Cape school district hiring social worker

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

The Cape Girardeau School District will gain a social worker this upcoming school year.

The United Way of Southeast Missouri and the Community Caring Council are providing seed money, splitting salary costs with the district three ways. The district will be expected to assume the full cost beginning the second year.

With rising accountability standards, the district has taken a do-whatever-is-necessary approach to raising test scores. Leaders say problems at home have a direct effect on learning in school.

"It's a resource we can use to help students be successful," said superintendent Dr. Jim Welker.

Welker previously worked in Jackson, where three social workers conduct home visits, set up tutoring or counseling services, refer families to resources or convince students to stay in school. They work mostly off teacher referrals of "at-risk" students.

Student poverty in Cape Girardeau has increased. In 2007, 50.9 percent of students were eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, up from 41.2 percent in 2003.

"When a child is concerned about whether they'll be eating that night or having electricity or even having anywhere to go home to at all, strangely they're not too concerned about what's being presented in the classroom," said John McGowan, director of community impact for United Way. He said the organization has been advocating for school social workers for "quite some time."

"Of course it all comes down to funding," he said.

But some school board members questioned whether the district was overstepping its responsibilities by hiring a social worker. Board members discussed the social worker agreement at their meeting Monday night.

Member Stacy Kinder asked if the district was assuming responsibility previously left to the not-for-profit or private sector. Some parents have been outspoken in the past against the district delving into issues typically handled at home.

Most recently, the district's decision to require freshman to take Preparing for Academic Success classes provoked some criticism. The classes will include instruction on etiquette and social skills.

Board member Tony Smee agreed with Kinder that the district is becoming "more involved in things traditionally done at home." But he advocated for the social worker, pointing to a lower-than-desired graduation rate and increasing accountability required by the federal government. "We have to think outside the box," he said.

Eventually, the board approved adding a social worker, with Kinder supporting the motion. Five members voted yes. Paul Nenninger abstained, and Dr. Steve Trautwein was absent.

McGowan said he hopes more social workers are added in the future. One worker for nearly 4,000 students isn't enough, he said, but "I think one social worker is a vast improvement over none."

335-6611, extension 123

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