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It’s a TON of work, so tell us about it!

It’s a TON of work, so tell us about it!

According to the Illinois Association of School Social Workers (IASSW), school social workers have to wear many hats.

We work with students to achieve maximum benefit from their educational opportunities. We assist parents with participating effectively in their children’s education. School social workers help their schools understand factors (cultural, societal, economic, familial, health, etc.) that affect students’ school experience. And lastly, we aide communities in understanding and developing school policies and programs.

There is a common misconception that a school social worker serves almost exclusively students with IEPs (or in Chicago Public Schools (CPS) terminology, students who are “diverse learners”). We know, however, that the school social worker’s day and workload includes much more than just meeting minutes.

CPS currently has an algorithm to determine the workload per clinician for its social workers. The Professional Problems Committee (PPC) is a support system for clinicians and works closely with CPS and the Chicago Teachers Union. Unfortunately, the PPC is concerned that CPS is not actually using this algorithm at all. 

Take my workload as an example. I currently work across two schools.  One school allots me three days per week for and is located in a high crime and poverty area. It has 600 general education students, a diverse learning caseload of 45 students. Across those 45 students, I meet a total of 610 required direct service minutes/week.  I work at the other school two days per week, and only 9% of the students receive free or reduced lunch. The school has a total of 480 students, 28 of whom receive social work services totaling 540 minutes/week.

The incidences of trauma and levels of support at these schools are vastly different. The first school, because of budget cuts, has lowered its security presence from five to three security guards. It now only has one clerk working in the front office when before it had two.

The second school has SEL programs throughout the school building and 2-3 people working in the front office. There is a parent fund for school supplies.

Regardless of their differences, existing guidelines from the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) would require more help at both schools. The 2012 NASW Standards for School Social Work Services suggest a ratio of one social worker per 250 general education students and 1 social worker per 50 diverse learning students.  My school in the high crime area would have 2.4 social workers per week for general education students. The diverse learners would have an additional social worker to themselves.

In the southeastern part of the state, outside organizations staff some of the social workers for the diverse learning populations.  One social worker told me she is responsible for 23 diverse learning students at three schools with over 1,100 children.  Rural, suburban and urban areas of the state have their own unique difficulties.  I hear from rural social workers about the lack of resources, the inability to transport their students and families to services, and addiction epidemics. These issues only add to the insurmountable hill of work these overtaxed social workers face.  

From the suburbs, I hear the same thing – that those services they could use were cut, and that addiction is spreading.  In the city, I feel like I am chasing my tail after the trauma of what happened last week/last year instead of implementing preventative resiliency factors. I just want my students to have the tools to cope if a trauma occurs, and maybe even assist their classmates in

We are all so overwhelmed. So here is where I ask for your help!  

We need data because we need to state our case effectively. Please complete this survey by clicking the following link:  We are working on tracking as much data from social workers across the state as possible.  

But don’t stop there! We can’t just wait while lawmakers and administrators decide if our caseloads are too big. We know how important self-advocacy is for our students. Let’s put some of that into practice.

To get involved, start by:

  • Calling legislators
  • Going on visits to Springfield
  • Sitting on boards
  • Working with other organizations that have public education as their mission
  • And rallying parents

If you would be interested in assisting the movement to work on case/workload minimums, please email me at [email protected] and let me know what type of work interests you.   

Our students need us. We do amazing work daily.  We need to start tooting our own horns, and advocating for our own needs!

About The Author

Melissa Holmes

Melissa works as a school social worker in Chicago Public Schools (CPS) using yoga and mindfulness with her students. She chairs the Chicago Teacher's Union Clinician's Steering Committee, working for clinicians in CPS towards a healthier work environment and more realistic workloads. After working in the non-profit sector, Melissa obtained her masters degree from Jane Addams School of Social Work at UIC. Her passion lies in making sure that each child is supported, challenged and cared for in their school environment and brings that passion to school daily.

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