Ecological School Social Work: The Reality and the Vision

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1 40 Social Work in Education Vol. 17, NO.1 January 1995 By Jennifer Clancy Ecological School Social Work: The Reality and the Vision School social workers have been attempting to determine what is effictive practice since the early 1900s. Over the course ofthe past decade, a unifying theoretical perspective, ecological theory, has evolved in school social work. Ecological theory defines effictive practice as interventions that take place in microsystems, mesosystems, and macrosystems. This differs from the traditional approach to school social work that focused on the problems ofthe individual pupils. However, despite claims that ecological theory is the most effictive for social work practice in schools, a lack of uniformity in practice among school social workers remains. This article analyzes the challenges ofpracticing ecological theory within school settings. It also describes an urban elementary school that has effictively put an ecological school social work model into practice. Key words: critical thought; ecological theory; macrosystems; school social work; urban school environments Social workers have been practicing in urban school settings since the early 1900s. Yet a dilemma that commonly plagues many school social workers is defining effective practice. Given the poverty, crime, and violence that severely affect most urban school settings, howcan social workers make lasting changes in the lives of those they serve? A review of the literature indicates that since the mid-1980s a unifying theoretical perspective for this field has emerged (Allen-Meares, Washington, & Welsh, 1986; Fine, 1992; Garbarino, Dubrow, Kostelny, & Pardo, 1992). Thisperspective, commonly referred to as an ecological approach, focuses on the social ecology of the school community. According to this theory, the school social worker's practice should encompass the range ofsocial interplays that occur among micro-, meso-, and macrosystems within the school environmentrather than on individual pupils. Although one might assume that a particularmodel ofpractice would logically ensue from a single unifying conceptual framework, this has not been the case in school social work. Alderson identified four distinctmodels ofschool social work practice: (1) the traditional clinical model, (2) the school change model, (3) the community school model, and (4) the social interaction model (cited in Allen-Meares et al., 1986). Thesemodels address individual aspects ofthe ecological approach, but none of them succeeds in developing interventions that encompass macrolevel systems as well as the more immediate microsystems. This article describes the ecological approach to school social work and discusses thedifficultythatimplementing a comprehensive approach poses for school social workers based in poor urbanschools. Aschool-based program at Hawthorne Elementary School in East Oakland, California, is presented CCC Code: /95 $ , National Association of Social Workers, Inc.

2 because it exemplifies in practice the principles ofecological theory. Ecological School Social Work If ecology is defined as a "collection ofreciprocal and interrelated forces around us" (Fine, 1992, p. 7), thensocial ecology can be characterized as the interactions' transactions, and mutual relationships that occur among social systems in an environment. Applying an ecological perspective to school social work means focusing on the point atwhichindependentsystems orgroups meet and interact (Allen-Meares et al., 1986). It is a theory of process rather than stasis. Thus, school social workers' practice is not focused on individual "problem" pupils but on the range of social interplays that occur among systems within the school environment. The students' immediate ecological environment consists of microsystems, such as the family, the classroom, the neighborhood, and the playground,and mesosystems, comprising the interrelationships between two or more of the microsystems. For example, the relationship between a child's school and church is classified as a mesosystem interaction. Because microsystems and mesosystems are also affected by macrosystems, or the larger cultural institutions such as the economic, social, political, educational, and legal systems, an ecological perspective also focuses on the interactions between the institutional macrosystems and the more personal microsystems and mesosystems. One reason for the lack ofa uniform practice amongecological school social workers is the complexity ofecological theory. Because the theoryencompasses all of the systems that interact and affect the pupil or pupil groups who have been identified as the "problem," practitioners mustwork on a much broader level than they may be accustomed to. Fine (1992) observed the following: The locus of activity for most community-based and schoolbased consultants, such as clinical psychologists, school psychologists, counselors, and social workers, is likely to be the micro- and mesosystems. These are the systems within which the consultant has easiest access and can achieve some leverage for producing change. But it may be that for greater and more lasting change, the exo- and macrosystems need to change. (p. 8) To create real change, school social workers must design innovative practices that are inclusive of all systems that affect pupils' lives. Allen-Meares et al. (1986) also asserted that resolution is more effective when the social worker intervenes in more than one system at a time. This means that professional practice is not limited to working with students, parents, teachers, administrators, and other social services agencies. To work from an ecological perspective, school social workers must broaden their vision and concurrently intervene at the level ofthe cultural systems and social institutions that contribute to the social problems adversely affecting clients. Yet social workers often feel overwhelmed by the prospect ofengaging in the lifelong work of social change and allow themselves and their clients tobe pacified with the Band-Aid effects ofmicrolevel interventions. For example, a common practice model used by school social workers is the traditional clinical approach. Field researchers Garbarino et al. (1992) described developmental, psychodynamic, and cognitive intervention programs as effective when working with children at risk of severe emotional and educational damage as a consequence of growing up in violent communities. Although they refer to their practice model as one that is based on 41 Ecological School Social Work: The Reality and the Vision To create real change, school social workers must design innovative practices that are inclusive of all systems that affect pupils' lives.

