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South Dakota Effort Puts Social Workers in Schools

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At Batesland Elementary School on the Pine Ridge Indian reservation in Shannon County, S.D., the attendance clerk noticed last fall that one young student was not coming to school regularly.

So, school social worker Gwen Pourier went out to the child's home last November to find out why.

Once there, Ms. Pourier learned that the student did not have a coat, and his parents wouldn't send him to school without one in the frigid weather. Thanks to some grant funding, school officials were able to buy the boy a coat and get him back into class.

"He hasn't missed a day of school since getting that coat," noted Ms. Pourier, who grew up on the Oglala Lakota nation reservation where she now works.

It's just such needs that South Dakota Gov. William J. Janklow and the state department of social services were hoping to address when they teamed up two years ago and started the state's school-social-work pilot program. The effort is aimed at at-risk children, seeking to keep children in school and out of trouble.

"We are trying to prevent problems before they happen," said Deborah Bowman, a senior staff member for the Republican governor.

Around the States

While the South Dakota effort is relatively new, a majority of states already have similar initiatives.

"[We estimate] that there are between 12,000 to 15,000 school social workers around the country," said Randy Fisher, the president of the School Social Work Association of America in Franklin Park, Ill.

Their role has been defined as the link between home, school, and community.

"It's very important that we are considered a resource for communities," he said.

When South Dakota's governor originally approached social services officials, it was out of concern for the rising number of juvenile crimes in the state. In 1990, there were 8,630 crimes committed by South Dakota juveniles.

By 1996, the number had climbed to 10,987. Mr. Janklow quickly learned, though, that there were many issues to address before a child reaches the stage where he or she begins committing crimes.

Teachers say that they are able to identify a child headed in the wrong direction by the 1st or 2nd grade, according to Ms. Bowman. And for that reason, four of the five schools chosen to participate in the new program are elementary schools. The fifth is a middle school. Three more schools will be added next fall.

The state gave each school $50,000 to pay a social worker's salary and cover related expenses. The social workers are employed full time in the schools and are considered faculty members.

School social work has a long history in the United States. At least three cities--Boston, New York City, and Hartford, Conn.--started placing social workers in schools at the turn of the century.

"Back then, they were called 'visiting teachers,'" said Kenneth Hanson, the president of the Connecticut Association of School Social Workers.

In the early 1900s, the "visiting teachers" primarily dealt with problems of poverty, lack of nutrition, clothing, and the social conditions of children, experts in the field say.

Today, Connecticut has about 500 school social workers, who offer students a variety of services--from helping students work through family or social problems, which could hinder their performance in school, to improving their relationships with their peers, teachers, and other adults, according to Mr. Hanson.

In Iowa, the state has had a flourishing program since 1975.

School social workers "look beyond the four walls of the school," said James Clark, a consultant for the Iowa Department of Education.

"Problems don't just exist in a vacuum,"Mr. Clark said. "There are outside variables involved."

Iowa's program began with 20 social workers in the schools, and now employs about 350.

By putting social workers in schools to deal with nonacademic problems that take away from classroom time, "we are allowing schools to accomplish their mission of educating students," Mr. Clark said.

State officials in South Dakota selected schools from different regions to launch their initiative.

The schools were chosen after a large number of their students were identified as being at risk--meaning they were in the correctional system, on welfare, receiving foster care, or involved in child-protective services.

Individual Approach

Each program is tailored to the needs of the local community.

For example, at McKinley Elementary School in Watertown, where many of the parents work in factories and earn $6 to $7 per hour, social worker Paula Davis has been instrumental in providing before- and after-school child care.

And while the effort there is just in its first year, she has also set up parenting classes, as well as classes that teach parents how to manage their money.

"We want the [school social workers] to come in as an advocate to the schools," said Annamae Blume, a program specialist with the state office of child-protection services.

Shannon County Superintendent Terry Alpers has been so impressed with the social worker at the 230-student Batesland Elementary School that he has used district money to hire full-time social workers for the other schools in the 1,200-student district.

"They are able to fill a real gap right now," he said. "Before we had to work through other channels, but now when we see a problem we can investigate it immediately."

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