Number Of Social Workers Growing In Chicago Public Schools

CPS social workers
Chicago teachers fought successfully in their fall 2019 strike to secure a written commitment from the school distinct to hire a social worker and nurse for every public school. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ
CPS social workers
Chicago teachers fought successfully in their fall 2019 strike to secure a written commitment from the school distinct to hire a social worker and nurse for every public school. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

Number Of Social Workers Growing In Chicago Public Schools

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Chicago Public Schools has almost 90 more social workers on staff compared to last year at this time, according to the school district.

These numbers come just months after the school district committed in the teachers contract to employing 680 school social workers by June 2023. Currently, it has 508 positions and 428 of them are filled.

The goal is to staff each of the 500-plus schools with at least one social worker, with large or high-needs schools hiring more than one. The Chicago Teachers Union made this a central demand because for years social workers have been forced to cover more than one school and had little time to work with students outside those in special education.

Chicago needs a lot of social workers, the union argued, because students living in poverty and experiencing violence need extra support. Mayor Lori Lightfoot (and former Mayor Rahm Emanuel the year before) had pledged to hire more social workers before the October strike, but the union demanded a commitment written in the teachers contract.

The school district has had greater success hiring social workers than with nurses, which it also promised to increase in the teachers contract. Matt Lyons, CPS’ chief talent officer, said there is not a pronounced shortage of school social workers, as there is in nursing.

“The national market is not the same for social workers as it is for nursing and so, yes, we have a little bit of an easier time,” Lyons said.

Also, Chicago has several universities with big social work programs that produce a lot of graduates.

Some are seeing an increase of social workers interested in getting the extra credential to work in schools. Micheal Kelly, who runs the school social work program at Loyola University’s School of Social Work, said this year 50 people are in the program compared to 30 most years.

He said the teachers strike is making social workers more interested in working in Chicago Public Schools.

“The appeal of what has happened with the strike and the context of the strike, which was about things like having a librarian in every school, having a school social worker in every school, having a nurse in every school and having all those people willing to get in the streets and say these things matter to us, that has been noticed by my students,” he said.

But Kelly said the next step is for the school district to change the role of social workers.

Kelly said social workers would like to be more involved in working with the entire student body to make the school a better place to learn.

He said social workers tell him, “I would love to start parent groups and I would love to be doing whole school change work.” But, in order for that to happen, CPS has to make some changes, he said.

Kelly notes having more social workers on staff at CPS makes some of these other roles more possible.

Sarah Karp covers education for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter at @WBEZeducation and @sskedreporter.