3 42 Social Work in Education Vol. 17, NO.1 January 1995 an ecological perspective, Garbarino et al. illustrated a professional practice that is restricted to microlevel systems intervention between the student and the school, the student and the family, and the studentand the neighborhood. The goal of this model is to enhance the emotional development and contribute to the resiliency ofchildren who live in what the researchers call "urban war zones." The basic plan of intervention is to provide children with the opportunity to form strong attachments to adults in the school setting, create an environment that allows children to have a sense of structure and predictability, and enable the children to increase their resiliency and enhance their self-esteem by providing them with opportunities for educational and social accomplishment (Garbarino et al., 1992). The problemwith clinically oriented school social work is the limited scope of its plans for intervention. Social workers commonly bring group counseling, individual and family counseling, and case management services to schools. These microlevel services are necessary because they address the most immediate needs ofclients, such as shelter, safety, and emotional wellbeing. However, urban school communities could also benefit from macrolevel interventions, which, unfortunately, social workers do not frequentlyoffer. For instance, how often do school social workers collaborate with the school community and other local agencies to develop solutions to neighborhood crime? It is not common for professional practitioners to teach parents how to organize when they feel unfairly treated by school districts or government agencies or to help the school develop curricula that educate students about the effects of institutional racism. According to Fine (1992), clinical practitioners who use a model that resembles that of Garbarino et al. (1992) may help a small numberofindividual childrenwho have been traumatized by the violence that is common in urban school neighborhoods. However, clinical school social workers seldom try to accomplish equally important task of preventing poverty and the social problems it produces by working with the school community to change oppressive social institutions. Another difficulty in developing a uniform model-ofpractice thatencompasses all aspects ofecological theoryis that the approach requires practitioners to acknowledge the political aspects of their practice. Shaffer (1972) noted that historically, the social work philosophy has endorsed capitalism: Social work, like corporate capitalism, was a product of the Industrial Revolution and, in large measure, a primary institutional structure through which social reform and welfare statism was generated and mediated. It is therefore not surprising that the field should develop a philosophic commitment to corporate liberal ideology. (p. 666) Because the profession has traditionally sanctioned capitalism, Shaffer believed that manysocial work education programs train practitioners to maintain the status quo. Critical education theorists have also maintained that educational institutions produce and preserve ideology that benefits the dominant social class (Darder, 1991; Freire & Macedo, 1987). For this reason, social workers are sometimes referred to as gatekeepers, helping to guard the social status of the dominant class by pacifying oppressed individuals. If school social workers' practice focuses only on counseling and treatment ofstudents and families, they are maintaining the status quo because their practice defines the locus of the

