The real obstacle to staffing all Chicago Public Schools with social workers and nurses

Inequality increases with inadequate policies.  As Chicago Public Schools teachers nobly fight for more social workers and nurses in schools, we need to recognize the real obstacle to staffing these positions: certification.  

Thanks to Kalyn Belsha, national education reporter at Chalkbeat, I learned that–before they can work in Illinois schools–social workers and nurses need additional certification and internships.  Which doesn’t make sense.

A nurse can care for my 82-year-old dad who’s had multiple strokes but cannot care for students in a school when they have a belly ache?  Or a bloody nose? Or when they need oversight of medication during the school day?  Nope. Not according to the Illinois State Board of Education.

At DePaul (my alma mater), the online school nurse endorsement program involves sixteen quarter hours of coursework and an eleven-week internship (costing eight quarter hours).  At $735 a quarter hour, that’s over $18,000 for someone who already earned a nursing degree.

For those who have a master’s in social work, they, too, must pay for an endorsement.  ISBE’s Web site lists 600 contact hours and 400 hours of field experience as part of the certification program.

Again–a social worker can help connect my family with support services for my 82-year-old father but that same social worker isn’t qualified to connect another family with support services for their teenager?  That doesn’t make sense.

In the late 90s at one school where I taught, the principal paid for the full-time nurse with Title I funds, the money schools get based on the number of low-income students according to lunch forms.

Today, the district’s student-based budgeting formula, gives each school around $5,500 per student, making school budgets skimpy.

When the Chicago Public Schools CEO says in interviews that school social worker and nurse positions are difficult to fill because a big enough pool of qualified candidates doesn’t exist–I believe her.

At some schools, one social worker may not be enough.

One social worker told me she wants to work for CPS, but she cannot afford to go back to school for two years and participate in an unpaid internship.

These complex systemic issues cannot be addressed in one 3-year or even a 5-year contract.

Some time ago in their offer to CTU, CPS presented a long-term plan to staff schools with social workers and nurses over the next few years.

Chicago Public Schools plan to staff schools with social workers and nurses


After seeing time and time again how the current CPS CEO puts students first–as every leader should–I trust in her commitment to carry out this plan.

This morning, I heard CTU’s vice president on the news that say she wants a proposal to staff schools with social workers and nurses.  Isn’t the plan cited above it?

We live in a time where earning college degrees requires lots of money.  Many first-generation college students, many CPS graduates, would be ideal for these social worker and nurse positions.  But now, on top of all the obstacles they face to earn their first college degree, the ISBE certification system adds more.

If this “short-term strike” is truly about “important long-term changes in the schools,” as our union president says, we need to acknowledge all the social structures that create obstacles to giving our students the services they need. 

Then, CPS and CTU need to collaborate on a long-term sustainable plan to eliminate these obstacles that cannot be addressed in any short-term strike.

Update Sunday 9:20 a.m.: On Saturday afternoon, the Illinois Chapter of Social Workers reached out on social media.  They explained how social workers can take two courses in the fall at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and then complete their internship in the fall semester which, they say, can be paid.  ISBE offers a directory (but, honestly, it’s not easy to navigate) of schools to obtain the school support personnel endorsements.  The chapter of social workers argued in their tweet that my conclusion was wrong; I responded that my point is still accurate.  Obtaining this endorsement requires more coursework.

A current school social worker also shared how she received the endorsement while she completed her MSW program.  Her professors presented the opportunity and guided her through the necessary coursework.  Without that mentorship, she says, she would not have known.

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