As educators continue to demand more public school funding at strikes and rallies across the nation, the need for more social workers, school psychologists, school nurses and other crucial specialized school service providers has been a common theme. Experience shows that children cannot succeed academically if they are suffering socially and emotionally—and they need these providers in their schools to help.
The AFT is lifting up the voices of these essential staffers and thinking creatively about ways that many of our divisions can collaborate to support them. We are longtime advocates for wraparound services that consider the “whole child,” and we continue to press for more community schools that offer such services, especially in neighborhoods facing challenges like poverty, homelessness, addiction and incarceration.
Now we are reaching out more directly. At a Jan. 13-14 conference in Washington, D.C., we brought together social workers, school psychologists, school nurses, counselors, speech pathologists, a community school coordinator, paraprofessionals, educational diagnosticians, a restorative practices coach, and a case manager for homeless students—each with a distinct role to play in the public schools—to share resources and to understand better how the union can support them.
For one thing, they must be recognized as an essential part of the education experience, said AFT President Randi Weingarten, who has set the union’s course toward safe and welcoming schools. “We’ve got to make these services as much a part of teaching and learning for children as anything else,” she said. “If math and English are part of what kids really need on an ongoing basis, so is well-being.”
Continuing to fight for the funding that specialized service providers need is a big part of the picture. Participants talked about unreasonable caseloads that have become the norm, because schools refuse to hire additional workers; they worry that with so many children, they cannot provide the services they know their students need.
Recognition was another big issue: One school psychologist said she can’t count the number of times she’s had to explain that no, she is not a guidance counselor—another important but vastly different job. A social worker shared that some parents are afraid she will take their children away and assign them to a child welfare agency, when in reality she provides tools and programs to help the children thrive at home.
Participants brainstormed about what kind of professional development would be most helpful, and learned that Share My Lesson, the union’s online resource by and for educators, already offers some of what they need through videos, readings, webinars and other resources tailored to their work. Participants learned about the professional development available through myriad workshops and presentations at the AFT’s TEACH conference, Summer Educator Academy, and SML’s Virtual Conference, as well as the Professional Issues Conference hosted by AFT Nurses and Health Professionals; publications on everything from autism to diversifying the educator workforce; and the union’s e-newsletters that keep members informed of learning opportunities and activism at the state, local and national levels.
Participants also did a deep dive into how to utilize Medicaid to help pay for some of the services their students need, and they discussed how union contracts can leverage improvements in services and increase resources—and have done so, in places like Chicago, Cleveland and Los Angeles. The Chicago contract, for example, requires a nurse and a social worker in every school, every day.
Finally, participants shared compelling stories that could be used to persuade policymakers and legislators to strengthen Medicaid so that it better serves their communities.
“If we can make sure that well-being is not only a priority and rhetoric, but a priority and practice, and that we are funding it, then we will have taken a real step forward,” said Weingarten. “As a union, it’s our responsibility to help create the infrastructure and advocacy to make sure that all of our kids, all of our members and communities feel safe, and that they have the skills they need to deal with struggle.”