4 problem within the microsystem. This type of school social work practice views the students and families as deficient and ignores their responsibility "to modify the systemic-ecological structures and patterns that have been supportive of the 'problem'" (Fine, 1992, p. 9). The actual problems in urban school communities are institutionalized racism, poverty, and the host of social problems these conditions create. The ills that urban school social workers treat, including substance and alcohol abuse, depression, and grief, are merelysymptoms ofthelargerproblems. These symptoms must, ofcourse, be treated, but practitioners also must turn ecological theory into practice by following the path described by Shaffer (1972): engagingin community development, community organizing, social planning, and social action. The goal ofthis work is to extend individuals' consciousness, which is necessary for the development of what Freire (1989) referred to as "critical consciousness," a wayofbeingin the world thatis characterized by individuals' ability to act, to beself-determined, and to create their own world. Without critical consciousness, theindividuals in microlevel systems are merelyacted on bythe macrolevel culturalinstitutions. Insuch a scenario there is notrue interrelationship; what exists instead is oppression. Implementing a practice that fully uses ecological theory requires school social workers to make a paradigmatic shift away from interventions limited to microlevel interactions. Instead, professionals must take into consideration the reciprocal relationship between micro- and macrolevel systems and analyze the effects of these relationships on the lives of the youths being served. Interagency Collaborations School-based interagency collaborations are presented in the media as dynamic and innovative approaches to deliveringsocialservices in the schools (Chira, 1991). At first glance these collaborations appear to practice ecological theory. Practitioners using this model link schools with social services agencies to create school-community partnerships, which then provide students and their families with more accessible social services. The Urban Strategies Council is an interagency consortium in Oakland, California, with representatives from the school district, county medical aild mental health services, the probation department, and the social services department. This consortium helps implement school-base~collaboration models in urban public schools in the Oakland area. Because of a dramatic increase in teen motherhood, substance abuse, inadequate education and job training, homelessness, violence, and the many other social problems in many urban communities in Oakland, children in these communities have been deemed an at-risk population. The goal of the Urban Strategies Council is to support the development ofschool-based collaborations to decrease these risks and meet the multifaceted needs of Oakland students. Although each particular collaboration is unique to the individual school it is based in, the collaborations are supposed to share similar intervention plans. The intervention plans include simplifying service provision by locating all service providers on the school site, focusing on prevention, building on family strengths, providing flexible and culturally responsive services, and meeting family-defined needs in addition to needs defined by the social worker (Urban Strategies Council, 1992). In comparing the interagency collaborative model to the traditional clinical approach, itis obvious thatthere has been a progression of vision. Instead of limiting interventions to the 43 Ecological School Social Work: The Reality and the Vision

5 44 Social Work in Education Vol. 17, No.1 January 1995 Using an ecological perspective in school-based social work calls for a comprehensive approach and an intervention plan that allows for interaction of all systems in the school's ecological environment. interaction ofthe pupil with the school, an interagency approach to school social work supports a broader focus of practice. The activities ofthe school social worker are located primarily in the mesosystem rather than remaining within the confines of microlevel perspectives. This approach also stresses the need for collaboration between the many social settings and environments students are part of. This is particularly true for children from poorurban areas, because it is more likely they will have more authorities and social agencies involved in their lives. Collaborative efforts help social services providers and school social workers to recognize that the problems of students in the Oakland schools are multifaceted and require eclectic solutions and diverse interventions. Finally, collaborative agency efforts help initiate the dialogue that has been nonexistent in the ecological environment ofthe Oakland schools. The Urban Strategies Council (1992) noted that "agencies serving the same people rarely communicate with one another" (p. 10). According to the ecological perspective, effective interventions occuratthe place ofinteraction. Without dialogue between thesystems thatmake up the school ecology, there can be no potential for change orincreased social functioning. Even though the interagency collaboration described by the Urban Strategies Council (1992) engages with a set ofsystems that is larger in scope than that of the traditional clinical model, this approach to school-based social work does not adequately use an ecological approach. Usingan ecological perspective in school-based social work calls for a comprehensive approach and an intervention plan that allows for interaction ofall systems in the school's ecological environment. The model currently used in schools has merely shifted the focus of social workers from a microperspective to a mesoperspective, while macrolevel change continues to be ignored. Critical School Social Work Intervention Model The model that this article refers to as "critical social intervention" is emerging at Hawthorne Elementary School in the Oakland Unified School District. Although Hawthornewas one of the schools targeted by the Urban Strategies Council to apply for a state grant to fund an on-site, school-based collaboration, the programthatevolved differs from most other Oakland public school collaborations. The Hawthorne collaboration, known as the Family SupportTeam, accentuates the importance of community organizing and development and collaborative social action when doing school social work. The Family SupportTeam at Hawthorne Elementary School consists of two social workers, three social work school interns, two parents who receive stipends for attendingteam meetings, a core group ofteachers, the vice principal, and representatives from literacy programs and other community agencies active in the school. The team's coordination committee consists of the school nurse, the school principal, and the Senate Bill 65 (SB 65) consultant. SB 65 provides California public schools with funds for a school dropout prevention worker. In addition, part of the grant money was used to establish an on-site medical and dental clinic that is run by a community medical health agency. NancyAsher, the SB 65 consultant, described six strategies used in the Hawthorne FamilySupportTeam's intervention plan (personal communication, February 11,1993): 1. Establish a relationship with the families of students who have been targeted as needing Family Support Team services. Listen to the self-

