Schools: More so­cial work­ers needed

Greenwich Time (Sunday) - - FRONT PAGE - By Jo Kroeker

GREEN­WICH — The need for so­cial ser­vices in Green­wich Pub­lic Schools is in­creas­ing, but the pres­ence of so­cial work­ers at schools across the district re­mains un­even.

“We’re hav­ing a grow­ing caseload of stu­dents,” said San­dra Saave­dra, a so­cial worker who joined the district this spring and splits her time be­tween Hamil­ton Av­enue and New Le­banon schools.

The town cov­ers Saave­dra’s po­si­tion through fed­eral Ti­tle 1 fund­ing, which is given to schools with low­in­come pop­u­la­tions, where

ser­vice needs tend to be great­est.

But the rest of the town’s nine el­e­men­tary schools also share one so­cial worker, Kris­ten Mul­hearn, who in ad­di­tion to her work with stu­dents also serves dis­trictwide ad­min­is­tra­tive func­tions. By con­trast, Eastern Mid­dle School has two so­cial work­ers, be­cause it has a high num­ber of stu­dents us­ing spe­cial ed­u­ca­tion ser­vices, Cen­tral and Western each have one, and Green­wich High School has six.

To help cor­rect the im­bal­ance, school of­fi­cials have pre­sented the Board of Ed­u­ca­tion with a pro­posal to in­crease the pres­ence of so­cial work­ers at the el­e­men­tary schools.

“You have to look at the big-pic­ture bud­get pri­or­i­ties and say, ‘Where do we need to put our dol­lars go­ing for­ward?” said Mary Forde, chief of Pupil Per­son­nel Ser­vices for the Green­wich Pub­lic Schools.

Carol Sut­ton, pres­i­dent of the Green­wich teach­ers union, has ad­vo­cated for more so­cial work­ers since the ad­vent of fre­quent school shoot­ings such as the mas­sacre in Park­land, Fla., ear­lier this year. Par­ents and teach­ers are con­cerned that stu­dents do not have ad­e­quate ac­cess to men­tal health re­sources, she said.

The ra­tio of Green­wich el­e­men­tary school stu­dents to so­cial work­ers is 325 to one, she said, while the ra­tio of high school stu­dents to men­tal health providers, in­clud­ing as­sis­tant deans, coun­selors and so­cial work­ers, is 80 to one. The Na­tional As­so­ci­a­tion of So­cial Work has de­ter­mined the ideal ra­tio is 250 stu­dents to ev­ery so­cial worker, Sut­ton said.

Ear­lier this month, Forde pro­posed that the school board add $350,000 to fu­ture school bud­gets to pay for three ad­di­tional so­cial work­ers, which would cover salary and ben­e­fits.

The re­ac­tion from the school board was mixed.

School board Sec­re­tary Bar­bara O’Neill, a for­mer teacher, said the pro­posal “de­lighted” her. And board Chair­man Peter Bern­stein said the ad­di­tional staff would solve a prob­lem that has been on the board’s radar for a while.

But he and oth­ers on the board ques­tioned whether schools could get fund­ing for the new po­si­tions.

There is “very lit­tle ap­petite” among Board of Es­ti­mate and Tax­a­tion mem­bers for a big­ger op­er­at­ing bud­get, Bern­stein said.

“I’m go­ing to im­plore you to look to put th­ese po­si­tions in with­out in­creas­ing head count,” he told Forde at a school board meet­ing this month. “We have got to find a way to do this within the con­fines of what we have. We should be able to move peo­ple.”

Board mem­ber Jen­nifer Day­ton voiced her dis­agree­ment with adding staff.

“We have psy­chol­o­gists,” she said. “What do they do that can only be done by one or the other?”

Each el­e­men­tary school has a staff psy­chol­o­gist.

Sut­ton ac­knowl­edged the func­tions of so­cial work­ers and psy­chol­o­gists some­times over­lap, but psy­chol­o­gists fo­cus on aca­demic test­ing and men­tal health screen­ings, she said. Among the ser­vices so­cial work­ers pro­vide are meet­ing with stu­dents and fam­i­lies and con­nect­ing them with com­mu­nity ser­vices they need.

“A lot has changed for our stu­dents and our fam­i­lies,” Sut­ton said.

Par­tic­u­larly, the district does not have enough so­cial work­ers flu­ent in lan­guages other than English, pri­mar­ily Span­ish, but also French Cre­ole and Ja­panese. “We have a num­ber of lan­guages here in Green­wich,” Forde said. “It’s hard when a fam­ily is in cri­sis and we don’t have some­one who speaks the lan­guage.”

Saave­dra is bilin­gual, which makes her job serv­ing two schools with high pop­u­la­tions of Span­ish-speak­ing, English-learn­ing fam­i­lies eas­ier.

Since the two schools agreed to use part of their Ti­tle I grant money to hire her, she has taken on full caseloads at both build­ings and squeezes in time be­tween meet­ings with chil­dren and ses­sions with par­ents to visit class­rooms.

She also fa­cil­i­tates a par­ent-run monthly meet­ing at New Le­banon, at­tended by mostly His­panic fam­i­lies, where she teaches them how to ac­cess com­mu­nity ser­vices for their fam­i­lies.

But even in her sit­u­a­tion, serv­ing only two schools, al­beit high-need ones, she is un­able to pro­vide the con­sis­tent at­ten­tion many stu­dents need. “I can’t pro­vide the sup­port if they need me specif­i­cally,” she said. “I’d love to be there ev­ery sin­gle day for chil­dren that need me. I know they get sup­port else­where, but some kids who go through a lot need that con­sis­tent per­son.”

There are kids across the el­e­men­tary sys­tem who are not re­ceiv­ing the at­ten­tion they need, ed­u­ca­tors said. El­e­men­tary schools at one time had a part-time psy­chol­o­gist and a part-time so­cial worker in each. The switch to one full-time psy­chol­o­gist was made to save money. “We would hate to see some­thing that goes back to that orig­i­nal ques­tion: ‘If you could only have one, which would you pre­fer?’” said Sut­ton. “We would ar­gue that the op­ti­mum is to have both.”

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