The Free Press, Mankato, MN

February 16, 2014

Support services critical for students

The Mankato Free Press

---- — The recent article about the availability of school counselors in the Mankato Public Schools is a good reminder of the important role school psychologists, school counselors, and school social workers play in achieving ISD 77’s mission of “assuring learning excellence and readiness for a changing world.”

We all know that classroom teachers are the critical school ingredient for student’s academic success. Yet, other school personnel play a critical role — especially for students struggling with learning difficulties, mental health issues, poverty and challenges within their families.

Collectively, school psychologists, counselors and social workers, working as a team, provide specialized instructional student support. Through collaboration between these three professional fields and school personnel, students are provided a continuum of services that support their academic success and result in an increased school completion rate. The recent article focused on one discipline — school counselors.

Notably absent was an examination of the role that school psychologists and school social workers play within the district to compliment the services provided by the school counselors. In addition, the article mentioned nothing about school nurses who also play an important role, especially with students experiencing major acute health and chronic health conditions.

The story noted where Minnesota ranks in terms of school counselors. This leaves one to wonder, where does Minnesota rank in the number of school psychologists, school social workers and school nurses to students? The article reported that the “district for years had two social workers.” This is not precise. For the better part of 30 years the school district had only one school social worker. Six years ago that number was increased to two, four years ago to three, and during this current academic year the number increased to six.

It would be easy for me as a social work professor to extol only the virtues of my chosen profession. For example, social workers are educated to take a person-in-environment perspective, meaning they are trained to focus on the whole child and to understand how the larger context — peers, family, classroom, school, immediate neighborhood and larger community contributes to success or poses obstacles to success that must be removed.

A timely referral for social work services from teachers and school counselors can ensure that problems outside of the classroom, in particular mental health concerns, parenting issues, or families lacking adequate food, housing, or other basic resources, can quickly be addressed. Using this team approach, teachers and school counselors can focus on academics, career planning, and other responsibilities falling under their unique purview.

However, only focusing on the role of social workers does little to help our community to understand the unique and overlapping knowledge, skills, and roles that support disciplines perform within the school setting. In the interest of public education, I encourage the The Free Press to do a more in-depth story of the support disciplines, including obtaining ISD 77 Superintendent Sheri Allen’s perspective on the roles within the district and her vision for the expansion of such services.

It may also be beneficial to examine how Specialized Instructional Student Support is configured in other regional school districts. Fiscal considerations may come into play regarding the compliment of Specialized Student Support Services.

For example, federal special education money can be used to offset some of the personnel cost for school psychologists and school social workers. Social workers who obtain the credentials of a licensed clinical social worker can have some of their services billed to third-party payers. While the process of third party billing is complex, it is still a viable option for school districts to consider.

The good news for our community is that at MSU we offer master’s level degrees in social work and in school counseling, and an applied doctorate in school psychology. Through these academic programs, school districts throughout our region benefit from high quality interns and advanced degreed professionals. More importantly, these degreed professionals, working as a team along with classroom teachers, make an important contribution to the academic success for all students!

Nancy Fitzsimons, Ph.D., MSW, is professor of social work at Minnesota State University.