As part of her field work this past school year, Mila Wyman-Shank, who will receive an award this Saturday (May 12) as an outstanding student in social work at the University of California, Berkeley, helped avert a suicide, aided students at a bus accident and rescued a disturbed child about to be lost in Oakland's juvenile justice system.
Wyman-Shank, winner of the 2001 Award for Outstanding Student Social Work Practice, given yearly at graduation by UC Berkeley's School of Social Welfare, will share the limelight at the ceremony with Teresa McGovern, to be honored for her work in Oakland evaluating after-school programs and assessing community needs.
The two awardees are among eight newly-minted master's degree students in social work (MSWs) who will go from UC Berkeley this year to expand the tiny ranks of school social workers - part of a drive by the School of Social Welfare to increase the number of MSWs in schools where so many problems from home and community come to rest.
"The recent school shootings are just one illustration of the critical need for social workers in schools," said the school's dean, James Midgley. "There is a dire shortage of social workers in all sectors throughout California. One of my priorities is to take the lead in training more school social workers."
Next fall, the school will add two new faculty members with an expertise in school social work. It also is working with the California Assembly's Committee on Human Services, headed by Assemblywoman Dion Aroner, to provide more resources for increasing the number of MSWs in schools.
In making school social work a priority, UC Berkeley's school is furthering a decade-long pursuit - returning social workers to public service throughout all fields. There had been a strong tendency for MSWs to enter private therapy. Since the early 1990s, however, schools of social welfare throughout the state, led by UC Berkeley, have been working to return trained social workers to public sectors.
Success in the effort is evident in this year's graduating class of MSWs - almost a fourth of them have completed specialties in child welfare services, a product of the effort to expand the ranks of MSWs in child protective services. In 1983, there was only one MSW graduate at UC Berkeley preparing to enter child welfare services. This year, there are 20.
"In Bay Area schools today, the number of MSWs can be counted on two hands," said Bart Grossman, director of field instruction at the UC Berkeley's School of Social Welfare.
Oakland schools have five MSWs for 86 schools; San Francisco has seven or eight for 115 schools. This past year, UC Berkeley's eight social work interns in the school program increased by two-thirds the number of trained people in the two districts.
The school's aim is not to fill the gaps in personnel, said Grossman, but to provide a catalyst for expanding the services.
"They can do many things that staffers have no time to do," he said. "Interns do things the public expects social workers to do, but which is not possible under current levels of school funding."
But expanding the number of trained social workers in schools will not be easy, considering the shortfall. California has 7,000 schools and about 500 school social workers. Moreover, the
competition for those resources is intense as all the social services in California strive to attract MSWs to fill roughly 7,000 empty positions in aging, child protective services, health services and other areas.
"I would love to see a social worker in every school," said Howard Blonsky, social worker with the San Francisco Unified School District and a lecturer at UC Berkeley.
"Schools are like magnifying glasses. We see an increased number of kids who manifest problems from homes and communities," said Blonsky. "We know that we can help, but much more needs to be done."