6 defined needs and concerns ofstudents, parents, grandparents, and caretakers. This process helps families learn the process of naming and defining specific community problems. 2. Provide immediate on-site services and referrals needed by the family, including educational tutoring; individual, family, or group counseling; medical or dental services; and legal aid referrals. 3. Invite the parents into the school system after meeting the families' direct needs. Provide programs that may benefitthe parents, such as literacyprograms, training programs, and classroom volunteer programs. This interaction strengthens the bond between the parents and the school. 4. Organize in-service training for parents to teach communication, writing, and group facilitation skills, which both are marketable and increase individuals' sense of leadership. 5. Help parentswho have a relationship with the Family Support Team organize other parents in the community to work collaboratively toward group-defined goals. Work teams may include members of the various ecological systems in the school, such as students, teachers, school administrators, counselors, and other school personnel. Suggest that meetings be held at families' homes rather than at the school to increase families' sense of ownership of their struggle. 6. Encourage parents to organize community outreach to local agencies, churches, and businesses to unify the larger community and gain their help in collaborating on the social action plan. No formal evaluation has been done on the program at Hawthorne Elementarybecause it is only a little more than a year old and the school has not had the time or funds to design the type of qualitative evaluation necessary to capture the achievements ofthe collaboration. However, Kris Perry, a social worker assigned to the Hawthorne collaborative, described five of the positive results that are already tangible (personal communication, April 6, 1994): 1. The school has a thorough case management and mental health program and a medical and dental clinic that meet many of the health needs of the students and families in the school community. 2. Parents nowsit onall school committees, includingthe site management and budget committees, which means that parents are part of the decisionmaking body at the school. 3. The collaboration has turned one classroom into the Parent Center, a drop-in center that provides parents with a computer and information and referrals on employment opportunities, educational workshops at the school, literacy programs, and child care. The center has been decorated and has toys and games for children so parents can congregate and share employment information. 4. A social work intern formed a group with Latina mothers so they could work together to solve problems around immigration issues. 5. The collaboration sponsors educational workshops that have been requested by parents. In one workshop on community violence many parents gave their personal accountofthe negative effect communityviolence has had on their lives and the lives of their families. Because the school communityis multilingual, accounts were given in English, Spanish, orvietnamese and then translated. After the workshop this diverse group of parents decided they wanted to organize collectively around the common problem of community violence. The Hawthorne Family Support Team has not implemented all aspects of its intervention plan because community organizing does not evolve quickly and macrolevel change takes 45 Ecological School Social Work: The Reality and the Vision

