There's been an increased demand over the past two years for a social worker in Darien's elementary schools, as school officials spend a lot of time and effort trying to cope with the demand, education officials say.
"It appears as if more of our students are exhibiting social, emotional and behavioral issues," Rita Ferri, principal of Hindley Elementary School, told the Board of Education in a budget presentation Tuesday evening.
Over the past two years, she said, an average of 18 to 20 students per year, along with their families, have been in crisis situations where they've needed serious help "outside of what our schools can provide."
She did not indicate how much of an increase that was over previous years. The superintendent of school's proposed budget for the next fiscal year (page 40) mentions 25 cases "in total" over "the past few years."
Administrators doing social work
School administrators, often reacting to a child who is either bothering other children or who simply won't do what's required in school, will come across situations where social work is needed, said Mary Michelson, principal at Tokeneke School.
Administrators then try to work with the family by putting them in touch with various social service agencies, then following up later to see if the agencies have been able to help. Those agencies might be nonprofit groups that serve Darien and surrounding communities, such as the Child Guidance Center, or they might be the state Department of Children and Families or even Darien police, Ferri said.
"These kinds of cases usually require them [administrators] to drop everything until they get them [families] linked up with the agencies and make sure the agencies are following through," said Judith Pandolfo, assistant superintendent for elementary education.
Asked by Heather Shea, a Board of Education member, whether or not the poor economy seemed to be a cause of the increased demand for social work, Schools Superintendent Stephen Falcone said the demand seemed to stem from a number of causes.
He said families may need help with domestic violence, substance abuse, problems related to finances, loss of jobs or housing, mental health problems of family members or divorce.
Falcone's proposed 2012-2013 education budget includes $70,000 more in salary and benefits to hire a social worker for the town's elementary schools. In the 2007-2008 budget year, the elementary schools dropped a social worker position from the budget in favor of having school psychologists at each elementary school.
Although school psychologists counsel of individual students, something a social worker woud do, those employees focus more on evaluating students and working with special education planning for individual students, Pandolfo said.
Neither school psychologists nor school administrators are as familiar with outside social service agencies as a social worker would be, and they're hard-pressed to follow up later on to see that the outside agencies have been helpful, Michelson said.
Questions about alternatives
Clara Sartori, a member of the Board of Education, asked whether or not providing social work was more a town function than a function that should be provided by schools. There is already a town Department of Social Services, other board members pointed out.
Falcone and other education officials said the need for help is often first seen when a child behaves poorly in school, often interfering with the education of others and taking up the time of teachers and administrators.
"There's a close connection between what's going on at home and what's going on at school," he said.
Pandolfo said that a social worker in the schools would be working with teachers and administrators in a team effort while taking the lead in social work.
Darien High School and Middlesex Middle School each have a social worker. Matthew J. Byrnes, assistant superintendent for secondary schools, said those social workers are very busy with their cases and have little time to help with elementary school cases.
The new social worker position is proposed for the special education budget, although the students who would be helped are frequently not in special education, Michelson said.
Editor's note: The superintendent's proposed budget for the 2012-2013 fiscal year is now available online in a PDF document at the Darien Public Schools website. There is also a copy of it attached to this article. Pages 39-40 discuss the request for a social worker in the elementary schools.