What is a School Social Worker?
School Social Work is a specialized field of practice devoted to school-age children and families in an educational host environment. School social workers wear many hats including truancy officer, case manager, student and parent advocate, student mediator, counselor, and distributor of resources. Typically, they are the only social worker on campus, and so they serve a unique role within their schools. Concerns addressed by school social workers include advocacy, attendance, bullying, need for community resources, coordinating homebound education, homelessness, home visits, suicidality, special populations, students with disabilities, and any other issues that may impede or inhibit students’ academic success.
You’ll find school social workers in a primary or secondary public education setting. Although some at-risk private or treatment schools may employ social workers, these jobs more closely align with medical or mental health social workers. In a larger district, however, school social workers may be assigned to target specific populations, such as special education, dropout prevention, safe and drug-free schools, or McKinney-Vento (homelessness). If you are in a small town or school, you may be the only helping professional on campus, serving as both school counselor and social worker at various times, or you may split your time between several schools.
How Do I Know if School Social Work Is Right For Me?
Can you advocate for your role in a host environment? As the only social worker on campus, you may have to diplomatically explain that it’s not within your expertise to substitute teach or handle discipline infractions.
Are you comfortable with home visits? When kids don’t show up for school, school social workers go to them to find out why.
Are you a morning person? Some schools start at 7 AM or earlier. If you struggle to keep your eyes open before noon, this is something to consider.
Can you do twelve months’ worth of work in ten months? In most cases, a major benefit of school social work is summers off! That also means longer hours during the school year. School social workers attend school conferences, sporting events, field trips, dances, and open houses. You’ll earn those summer vacations!
Educational and Licensing Requirements
In addition to your Social Work Master’s Program, school social workers adhere to state and federal standards for educators. This often includes earning a “teaching certificate” in school social work. There are specific graduate level courses (i.e. Social Work in the School Setting) to complete and you must pass a state exam. If you decide to work in schools after earning your MSW in another specialty, that’s okay, too. In most states you can earn your teaching certificate by taking additional classes and passing the licensure exam several years later. You will need to earn continuing education credits in order to renew your teacher’s license every few years, as required by your state.
How Much Do School Social Workers Make?
During your first few years as a school social worker, you can expect to make $35,000-$70,000, depending on where you live, the number of pre-MSW years of experience your district gives you credit for, and your licensure/certification. Like most people who work in schools, fidelity to your district and your state definitely pays off over time. MSWs with more than 20 years of experience in a single state or district may make close to $100,000 annually. Many states give bonuses for school social workers that work in high-need or hard-to-fill positions or to MSWs who are also National Board Certified Teachers (NBCT).
One nice thing about school social work is that it’s pretty easy to determine how much you’ll be making. Most school districts or state departments of education have a standardized salary schedule based on your years of experience that is readily available online. There is not a lot of room to negotiate salary in school social work, especially if you work for a public school district.
A Day in the Life of a School Social Worker
Along with your school counselor, you will conduct a Needs Assessment at the beginning of the year to determine if your school has special populations that need to be served through small groups or individual counseling (i.e. QUILTBAG, grief and loss, or anger management). You might run these groups yourself or bring in an outside provider to run them.
A big part of school social work is connecting students and parents to the outside resources they need to be successful during the school day. A child experiencing hunger is not going to concentrate well in class. Throughout the year you will play a unique role in improving student welfare. School social workers are often asked to coordinate family Thanksgiving sponsorships, free dental cleanings, or other donations given by community partners. You will be the go-to-person for homeless students in need of special transportation, students receiving free-or-reduced meals, and parents who need support in improving their child’s attendance.
At least once a week, you will collaborate as part of an interdisciplinary team, sometimes called Intervention Team, to identify interventions to help low-performing (behaviorally, socially, or academically) students meet their potential. Since school counselors are increasingly trained in programs that de-emphasize the clinical component, school social workers are often the most clinical members of their schools’ student services teams. Consequently, social histories and other individual assessments might be your responsibility. One of the most rewarding parts of school social work is helping marginalized or disenfranchised students harness their own educational potential.