The School of Social Work plans to partner with three school districts — Metropolitan School District of Pike Township in Indianapolis, Tippecanoe School Corporation and Lafayette School Corporation — to place master’s students in yearlong field practicums. One goal of the grant is to provide a broader pipeline for school social workers in districts across the state, adding to an already robust field placement system for IU students.
“Indiana has what we call ‘mental health deserts,’” said Barbara Pierce, professor in the IU School of Social Work. “We know there are places in Indiana that have a shortage of mental health providers and even psychiatrists and psychologists, so being able to increase mental health services in those geographic areas, particularly to children and youth in schools, allows for us to increase capacity for the state overall.
Megan Ulrich, mental health liaison for Tippecanoe School Corporation. Photo courtesy of Tippecanoe School Corporation
“We know there is an increasing need for services, particularly post-COVID. School, community and peer connection are protective factors for kids. The more a child is connected to their peers, to school, to sports, to music and to their families, the more protected they are from the ravages of mental health issues. COVID took that coping mechanism away for quite a while, and now kids are having to reestablish how to do that.”
The grant will also allow the IU School of Social Work to offer four school social work courses online, in addition to the in-person courses already offered, giving students the opportunity to work at school systems around the state while also attending classes.
“We are also fortunate to have a relationship with the Research Triangle Institute, who will provide technical support and education for our districts around multi-tiered systems of support to better help our schools respond to the needs of their students,” Pierce said.
Another goal of the grant is to train current school social workers to become licensed, which is now required by Indiana law.
In Pike Township, the grant will add to an already established partnership with the School of Social Work.
“We’ve seen the need go up since the pandemic started,” said Isang Jacob, district wellness coordinator for the Pike Township School District, and an IU School of Social Work graduate. “We plan to focus these additional resources in our elementary school level. Right now, we have one social worker covering three schools, so there is a high need there. Through this grant, we strongly believe our parents, students and community will receive enormous support, and we also hope to keep these social workers in our district after they graduate, if possible.
“Social workers are not only there when things go wrong. “They’re also there to help align families with resources available in the community that they may not have even been aware of, like our food pantry.”
In Tippecanoe School Corporation, which has a counselor or social worker in each building, the grant will provide professional development opportunities to help staff support master’s students placed in the district for their field practicums.
“Any opportunity that we receive to provide even more mental health services within the school day is imperative,” said Megan Ulrich, also an IU School of Social Work graduate, and the mental health liaison for Tippecanoe School Corporation. “When our students come to school every morning, everything that they experience comes with them, and so for them to learn best, for them to feel the safest and to have the most productive day, we have to be addressing mental health.”
“I will be working with the districts and our field unit to develop a school mental health partnership learning collaborative,” Pierce said. “Essentially, we will work with school wellness staff to understand what they need in their districts, so our students can receive that exact training. By the time our students graduate, not only will they have had the school courses, but they will also have had specific training based on what school staff say they need. All students will receive CPR training, suicide-prevention training, suicide-assessment training and de-escalation training, for example.”
The program will begin in school districts in the fall, with additional students added over time.
“Through supporting families and helping them to understand the resources available to them, I always hope to show them that there is hope,” Jacob said. “We just need to align families to those resources so they can have a better, successful life. And this partnership moves us in the right direction.”