The Long Road to Schoolwide Well-Being

A conversation with Dr. Eboni Calbow, a school social worker and social work professor at the Steve Hicks School of Social Work at the University of Texas.

As discussed previously, the road to recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, now entering its second year, will be long and complex. Our state’s recovery is directly tied to the success and well-being of our state’s 5.4 million public school students.

Unfortunately, many of these students are facing innumerable traumas, including housing insecurity, natural disasters and the loss of loved ones, all of which threaten their ability to learn and thrive. Even before the pandemic, widespread economic instability complicated the efforts of our school systems to ensure every student met key academic benchmarks. As students slowly return to the classroom, what strategies can school leaders and policymakers use to meet needs that are now greater than ever before?

That was the question we asked Dr. Eboni Calbow, a school social worker and social work professor at the Steve Hicks School of Social Work at the University of Texas, who is uniquely suited to speak to these issues.

“My specialization is integrated behavioral health, school mental health, working with kids around trauma,” Dr. Calbow explained. “My work has largely been with children and adolescents that are in historically marginalized communities: low income, high mobility, lots of exposure to trauma in various different systems. I specifically went back to get my PhD so that I could help those communities, to be of service and advocacy for them.”

To begin, what is the “work” of a school social worker?

“Social work services are a big umbrella. School mental health is underneath it. But it's so much bigger than just the school mental health as a component. We're creating a system of well-being and protection for [students] and making sure that they have access to mental and physical health supports.

“We provide response and intervention for those experiences that are outside the actual school campus, but absolutely a part of our campus culture climate, so [that] it's not all on the instructional coach or assistant principal that's helping, or that teacher that's spending extra minutes.

“It's also on the school social worker to make connections with the family. It's also the parent support specialists on that campus, scheduling time as part of that individualized education plan. Our parents are living the same reality that our kids are. I feel like our responsibility really is to make sure that we're acknowledging that, assessing for that. This is something that we need to be talking about as adults, just as much as we are teaching kids.

“I'll give you an example on one of my high school campuses. 99% of that school community lived on free and reduced lunch, had no means of transportation or limited means of transportation, and were essentially trying to figure out our school system, sometimes with limited command of English or people that would appropriately translate. So when you think about people going through all that on behalf of their kids, of course you start to think, ‘Let's set up some programs that will respond to that. Let's start to reach into the school, work with campus administrators, work with our educators to make sure that as outside voices we're making all of these components work together.’

“But these programs have pretty limited reach. You have 1400 kids in a school. 99% of them need the same services, but this particular program can only provide intensive service for 36. So that's a resource that exists and somebody would point to that and say, Oh, that campus has resources, but is 36 really covering the caseload that needs to be covered? Of course we should be putting money towards that.”

I’m glad you mentioned a strategy for public funding. Obviously, school social work has been massively complicated by the pandemic. But new federal investments in public education could provide an opportunity to improve our pre-pandemic practices. How would you like to see these new resources deployed?

“I would like to see things like federal spending directed towards– you know, we call it special education, I think we should move towards calling it specialized education. That's something I think that would open it up to more folks that are in need of different kinds of resources and support.

“With specialized education, you're including everybody in that umbrella, including kids in general education, and saying we actually need individualized education plans, or IEPs, for every student. Is that something that is incredibly time consuming and [would] need even more data than we already have at our fingertips? Absolutely. But every child deserves the opportunity to be assessed and evaluated and asked, ‘Does this particular curriculum and instruction framework fit for you?’ So does federal funding need to be directed into that bucket just as much as it would be for math and reading achievements? Absolutely.”

How else can we support student and educator well-being at the state level?

“We spend our time talking about, and making sure we have some level of standard, on reading, math and writing. We absolutely should also care that our students are able to express themselves, to emote as people, that they are taking care of their wellbeing and their health as much as they can be with what they're faced with.

“We've started policy in this direction. We did get to direct funding in our last legislative session towards school mental health. We were able to define some areas very, very distinctly, but I think that there's room for us to not only increase funding in that direction, but to open up the conversation and the disciplines that are involved in that.

“You know, school social workers are still not a part of the Texas education code. We in Texas are woefully bereft of a school social work pipeline. And we're really leaning heavily on other professions to fill in some of those gaps. So you will see, of course in D[allas] ISD, they've got school mental health centers. They've got community service centers where they've got a psychologist or a psychiatrist represented on those campuses. But you can't point to all of our cities in Texas and know that.

