By Kate Hartman
A bill currently circulating in the education committee of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives would have a significant effect on the social work profession—particularly School Social Workers (SSW) who are employed in school districts.
“Currently, schools hire social workers but they don’t have a mechanism for certifying that role like they do other positions in schools. The certification ensures there are standards in place and lays out practice and educational expectations. It ensures that those who are receiving social work services are actually receiving them from a social worker.”
Without this SSW certification, schools are able to rely on other professionals to fill these roles versus a credentialed social worker, who Rice says is the best fit for the task. The lack of a certification diminishes the importance of social workers and the services they provide.
As one of the local area’s producers of quality social workers, Millersville University’s administration, faculty and doctoral students have been advocating for this new credential because of its necessity in the profession, and the positive effects it would have on our graduates moving forward.
In school districts, social workers serve as the conduit between the family and the school to make sure the student is receiving the support they need to succeed. This can include managing mental health, accessibility, poverty, abuse, violence and many other issues a student might be experiencing.
Without a social worker certification, schools only have the option to require a Home and School Visitor certification, which is not as strict or specific to the profession.
“House Bill 390 is a piece of legislation within the social work professional community that has been sorely needed and advocated for since before my arrival at Millersville University 11 years ago,” said Dr. Leonora Foels, associate professor of social work.
The Pennsylvania Association of School Social Work Personnel (PASSWP) a state organization, has been conducting research on this topic and advocating for school social workers to be included in the many areas of need within school districts for years.
Dee Stalnecker, a graduate student pursuing her Doctorate in Social Work (DSW) at Millersville, is the current vice president of the PASSWP, and has been intimately involved in the advocacy efforts. She views this certification as a means to measure quality of professionals in this field, which is positive in raising expectations and outputs in the field.
“Certification would raise the standards for SSWs by providing additional education such as educational law, special education, etc.,” explained Stalnecker, who is a SSW in the Derry Township School District. “Those of us who have worked as SSWs learned this information as we went along, but it certainly put us at a disadvantage. Although SSWs in Pennsylvania must have their MSW and be licensed by the state, schools value quality and a means to measure quality; certification is one avenue to ensure that.”
“Currently, our social work students and graduates are still left without a clear path to using their master’s degree or professional licenses (LSW and LCSW) as a vehicle to provide support and services to the students and their families within the Pennsylvania school system,” Foels explained.
In March 2019, a contingent of Millersville social work students and faculty went to Harrisburg for the National Association of School Workers’ Legislation Education and Advocacy Day to call for local legislators to take up the bill.
“The bill is not totally bi-partisan, but there are Republicans and Democrats on it. Support for this bill can be found across racial and gender groups,” explained Dr. Laura Granruth, assistant professor of social work. “This is how Pennsylvania is choosing to pursue certification. Other states may have different standards or pursue different avenues.”
Despite advocacy efforts, this bill remains stalled in the education committee. Stalnecker is hopeful to see some movement early in 2020.
“We’re talking about additional advocacy efforts we can engage in to help push this bill along,” said Dr. George Drake, dean of the College of Education and Human Services, and the School of Social Work. “We need to spur some grassroots efforts to get this bill out of committee and onto the house floor.”
When the bill is passed, Millersville will be ready. Dr. Foels has already been working to tailor social work coursework to better align with a SSW certification so that graduating students are set up for success. Stalnecker credits her involvement with Millersville’s doctoral program with giving her the perspective to look at this kind of policy issue through a macro lens. Without that kind of learning in the classroom, she is not sure she would have become as involved with PASSWP or this bill.
“As a result of my classes, I understand how my role within an organization affects my profession, and how research can strengthen the social work profession as a whole,” she said. “I have evaluated and discovered my professional identity.”