Are Your Students Ready to Learn?: Why Schools Need Social Workers

By Hilary Kopple —

Why are social workers needed in schools?
What do we provide that is unique or crucial to students, families, and school communities?

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, approximately 1 in 5 youth aged 13–18 experience a severe mental disorder at some point during their lives. Schools are often the first place where these issues are recognized and addressed.

The 2017 report from the New York State Council of School Superintendents indicates that 45% of superintendents cited the most significant problem as the “capacity to help students in meeting non-academic needs including, for example, health and mental health issues.”

This is where social workers come in. Social workers help students with their ability to be present as students. What does that mean? First, we develop trusting relationships. Statistics show that students who can identify at least one caring adult in their school have better outcomes. The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) recommends “a ratio of 1 school social worker to every 250 students, with a 1:50 ratio for students with more intensive needs.” Currently, not every school has even one social worker;  and the ratio in New York City is closer to 1:900 citywide.

At the school where I work, social work is highly valued. The International High School at Union Square has two full-time social workers and a team of multilingual interns. Our social work team provides counseling to over a third of our student body. Social workers are trained to de-escalate crises and provide counseling so that students can get back into the classroom to re-engage with their learning. We are the point people to address self-harm, suicidal ideation, child abuse, mental illness and more. We have the clinical training to intervene with depression, anxiety, trauma, etc. and also to refer students to outside services as needed.

At our school, students speak over 25 languages. Undergraduate and graduate social work interns that speak students’ languages and have insights into their cultures are indispensable to build bridges to these students who otherwise may be lost. Every year, we partner with universities to recruit interns who speak Arabic, Wolof, Bambara, Spanish, Bengali, French, Mandarin and more. Those interns become a hub for those populations in our school, and we are able to engage with those students and their families in ways we otherwise wouldn’t.

Through those relationships, we have come to learn about critical issues affecting students, with examples including blindness in one eye, childhood sexual abuse, and undiagnosed special needs. The interns often start clubs centered around students’ cultural groups to give students a place of belonging and celebration of their cultures. We have had Chinese Club, African Club, Bengali Club, Muslim Safe for All, and Alianza.


Second, social workers work alongside teachers and other school staff to help create a positive and supportive school culture that encourages increased attendance and feelings of safety and belonging. This web of relationships acts as a prevention strategy to reduce conflicts, suspensions and drop outs. One of our school social workers is present in the cafeteria every day to take a pulse on the students and troubleshoot as needed. The school culture has been established here such that students will come straight to our office as soon as anything is off. Students know who to go to if they feel sad or angry, have been triggered, or sense problems brewing.

We also collaborate closely with teachers to encourage academic success. We keep in close contact with the instructional teams to assess which students may need support and monitor their progress especially as portfolio and regents approach. For example, this past fall, literally every single 9th and 10th grader passed Global History on one of the teams due to our close partnership with the teacher. We help create an environment where academic success is valued, celebrating the achievements of our students and encouraging school attendance and punctuality. We lead the attendance team and create incentives and rewards such as certificates, school swag, Broadway shows, pizza parties, field trips and Principal’s Luncheon for our students with excellent attendance.

Third, social workers are service providers. In our school, we do a needs assessment translated into five of the major languages spoken among our student body to learn more about students’ backgrounds, interests and needs. We ask about current living situation, career goals, concrete needs, health issues, family makeup, work schedule, access to technology and more. Thirty-five percent of our students are in temporary housing, and using Title I funds, 80% of them received needed items to attend and participate in school, such as winter coats or PE clothes. Our social workers assisted 30% of our students this year to get glasses, providing services onsite or personally escorting them. We partner with NYU to bring a mobile dental van to the school once a month. Through the health clinic onsite, our interns ensure that our students who need health insurance have the opportunity to get enrolled. We host a legal clinic onsite twice a year to assess whether students/families are eligible for immigration remedies or answer any immigration questions. We have seen many students come in as 9th graders undocumented, meet with the legal time onsite, learn about a remedy such as Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJS), and have a green card by 11th grade, eligible now for financial aid and employment. Lawyers who partner with us provide Know Your Rights workshops to students and families. We host a weekly Career Readiness workshop to assist students in finding jobs, preparing resumes, and interview skills. We host a variety of other groups like Girls Group, Gay Straight Alliance, Boxing Club, Positive Mind, English Conversation, and more.

In order to learn, students cannot be distracted by medical issues, safety concerns, traumas, housing instability or financial insecurity, for example. Social workers build relationships, create individualized interventions, and support students in their paths forward in education and life.

Trained social workers are needed in schools full-time to develop authentic and consistent relationships and intervene in student’s natural environments. We need to be part of the school staff to collaborate with teachers and administrators to support them to best serve the students. We need to be in every school to help shape school culture alongside faculty, staff, school leaders, families and students. Our work supports the work of school counselors, teachers, administrators or outside agencies. The role of social workers in an Internationals Network school reinforces the collaborative, culturally responsive nature of our collective work.

Hilary Kopple is in her 9th year as a social worker at International High School at Union Square in New York City and has been working in NYC public schools for 15 years.

Posted in Success Stories
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