UAA’s School of Social Work $1.2 million Department of Education grant will fill school social worker shortage in Alaska

by Catalina Myers  |   

three UAA School of Social Work professors
From left to right, UAA's School of Social Work professors, Donna Aguiniga, assistant dean for SSW and SSWEND scholar mentor, Matthew Cuellar B.S.W program chair in for SSW and Mary Dallas Allen M.S.W. program chair and SSWEND scholar mentor, were principal investigators on the SSW U.S. Department of Education's (DOE) Mental Health Service Professional Demonstration Grant program that garnered a $1.2 million grant for SSW's School-Based Social Work Education and Network Development program. (Photo by James Evans)

This spring, UAA's School of Social Work (SSW) received a $1.2 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education's (DOE) Mental Health Service Professional Demonstration Grant program for their School-Based Social Work Education and Network Development program (SSWEND)

The three-and-a-half year program developed by SSW aims to graduate a cohort of 31 fellows who will increase school-based mental health service providers in high-needs schools with Anchorage School District (ASD) partner and community partners, Providence Alaska and the Volunteers of America Alaska (VOA), which currently operate programs addressing social work needs in K-12 education.

"There's not a lot of school social workers," said Matthew Cuellar, Ph.D., and BSW program chair  in UAA's SSW. "We hope this type of program will train practitioners to respond to the mental healthcare needs and demands of ASD." 

School social workers hired by ASD are often placed as school counselors, which covers a broad range of services that don't necessarily focus on mental health. School social workers specifically offer a range of mental health services at a school, from individual and group student counseling sessions, working with and directly supporting teachers in creating positive learning environments and managing stress during challenging classroom situations, to providing school administrators with tools and resources for creating a welcoming school climate and culture. 

With a recent report of an uptick in student violence, substance abuse and more concerning behavioral issues across ASD schools, the need for school social workers in a K-12 setting with specialized training has become more apparent and an in-demand need. SSWEND graduates will alleviate the strain schools and youth mental health service programs are experiencing.

This fall, the first cohort of students began their journey with the SSWEND program. In the spring, students were interviewed and accepted into the program. They were then interviewed by ASD and community partners Providence Alaska and VOA for a practicum placement this fall. Students accepted in the program have various options, depending on where they are in their education journey. Additionally, students entering the program are asked to have obtained their children's mental health graduate certificate. This program already exists in SSW as well as the M.S.W. and specialization track for school social work. According to Donna Aguiniga, Ph.D., assistant dean for SSW and SSWEND scholar mentor, the program is building upon programs already available to SSW students. SSWEND allows M.S.W to hone their specialized skills further for working with students in K-12 education. 

"We're taking the great programs that UAA has and leveraging them to ensure students get the mental health school-based training they need in order to be able to walk right into these jobs post graduation," said Aguiniga. "Additionally, students who are already employed will bolster and strengthen the skills they already have." 

Students without a master's degree in social work can apply for a two-year program and are on track to receive their master's and earn financial assistance and a practicum placement for the duration of their program. M.S.W. students in advanced standing and final-year students are also eligible to apply and, depending on their student status within the M.S.W. program will have the opportunity to complete their children's mental health certificate and school-based practicum while completing the SSWEND program. 

Mary Dallas Allen, Ph.D., professor in UAA's SSW, M.S.W. program chair and SSWEND scholar mentor, added that this grant is not only an exciting opportunity to build upon current UAA SSW programs but that it's also interdisciplinary in continuing to build Alaska's mental health care system for children. The DOE grant allows SSW to continue work that began in 2010, like the collaboration with the Department of Education and Early Development (DEED) to create the school social work specialization program and the partnership with the Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority to develop the graduate certificate in children's mental health.

"It's exciting to see the continuation of work that we've been working toward for many years now," Dallas Allen said.

Additionally, the DOE grant allowed SSW to offer SSWEND scholars tuition assistance to complete the program, depending on whether they are two-year or one-year students. Two-year and one-year students were awarded $13,000 and an additional $8,000 stipend for tuition, fees and books for each year of their program, while MSW students were given $8,000 to cover tuition, fees and books.

In addition to financial support and real-world practical application experiences, students in SSWEND also benefit from vast networking opportunities and membership in the Alaska Association of School Social Workers and a paid trip to the School Social Work Association of America annual conference where they can present their projects and work in Anchorage schools.

"Approximately 70% of the DOE grant is directly for student support," Aguiniga said. "It was really important to us that we tried to support students as much as possible in order to make graduate school more accessible."

By the end of the SSWEND program, scholars will have the foundational training to support student wellness through educational approaches and community health support, as well as the skills to utilize evidence-based social, academic and emotional behavioral risk screeners, identify them at different risk levels and develop inclusive responsive plans.

"These interconnected frameworks are integral to what we're training our school social workers to address, which is a direct response from ASD's request to promote mental health within their schools," said Cuellar. "Once students complete the program, they would be eligible for Type C certification and special services, school social work. The placement piece is really big, we hope to place approximately 80% of students who graduate within K-12 schools. We hope this program will not only provide students with a hands-on training experience to address the needs of the school they're placed with but that our program graduates will also be viable candidates to fill the current school social worker shortage ASD is facing."

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