Having social workers in Wake County schools, or all schools for that matter, is no luxury. In an age when two-working-parent families are common, when social stratification is clear, when racial tensions are present, when students feel peer pressure on issues such as drugs and sex, when “pop culture” bombards impressionable kids with all sorts of pressure to conform to decidedly unwholesome stereotypes, social workers can help kids keep their boats upright in the water.
That’s why Wake schools have a plan to bring the county up to the national average on the ratio of social workers and counselors to students. Now, the shortfall is embarrassing: The recommended ratio of social workers and counselors to students is 1 per 250 students. The ratio in Wake is 1 per 1,860 students for social workers, and 1 counselor per 630 elementary students, 1 per 372 middle school students and 1 per 393 high school students.
Not acceptable. And in a system that is the state’s largest at roughly 160,000 students, disgraceful.
It’s true that supporting a system the size of Wake is an expensive undertaking, and it’s not getting any easier with dwindling support from the state. Between funneling money into more charter schools (public, but with a measure of independence) and vouchers and using public money for private school expenses, Republican lawmakers aren’t likely to add more funding for the conventional public schools, where most parents send their children.
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To their credit, Wake commissioners have stepped up in the last few years with additional funding for public schools, and that’s good. But the current proposed budget does not meet what school officials say are real needs, and that’s troubling.
To be fair to commissioners, asking taxpayers for one property tax hike after another is risky, and not just for the individual commissioners seeking re-election. It’s risky for the schools themselves, should taxpayers become skeptical about perpetual requests for more money.
But the social worker and counselor programs are a good place to start when making the argument for more money. These people work with children on complex family problems, medical concerns and behavioral issues. They talk to kids about staying in school when those kids might drop out. They help with troublesome relations with parents. And they seek the root causes of problems coming from the home or existing for some students in the classroom. Sometimes the problem might be as simple as kids not having enough to eat.
That’s why social workers and counselors are so important in today’s schools. Luxuries? Hardly. They are vital.