By Kristen A. Graham
At Southwark Elementary, there is one counselor for 800 students, many of whom have behavioral and emotional challenges.
When principal Andrew Lukov got news that the school was getting a full-time social worker -- and eventually other professionals to address students' emotional needs -- he cheered. In 19 years as a Philadelphia School District employee, he's found that students' biggest obstacle to academic progress is often not about curriculum or supplies, but about things happening to them outside the classroom.
"To have another team member to help triage, to support kids emotionally, to be proactive, that's huge," said Lukov. "We all know the correlation between students' feeling comfortable and supported, and academic success."
The city will spend $1.2 million to put full-time social workers in Southwark and 21 other schools beginning this fall, Mayor Kenney announced Wednesday. The pilot program, which officials hope eventually will roll out to schools districtwide, will introduce behavioral consultants, case managers, and family peer specialists in later years.
If the School Reform Commission signs off on the program at its Thursday meeting, as expected, the district will begin hiring the social workers, who would be district employees. The city said it hopes to receive some Medicaid reimbursement to pay the workers, but is committed to funding the program regardless.
The 22 schools -- elementary, middle and high schools, 21 district schools and one charter -- were chosen based on student need. Eight of the city's community schools made the list, and seven schools in the West Philadelphia Promise Neighborhood zone also chosen. Drexel University will provide funds to support those schools.
Kenney began monthly meetings with city principals soon after he was sworn in as mayor, and it became clear immediately what educators needed most in their buildings.
"I heard over and over again that many of our children are struggling," Kenney said.
Spending money to put social workers in schools now should lead to benefits down the road, the mayor said.
"If we don't pay attention to this now, we'll deal with this in the end -- on State Road, in a drug treatment facility, or on Gurney Street," said Kenney, referring to the city's prisons and the Kensington street that had until recently been a notorious center of drug use.
Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. said that keeping city children out of crisis "is the most important thing we can do."
"You cannot educate a child who is in crisis or experiencing trauma," said Hite.
School Reform Commission member Estelle Richman, a longtime public servant who spent much of her work life providing and overseeing behavioral services, began her career as a school psychologist in Cleveland. She joined Kenney and Hite to underscore the need for such services.
"Too long, these were the forgotten children," said Richman. "Too long, these were the children who created chaos, and no one took the time to understand why."
For years, educators inside city schools have coped with a needy student population and too few resources to help them. The district, which only restored full-time counselors inside every school last year, has one crisis response team responsible for each of its 220 schools.
And, Tangela McClam, principal of Cassidy Elementary in West Philadelphia, noted, that's just to handle the most serious crises.
"You can have a lot of children in crisis at once," said McClam.
There's often a lag in response when the crisis team is called, principals said, and in the meantime, they sometimes have to call 911.
"If you have a master's degree social worker on site, the outcome's going to be better," said Kenney. "We want to find the root of the trauma, and fix it."
Kimlime Chek-Taylor, the principal of South Philadelphia High School, another school in line to receive a social worker in September, said she was hopeful the new resource would help her keep more students in class and on track to graduation. Southern, one of the city's large comprehensive high schools, often loses pupils with unmet behavioral and mental health needs.
"There's a sense of relief that our students will have someone to help them immediately," said Chek-Taylor. "This will have an impact right away."