7 46 Social Work in Education Vol. 17, NO.1 January 1995 time. However, the Latina mothers or the parents organized against community violence could bring about positive change in such social institutions as the local government or the legal system. The goal of the school social workers in the collaboration is to work with the entire school ecology to create an environment that can foster social change. This model uses traditional clinical social workinterventions butalso teaches individuals to seek collective solutions to their individual problems. By encouraging clients to engage in social action change efforts, the Family Support Team hopes to create a shift in our society's power relations. Although a group ofmembers from the systems within the school ecology is potentially a very powerful force, there are many barriers to the development ofsuch a collaboration. Some of the issues that must be confronted are developing a common language, negotiating and mediating issues of power and authority, and learning how to develop a plan of action that addresses the concerns ofall the systems involved in the collaborative effort. Obviously, these are not easy tasks. This model of interveningin the schools requires both a shift in understanding ofwhat effective school social workis and the development oflong-range goals. Even though the program at Hawthorne Elementary School is currently active, this model is referred to as "emerging" because school-based social services programs thatstress social development continue to be the exception rather than the rule. School social work programs currently funded on the state or local level usually follow the guidelines of the traditional clinical model or the interagency collaborative model. Although programs that use the critical social intervention methods exist, this model of working in the schools continues to be an anomaly. Conclusion School social workers must develop an approach to practice that directly fights oppression. An ecological approach to school social work is potentially very effective because it integrates interventions that occur on the micro-, meso-, and macrolevels. The critical school social work model requires a shift in the way school social workers think about intervention practices. The model's broad base ofintervention makes it more difficult to use than the traditional clinical and interagency collaborative models. However, incorporating macrolevel interventions into social work practices can profoundly change the lives of students. About the Authors Jennifer Clancy, MSW, is teacher and counselor, Albuquerque Academy, 6400 Wyoming Boulevard, Albuquerque, NM References Allen-Meares, P., Washington, R., & Welsh, B. (1986). Social work services in the schools. Englewood Cliffs, N]: Prentice Hall. Chira, S. (1991, May 15). Schools' new role: Steering people to services. New York Times, pp. AI, B7-B8. Darder, A. (1991). Culture and power in the classroom: A criticalfoundation for bicultural education. New York: Bergin & Garvey. Fine, M. (1992). A systems-ecological perspective on home-school intervention. In M. Fine & C. Carlson (Eds.), The handbook offamily-

8 school inten;ention: A systems perspective (pp. 1-17). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall. Freire, P. (1989). Pedagogy ofthe oppressed. New York: Continuum Press. Freire, P., & Macedo, D. (1987). Literary: Reading the word and the world. New York: Bergin & Garvey. Garbarino,]., Dubrow, N., Kostelny, K. M., & Pardo, C. (1992). Children in danger: Coping with the consequences ofcommunity violence. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. Shaffer, A. (1972). Community organizing and the oppressed. Journal ofsocial Work Education, 8, Urban Strategies Council. (1992). Partnership for change: Linking schools, sen;ices and the community to sen;e Oakland youth. Oakland, CA: Author. 47 Ecological School Social Work: The Reality and the Vision Accepted August 26, 1994 NEW FROM lhe NASW PRESS A DAPT YOUR PRACTICE to the new managed care environment using single-subject design. The move toward managed care has increased the popularity of this information based, outcome oriented, and consumer driven methodology. Leading researcher Tony Tripodi explains the methodology with clear, straightforward language and graphics that will allow you to build the model into your practice without disruption and then use it easily - to make key clinical decisions, monitor the effectiveness of treatment, promote client understanding, and demonstrate accountability in clinical practice. Excellent for reference, teaching, stafftraining, and group supervision. Send $32.95 (includes $3.00 postage and handling) to the NASW Press, P.O. Box 431, Annapolis JCT, MD 2lYl01. Or call toll-free (in metro Washington, DC, call ), or fax ISBN: (Item #2383) pages. $29.95 'SSD3

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