Evolving Education — School Social Workers: Vital, Valuable, Visible
When Derry Township School District in Pennsylvania saw a rise in students who qualified for free and reduced lunch—from 5% to 11% of the student population—the district’s response was “We need a social worker,” says Dee Stalnecker, LSW, BCBA, vice president of the Pennsylvania Association of School Social Work Personnel (PASSWP) and school social worker for Derry Township School District.
However, that reaction is not typical. What’s more typical is Mary Jones’ experience. For five years, she worked as a teacher in Lawrence, Massachusetts—a city in which nearly 25% of residents live below the poverty line. In that time, “I never encountered one [social worker],” she says.
Many districts throughout the country do not have social workers. In fact, according to the ACLU publication Cops and No Counselors, 10 million students are in a school without a social worker. Fourteen million have no social worker, counselor, nurse, or psychologist. All of those students are in schools with police.
When districts do have social workers, they are often the only one or one of just a few, regardless of district size. The ACLU found that there is one school social worker for every 2,106 students. The recommendation is a ratio of 1:250.
When utilized properly, school social workers provide a wide range of services to their districts, schools, and students. However, until the school social worker’s role is understood and supported by districts and their stakeholders, those benefits can’t be truly felt.
“Historically, [school social workers] have been involved in mental health services, crisis intervention, truancy, and various related issues,” says Joe Werner, MSW, LSW, HSV, president of PASSWP and a school social worker in Pennridge School District. Werner notes that as truancy laws have changed in Pennsylvania, many of the state’s school social workers have had to focus increasingly on attendance.
Stalnecker describes her position as addressing any barriers that prevent students from being “present,” both physically and emotionally.
Each school social worker’s role may be different, depending on district need. To a degree, their roles may overlap with or be an extension of the school’s guidance counselors and psychologists. But they are most consistently, Werner says, a bridge between the school, the students, and the families, and the resources and community available to them.
Rebecca K. Oliver, LMSW, executive director of the School Social Work Association of America (SSWAA) agrees. “In schools, we look at those barriers to learning, and we understand how they can be rooted in bigger issues. We are that link between home and school and community,” she says. Oliver was a school social worker for 16 years before joining SSWAA.
Social workers’ education and on-the-job training is what best prepares them for that role. Their understanding of, for example, systems theory and the ecological perspective, Oliver says, allows them to see and address the many factors that impact students.
Furthermore, school social workers’ drive for social justice makes them important advocates within the district. When social workers notice that certain groups of students are being treated differently, for instance, they are the ones most likely to draw attention to the discrepancy. “Our training helps us develop an understanding that there can be flaws in the system,” Oliver says.
Another aspect of the school social worker’s role is crisis intervention and prevention. With the ongoing spate of school shootings, as well as increased awareness about suicide, substance use, and other similar issues, this work has become increasingly prevalent.
It’s not a lack of qualified school social workers; it’s a lack of positions. Oliver remembers the interns she worked with while she was a school social worker. “Many of them wanted to get a school social work position. Often, they couldn’t find a position. They were there. They were ready. They had the training. But the positions weren’t available,” she says.
That dearth of positions exists for a few reasons.
For one, not everyone in a position to hire or create district budgets understands what a social worker is and what services they may offer. “The one thing that I read is that when it comes to perceptions of social workers, prior knowledge and experience with a school social worker [is key],” Stalnecker says. “I was very fortunate that a lot of people in leadership in Derry have had positive school social worker experience.”
When prior knowledge and experience do not exist, district leadership is more likely to hire other professionals to fill roles social workers could, and legislators are more likely to draft bills or approve funding for education that does not include or specify the need for social workers.
“They [legislators] keep looking to other professions to bring into schools as opposed to looking at school social workers, school psychologists, and school counselors who are already there,” Stalnecker says.
Further confusing the issue is the aforementioned fact that school social workers offer an increasingly wide range of services. Job descriptions vary from district to district, if not school to school. While that flexibility can help get social workers in the door, it can also prevent leadership from fully understanding the benefit of a school social worker.
“I think society overall is beginning to see the value in some of the areas social work has addressed over the years,” Oliver says. “But I do think there is still a misunderstanding of what school social workers do.”
And with that misunderstanding can come an inability to recognize when social workers are having an impact. “Success in my eyes might not be success to an administrator or teacher,” Werner comments. “Trying to prove your worth can be challenging because of people’s different interpretation of what success is.”
“It’s hard for us to report those outcomes, but we have to,” she emphasizes.
And while it’s important that districts know that social workers are diverse in their skillset, there needs to be some level of role clarification, she continues. “Role clarification is key, not only for those individual professionals but for everyone in the district. What does a school counselor do that I don’t do? Figuring out what everyone does—that makes for a happy collaboration,” she says.
Outside of the individual districts, school social workers need to connect, support, and advocate for each other, Werner, Oliver, and Stalnecker say. In Werner’s Bucks County, school social workers meet monthly to discuss and learn from each other. Additionally, state and national associations allow not only for that connection but for larger-scale focused advocacy, as well—a must if legislators are going to recognize and, even more importantly, follow through on the need for school social work funding.
“Everyone feels like there need to be more services,” Werner says, referencing a 2018 report in Pennsylvania from the School Safety Task Force that cited the need for more access to mental health services and providers in school districts. “But where is the priority? Security. People are going with that first. The hope is that they also realize that we need to be serving mental health needs,” he says.
And, of course, social work students need to be prepared to step into a school role. “One thing we continue to do is to make sure there are well-trained social workers ready to enter the field,” Oliver says. “There are a lot of university programs that have a specialization in school social work.”
Most importantly, Stalnecker says, quoting SSWAA’s motto, school social workers need to be “vital, valuable, and visible.”
— Sue Coyle, MSW, is a freelance writer and social worker in the Philadelphia suburbs.