Bolstering school social workers

Mar. 18, 2014 @ 05:19 PM

Too many of Durham’s residents – and certainly too many of its children – are poor. That is hardly news.

But as the Board of Education and County Commissioners began to talk about the next fiscal year’s budget this week, that reality underscored what the schools sense is a growing or at least insufficiently met need in the schools. 

School social workers can help remediate poverty’s drag on students’ ability to learn – but we don’t have very many in the Durham Public Schools.

Numbers sketch the dimensions of the challenge. Roughly one out of every four children in this community lives in a household with an income below the poverty level (about 18 percent of adults fall below that line). In the county’s public schools, two out of every three students receive assistance in the form of free or reduced-price lunches, a useful proxy for measuring poverty in the student body.

In some schools, the free-and-reduced-lunch number is north of 90 percent.  At one elementary school with nearly 600 students, only 22 pay full price for lunch. (The numbers are for the fall of 2012, the most recent posted on DPS’s website).

Yet, for the system’s 33,000 students, there are only about 30 social workers.

That is about one for every 1,100 students. The School Social Work Association of America recommends one for every 400 students; the federal No Child Left Behind legislation recommends one for every 800. 

By the less rigorous NCLB standard, Durham schools would need more than 40 social workers.

“Everyone knows there is a very robust connection between poverty and stress and trauma in the home and violence in the neighborhood and mental health concerns,” school board chairman Heidi Carter said Monday during the board and commissioners’ quarterly joint meeting.

“We’re just trying to figure out how to solve it,” Carter said. “We need poverty buster, something to break the link.”

It is the conundrum of the poverty cycle – poverty unaddressed can seriously hinder a child’s education. He or she may ultimately drop out or fail to finish school. That, in turn, all but guarantees a struggle for economic security in adulthood – and parenthood. Thus, the cycle continues.

The good news is the gap between the number of social workers in the system and the recommended levels is not huge – adding around a dozen would bring the schools up at least to the NCLB standard.

And the school board sensibly believes that if reaching that level is a priority -- and it should be -- the resources will have to come from someplace else in the system’s budget. The commissioners were blindsided last year when they added local funds to the system when, unbeknownst to them, the district’s unspent fund balance was soaring.

“One of our guiding principles is to absorb any additional cost this year with money we already have,” Carter emphasized Monday.

And expanding the roster of social workers who can help children overcome obstacles to learning would seem like a worthwhile additional cost.