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New strategy may place more social workers in schools by September

An effort is afoot to better coordinate school and city behavioral health services.

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

More than 20 additional social workers could be assigned to District schools this fall under proposals being discussed by District officials, Community Behavioral Health, the Department of Human Services, and Mayor Kenney’s administration.

The discussions have been strongly encouraged by several City Council members and by the newest School Reform Commission member, Estelle Richman.

Under the program, the social workers would become part of school staff, helping educators recognize the effects that experiences such as trauma and hunger have on students and promoting a positive behavioral approach to discipline and classroom management.

According to some of those involved, the social workers would be assigned to three high schools and 19 K-8 schools.

Officials from Community Behavioral Health and the District declined to comment on the discussions, and the District refused to provide any details about the current complement of CBH workers.

But in testimony in May before City Council, Karyn Lynch, the District’s chief of student support services, said that “in the last five years at least, CBH has not added to the complement of services that exist within our schools, with the exception of a short pilot [that] existed for two years.”

Richman, who has served as the state secretary of welfare and as a top official in the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, said she saw the addition of full-time social workers in the schools as a key to mainstreaming more students out of private placements and into District schools.

The District is taking several steps to provide students who have behavioral challenges an education in regular school settings. In a separate move, the SRC just approved a $10 million contract with Catapult Learning to set up a program within the District that will serve students with emotional needs who were previously sent to private placements, including Wordsworth Academy, Inc.’s now-closed residential treatment facility.

“We need to keep that child with his or her non-disabled peers,” Richman said.

“All three of these systems [CBH, DHS and the District] need to work together. My role on the SRC is trying to bring them together.”

City Councilwoman Helen Gym said that better coordinating city behavioral health and social services with the District would encourage a “school-based approach rather than treating students’ problems as existing in isolation, especially in schools where 20 percent of the students might have behavioral health issues.”

There are social workers currently based in some schools, but they are there mainly through the Student Support Services program, sometimes called STS, which operates through contracted providers.

“CBH needs to allow principals and the District to have a greater voice in provider selection and increase access to trauma-informed interventions,” said City Councilwoman Maria Quinones-Sanchez. “A top-down approach that assigns one-size-fits-all STS support without input from school leaders is an inefficient strategy that could do more harm than good.”

She said that schools should have more control over which providers are assigned to their schools.

“A family can have three providers who aren’t speaking to each other. It’s totally unacceptable. No one’s monitoring what’s working.”

Quinones-Sanchez did praise the addition of District Superintendent William Hite and Cynthia Figueroa, commissioner of the Department of Human Services, to the CBH board as a good step toward improving coordination among the agencies.

An announcement of the new strategy is expected in August, after the details are worked out.

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