The Superior School District is leading the charge to change licensing requirements for school social workers in Wisconsin.
To work in Wisconsin schools, social workers must receive additional education compared to their counterparts in Minnesota, which has created challenges for school districts located on the state border.
“This is really about what kids need and removing the barriers to getting kids help,” said Amy Starzecki, Superior School District administrator.
Social workers who work in Minnesota schools must have a degree in the field and be licensed to practice in the state, according to the Minnesota Professional Educator and Licensing Standards Board.
Wisconsin law goes a step further by requiring a master’s degree from a school social worker preparatory program. Only three schools in the state — the University of Wisconsin-Madison, UW-Milwaukee and UW-Green Bay — offer the program.
Social workers with a master’s degree from another state or university can get a one-year renewable license to work in a school if they show they are working toward full licensure from one of the three programs.
That’s the path Jane Larson, a social worker at Superior High School, is taking. She said the additional licensing requirements make it more difficult for Wisconsin schools to help their students.
“We have a problem when the licensing requirements make it so difficult that we can’t meet the needs of the people and provide the services that they need,” Larson said.
Superior’s location is part of the issue for a few reasons. First, school district officials said it's tough to attract graduates from Wisconsin’s school social worker programs when the closest licensing school is more than 300 miles away.
The second issue is the extra licensing requirement in Wisconsin. Both the University of Minnesota-Duluth and the College of St. Scholastica offer a master’s degree in social work, but those graduates would have to take additional classes to work in Wisconsin schools.
“We’re not asking that the bar is lowered, we’re just asking that that licensure requirement from Minnesota transfer over to Wisconsin. Because we are a border community ... it’s hitting us the hardest,” Starzecki said.
School social workers work in tandem with school counselors and psychologists, but they have a broader reach, Larson said. They support mental health interventions in the building and work with families and students who need support beyond what can be provided in school.
“My role is really more of a bridge between the school and the greater community,” Larson said.
Larson has gone to students’ homes to meet with parents who have no transportation and connected families to community resources.
She also focuses on mental health and alcohol and other drug abuse prevention, including a program offered to students caught vaping for the first time as an alternative to suspension.
Mental health needs are the number one issue facing schools today, Starzecki said. Trauma, homelessness and substance abuse follow children into their classrooms and impact not only them, but also their teachers and school staff.
The National Association of Social Workers recommends one social worker for every 250 students. In high-need schools, that jumps to one for every 50 students. Larson is the only school social worker in Douglas County. In contrast, there are 24 social workers in Duluth Public Schools, said Katie Kaufman, Duluth's communications coordinator.
Besides having access to fewer school social workers than Duluth students, Superior children do not have the option for day treatment or residential treatment, Starzecki said.
“We are really dependent on people like Jane who bring that expertise to the district,” she said. “If we can’t access those services in the community at the level we need, we minimally need someone here in the school to support kids and families.”
The Superior School Board sent a letter to the state Department of Public Instruction (DPI) in July asking that the requirements for school social worker licensure be evaluated.
The DPI is reviewing administrative rules for school social worker licensure and how they compare with neighboring states.
During a phone interview in August, David DeGuire, the DPI's director of teacher education, professional development and licensing, said the department agrees that something needs to change.
“There do need to be options for people who live in the northern part of the state," he said. "I think it’s something we need to look at, especially since the Legislature added money to the budget as the governor had asked regarding school mental health.”
The cause gained momentum and received the support of 421 school districts Jan. 22 when the Wisconsin Association of School Boards' Delegate Assembly officially adopted a resolution about the issue drafted by the Superior School Board.
“To have it in the hands of people who are in Madison day-in and day-out, who can talk to the powers that be about this who understand the issues, I think that’s helpful and that’s hopeful,” Larson said.
Starzecki encouraged people to contact their state lawmakers if they have concerns about school social worker licensing requirements.
Access to mental health services in rural areas will be one of this year’s Superior Days legislative issues.