left fighting each agency over specific needs, rather than having their holistic needs met, small gaps in service can begin to build up, or each agency fails to identify needs apparent only from a comprehensive understanding of family functioning. When one need is not being addressed, the progress in other areas will often be lost.
Everyone wants to do well by the families they serve, but the way schools and public welfare agencies are structured—with a focus on a specific service rather than on a whole family— makes it impossible. Further, teachers are often trapped trying to serve students with significant needs, without the resources to address those needs effectively—especially those related to family or neighborhood systems. To close this gap, we propose to build in a layer of support for families and house that layer of support at the school—where most families spend significant parts of their time.
This shift is not technical—it calls for a fundamental shift in values at the school. By using social workers in this way, we are making clear that all student challenges—academic, behavioral, mental health related, etc.—are intertwined and must be addressed holistically. We are seeing a child as a whole person—not as someone who can shed the effects of his home life when he walks through the schoolhouse gates. And we are taking responsibility as a school system for honoring and supporting this child and teachers—not ignoring the challenges that seem outside our lane. It has long been agreed that teachers do more than teach academics; but, that assumption has lead to massive teacher burnout. Schools should do more than teach academics, but we need to invest the resources outside of teachers to do so.
More heavily investing in social workers in schools, and more clearly defining their roles, will allow us to make the fundamental changes we need for student success. Social workers should have small caseloads that allow them to proactively build relationships with families, help families navigate the multiple agencies in their lives, and address student needs so that they can focus on learning. Social workers can be part of a team of individuals who work with families and students, but critical to their success is clearly defined roles – away from compliance measures and towards proactive actions. Schools can start moving in this direction immediately – by simply clearly defining the role of the social worker as proactively focused on families. Schools can make deeper changes by partnering with community agencies to develop a robust network of support.
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