Sitting in her office at Skinner West, Susan Hickey, CPS social worker, spoke openly about the important role of social workers in schools. Often the first person students go to for support, she and her colleagues have seen kids struggling with a myriad of issues, ranging from special education needs and health problems such as autism, to eating disorders and self destructive behaviors like "cutting".
“You’d be surprised what baggage and stressors kids come to school with, which often keeps them from wanting to learn or being successful in the classroom,” said Hickey. “It’s difficult work, and we see some really troubling things, but we also see many successes. It’s rewarding to know we are helping.”
A social worker for more than 26 years, with 18 of those years in CPS schools throughout the city, Hickey currently works with 102 students at three different schools, including Skinner North, Skinner West and Chicago Academy.
Under the Office of Special Education and Supports, the social work team is made up of one director, two managers, dozens of “leads” – clinicians who support their social worker peers – and approximately 340 social workers who support the District. All have their Master’s degrees in Social Work and many are Licensed Clinical Social Workers (LCSW), meaning they are certified clinicians.
In all, CPS has 1,500 certified clinicians, made up of individuals such as social workers, occupational therapists, speech and language pathologists, psychologists and nurses to serve the needs of 52,000 special education students, classified with one or more of 13 disabilities, such as a learning disability, health issue or emotional distress.
In addition to working with students one-on-one, social workers also support teachers in the classroom, providing conflict resolution, social skills development and bullying prevention. When violence or crisis occurs at their school, social workers often are the first called in to support the student body and faculty in overcoming their fear and grief.
“Social workers play a critical role in their schools and communities,” said Rosalba Najera-porte, CPS’s Director of Clinical Services. “Kids know who they can go to, and that person is more often than not their social worker.”
Their work is not limited within the walls of their schools. They work with students in need of outside supports, such as those who are runaways and homeless, in the foster care system, or pregnant. But they also support their entire school community, including the families of their students.
“More than ever, so many families are struggling in this economy, and kids are witnessing domestic violence, and family conflict spurred by job loss or lack of money to buy the basic necessities, including food. In many cases, children have experienced the loss of their homes,” said Hickey. “We not only help the student, but we work to connect families to resources in the community to support whatever they are going through.”
March is National Professional Social Work Month, recognizing the critical role of social workers for people with disabilities and their families. CPS salutes all our social workers for their commitment to supporting the well-being of our students and their families. Be sure to encourage and honor your school’s social worker today!