Social workers, teacher raises should be new school board's focus | Opinion

Diane Payne, center, a retired teacher from Mayfair Elementary, and others rallied outside the School District of Philadelphia building on Nov. 16, 2017.

Twenty-seven candidates were recommended this week for the new Philadelphia school board. Mayor Kenney will select nine. Kenney charged the nominating panel to consider four important broad areas:  organizational acumen; commitment to education; commitment to diversity, inclusion, and community empowerment; and ethics and integrity.

I believe it vital to consider a fifth – the emotional health and stability of our city’s children.

Far too many of our city kids are too overwhelmed, terrified, and isolated to learn. Far too many face peril in their homes and on their streets. Far too many die, and every danger and death has a grave impact on family, friends, and classmates.

To paraphrase the wise words of nominating panel member Derren Magnum: A great deal more than nine people will be necessary to rescue our imperiled school system.

Far more intensive services are necessary to reach and support our children and their families; and close collaboration between schools and all social services is a must.  Unless this is recognized and addressed, children will continue to die, as well as grow into adults who will abuse and kill others.

To note these challenges is not enough. It is necessary to propose solutions.

To finally address these festering problems, each city school should employ a licensed social worker (or a licensed counseling professional with parallel training and experience)  to calm, support, and counsel our students, to offer direction in cases of physical and sexual abuse, to be in touch with legal advocates when necessary, and to facilitate discussions and programming addressing topics such as trauma and loss.

For those families involved with a number of city resources, including the courts and probation department, the Department of Human Services (DHS) should designate one licensed clinical social worker whom the family can learn to trust and rely upon. This professional should collaborate with all city resources the family is involved with, be in regular touch with the school social worker, and meet with the family regularly to address their challenges, and in doing so encourage a hopeful and fulfilling direction.

Also, vital in every school is a nurse. Not only is this a necessary resource in case of accidents or illness, a nurse can also work with the school social worker to provide treatment and comfort due to our city’s (and nation’s) high incidence of physical and sexual abuse.

Another must for all schools is a relationship with a designated police officer who can be called upon immediately in any dangerous situation. The officer and school social worker can provide necessary safety instruction designed for varying age groups.

A sad reality is that, though responsibilities are enormous, the salaries of social workers and teachers are notoriously low. Their payment must respect the skills and professionalism they offer.  

Related: Those employed to care for our city’s children who are incompetent, untrained, and unmotivated must be shown the door.  

To further ensure safety, updated information — including the whereabouts of our most troubled kids and families and the resources they’ve been offered — should be available through a well-organized technological system.  In a world where common sense prevailed, those fitting this description would be unable to purchase firearms.

In 2001, Philadelphians got a slap in the face when Harrisburg crashed and burned our school board. Now, we have a sign of great optimism. Let’s make the most of the opportunity and support Philly’s kids.

SaraKay Smullens is a social worker and writer. She chaired Mayor Ed Rendell’s Child Welfare Advisory Board. Her latest book is “Burnout and Self-Care in Social Work:  A Guidebook for Students and Those in Mental Health and Related Professions.”