When she was a kid, Bianca Collins was shy and flew under the radar. She was bullied about her appearance in elementary and middle school, which damaged her self-esteem in ways that persisted into her adult life. She was “too afraid to open up” at the time, Collins said, and teachers and other school staff mostly failed to pick up on her internal struggle.
Now 32, she wants to become a school social worker to give kids the help she wishes she would have had. She wants them to know that it’s “not a good thing at all to keep all of those problems and issues and feelings bottled up inside,” she said. “I want to get them to understand that it’s okay to talk to somebody.”
Collins is in her final year of earning a master’s degree in social work at the University of Maryland, Baltimore, and is among 21 students in the inaugural cohort of a fellowship program meant to grow and diversify the ranks of school social workers. The program, offered jointly by the schools of social work at the University of Maryland, Baltimore and Baltimore County and Coppin State University, aims to remedy a widespread shortage of mental health providers in schools, especially those of color.
Social workers are equipped with clinical assessment and diagnostic skills as well as deep knowledge of how socioeconomic and cultural environments and systems of oppression affect people’s experiences. There never seem to be enough of them or other providers, though, to address a burgeoning crisis highlighted by a spike in youth suicides.
The fellowship program was created with a $5.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education, thanks in part to the growing recognition of intensifying mental health needs of students and the ease of accessing care at school. The program will enroll 105 fellows over its five-year funding period, said Temeka Bailey, director of social work education at the Center for Restorative Change, a community-facing organization within the University of Maryland school of social work that spearheaded the program’s creation.
Fellows will receive a $1,000 monthly stipend while attending classes, as well as a modest clothing allowance, paid exam fees and $15,000 in tuition, said Bailey. The idea is to make a master’s level education — required for social workers in clinical practice — accessible for students who otherwise can’t afford it and may balk at accumulating what could be a lifetime’s worth of debt to pay for it. This will ensure social workers better represent the population of kids and parents they’re serving, Bailey said.
Although the social work profession is more diverse than others in the health field, a 2020 report from the Fitzhugh Mullan Institute for Health Workforce Equity at George Washington University found 66% of new social workers are white, while children of color make up a majority of those attending public schools in the Baltimore area.
Collins, who grew up in Seaford, Delaware, said there were times when she was treated “like I didn’t belong” as a Black teen at a majority-white high school. She said teachers and staff of color may be able to understand and empathize with students of color in ways that others can’t, and if there had been more Black staff at her high school, she might not have felt so isolated.
The financial incentives are also a game-changer for Collins, whose undergraduate and graduate education has been funded almost entirely by student loans and grants. In her first year of graduate school, she said, she “settled” for an internship outside her area of study in order to accommodate the full-time work schedule she was juggling concurrently with a full-time master’s program.
This year, because of the financial help, she was able to drop her work hours to part-time and take an internship working with kids in a school-based mental health program in Northeast Washington, D.C., under supervision of a licensed clinical social worker. “I really love it,” she said.
After obtaining a master’s degree, social workers must complete 3,000 practice hours under clinical supervision in order to obtain their certification, which is required in most settings to provide direct mental health care. The Center for Restorative Change will partner with local school districts to help its fellows gain employment once they complete the program.
Some school districts, including Baltimore City, require social workers to be certified before they are hired, but there are other avenues for fellows to begin working in schools while fulfilling certification requirements, Bailey said. They can work at nonpublic schools, where certification is not required — ironically, she said, as students at such schools have behavioral and mental health needs serious enough to necessitate an alternative placement.
Fellows can also work for expanded school behavioral health agencies — contracting agencies for clinicians such as social workers and psychologists who are deployed to work in schools — and begin accumulating the clinical hours needed to get certification, said Wendy Shaia, executive director of the Center for Restorative Change.
Workforce shortage? Or chronic understaffing?
Although the fellowship “is really designed to address the workforce shortage,” Bailey said, local school systems report that most of their social worker jobs are filled.
Baltimore City schools, for example, has a social worker vacancy rate of just 3% — six positions out of 208 total. Last school year, the vacancy rate was 1%, and it was similarly low over the two prior school years. Howard County schools have no vacancies, according to system officials.
Rather, shortages in school behavioral health providers have at least as much to do with staffing as they do with the available workforce, said Zachary Taylor, director of negotiations and research for the Baltimore Teachers Union. Both Baltimore City and Howard County fall far short of the National Association of Social Work’s recommended ratio of one social worker for every 250 kids. The minimum benchmark for city schools is one for every 650 kids, according to budget documents reviewed by The Banner, and each school is supposed to have one social worker on staff, Taylor said.
However, these standards are not always met, largely due to the wide latitude the district gives principals to make staffing decisions — as long as they adhere to “bare minimum” requirements — under its “bounded autonomy” model, he said. Principals can also assign social workers nonclinical work that doesn’t require their expertise, Taylor said, further draining the already scarce time they have to provide behavioral health services and social support to kids and their families.
In Baltimore, social workers are often charged with chairing so-called 504 committees and student support teams, designed to provide additional support to kids with disabilities or those with academic or behavioral problems — a role assigned to special education administrators or school leadership in virtually every other district in the state, Taylor said.
“It’s a big contention that we have every year with social workers who feel they’re not getting enough time to actually use their clinical expertise,” he said, and these extra tasks “take them away from what they’re doing.”
Baltimore City Public Schools did not respond to a request for comment on social worker staffing.
Each social worker in Howard County works in three to four schools, said Robinson, despite a 300% increase in staffing over the last few years.
Schools with concentrated poverty grants, made available by the 2021 Blueprint for Maryland’s Future legislation, can use these funds to hire more social workers and other providers. Eighty-four percent of Baltimore city schools qualify for these grants, though it can be difficult to track how individual schools spend the funds, Taylor said.
State legislators last week announced $120 million in grant funding for Maryland schools to invest in on-site behavioral health services. However, the funding cannot be used for staffing the schools themselves or increasing salaries, but rather to forge partnerships between schools and community-based organizations that will provide services on-site. Staffing schools “depletes providers in the community,” said state Sen. Katie Fry Hester, but she did not give further detail.