“A popular example is with counselors. Can and should we ask a school counselor to serve as a school leader, do testing, also be in charge of 504 accommodations, and then supposedly still somewhere in there meet with their students and actually know who they are? There are people that can provide support and service in that sense. Social workers being just one of those groups.

“There should be an opportunity for us to say, ‘what's an additional person, what's an additional resource that we could add to this, to strengthen the workload of our counselor, so that they're not inundated.’ Instead, we make choices that say, ‘We can't afford to hire an instructional coach and a social worker for the support of our counselor.’ But the reality is that both of those people are needed. Those functions are needed in order to support academic achievement, academic growth.

“In general, we should just be protective and mindful of the wellbeing of our educators. They are the folks that are showing up every day to work with our kids. We are gifting them our best by handing them our children. We should be able to join with them in that work and say part of it is on me. Not just being aware, but actively influencing the system and making sure that school culture, school policy, and state policy is reflective of the value of educators and of the education system. That should be our priority. I know things don't just fall into place after that. We can't just say it and have it happen. It has to be a practice. But I think that that's the lens that social work brings to all of this.”

How would our education system operate differently if that social work lens were applied more often?

“I have imagined so many iterations of how this could actually work in a system. There's a couple of different strategies, but here's one that really sticks out in my head: As somebody who has worked on Title I campuses, you start to realize that you have a lot less independence and freedom in that sense because it is all about academic achievement. We have kids that are underachieving, and we're trying to do everything that we can to make sure that they hit that bar. My high school students had schedules that were full of math, science, reading, writing, and then for their electives, they would have additional academic work to do. There was very little time for creativity or for anything that would sustain you in a different way.”

“Having visited some more-than-resourced campuses, you start to see some flexibility. They are incorporating [social services] already. And we take that for granted. Those students have free periods. I would walk around talking to students and they would talk about how they have two free periods in a row because someone comes to pick them up, drive them to their therapist. They have their appointment, have a little time to have lunch and decompress. They come back to campus and finish their afternoon classes. This is happening in the same school district.

“[Well-being] takes independence. It takes flexibility. It takes freedom. And we allow that when we think that people are achieving appropriately, that they're academically viable. And we start to take a lot of that away when we feel like people are not.

“Things should be turned on their head. Why do we not have more free periods at Title I campuses? That way parents could come to campus during a free period and work with the community resource social worker on campus. ‘Let's take care of some basic needs right now, while you have a chunk of time during the day. We can include your child in this.’

“Yes, those are instructional minutes, but instruction is also on social-emotional learning and wellbeing. This could be a class that people opt into. The same way that we take staff development days, we could have mental health well-being days, where the curriculum of that day is learning how to metabolize trauma, metabolize stress, manage anxiety. We're giving skills that students need, and that would carry them through their lifetime. We need to embed these practices into our schools, rather than saying curriculum and instruction doesn't pertain to anything else. It’s not shooting for the moon at all.”

Absolutely. I’m reminded of work already being done in Dallas ISD, where the Accelerated Campus Excellence model directs more resources, including social-emotional supports, to historically under-resourced campuses. Why do you feel school districts, and our state as a whole, should increase investments in this way?

“For Texas public education, if we, for the next 18 to 24 months, kept everything as is, you would see a mass exodus from lots of different levels of the community because it's not sustainable. Our school community will start to exit this process. If nobody is interested in what we're providing as public educators, then people will opt out. And who does that leave? The folks who are unable to opt out. So it is more protective for us and better for the health and well-being of our community if we are attending to these things now.

“We really have to recognize educators for their part in that. They are looking for partners and there is room for all of us in this work. So implementing a school social work program at your campus, implementing not just the social-emotional learning component, but embedding that in the culture from student all the way up. I shouldn't even say ‘all the way up’ because we should dismantle that [hierarchy] too. It is a spectrum, a continuum. One of us is each of the other. One of those kids is going to grow up to be an administrator. Their school experience right now matters to what they are going to do and what they think of education in the future as well.

“We need to create a new narrative for our school communities. This is our opportunity to really get creative about what we actually want this to look like and who we want to serve. Now that our issues are open and we're really aware of what's happening, we can either be in denial of that and keep things the same, or we can be creative, get strategic, get partners on board and continue to do the work in a new narrative that makes sense for the wellbeing of our kids, but also for ourselves.”

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