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Focus On Basics

Volume 6, Issue A ::: October 2002

Beyond the Scope of the Teachers: Deciding to Employ a Social Worker

by Nikki Merritt, Miriam Spencer and Lori Withers
"Let's Write About You" was an exercise in writing developed by Independence, Missouri, adult literacy instructor Tammy Sturm in the summer of 2001. Tammy found that students complained regularly about not having anything to write about. She therefore began lessons based on students telling their personal stories where they were "the expert."

In "My Bad Day," a student we will call Cindy shared her story of violence, abuse, and her search for answers. She wrote the following:

"I didn't like dealing with him when he was drunk because you couldn't control him and you never knew what he would do. He would get real violent when he was drinking... I got real scared because he was threatening me...I decided to hide in between two mattresses...I could hear him screaming..."

"Even though he had hit me a number of times, I felt I would deserve whatever he gave me."

"It made me realize that I couldn't continue to live like that...I was living dangerously...I had to think about what this was doing for my children...I didn't need this kind of relationship in my life."

Cindy cited keeping her job as the reason for enrolling in the Family Literacy Center Adult Education and Literacy (FLC AEL) program. Upon entry, she said she needed a GED - General Educational Development certificate - quickly; however, her entry scores on the Tests of Adult Basic Education (TABE) indicated she would need intensive instruction and time to build her skills. As Cindy participated in the classroom, began to trust staff, and participated in "Let's Write About You," it became evident that she faced the threat of losing her job, financial worries, parenting concerns, and unresolved domestic issues. These problems all accompanied her to class, affecting her initial progress as she attempted to concentrate on learning.

Like Cindy, most adult literacy students bring myriad social challenges and barriers into their programs with them. At the Family Literacy Center, staff documentation revealed that students in adult education and literacy classes were continuously facing a wide range of issues that interfered with their ability to attend class regularly, study, and focus on their personal goals and learning. Parent educators, adult education teachers, and the director spent inordinate amounts of time - teachers estimated it at upwards of 25 percent - listening to students' personal problems and assisting them in finding resources, which, in some cases, involved sources of personal protection. We realized that as professionals we were not educated to meet the social service needs of these students adequately and asked ourselves: Do we need to offer social services as a formal part of our AEL program? In this article, we share the challenges we were facing, what we decided to do, and how our program has changed as a result.

Our Program

Established in 1990, the mission of Family Literacy Center, Inc. (FLC), is to provide comprehensive services that respond to the educational and special needs of children, adults, and their families to Eastern Jackson County families in need of basic education and workplace skills. Of the adults living within a five-mile radius of our location, 77 percent do not have a high school diploma or GED. In 2000-2001, FLC provided 251 children with early childhood education, served 564 adult literacy students (of whom 98 percent were female), and 130 teen parents. The collaborative intergenerational services we offer include adult literacy, early childhood education, parent and child time together, parents as teachers, and teen parenting classes.


Cindy and her classmates come to study to improve their basic skills or prepare for the GED exam. In most cases, the issues that caused these adults to drop out of school have not been resolved when they enter our program. Nearly all the problems involve difficult circumstances that may include long-term unemployment, abusive relationships, homelessness, lack of resources to meet basic needs, and children or elderly parents with chronic health problems. As a result, many students are in crisis, causing chronic disruptions to their education. The disequilibrium associated with crisis serves as a powerful motivational force that can heighten the client's susceptibility to intervention (Bergin & Garfield, 1993). On the other hand, people in crisis - our students among them - experience strong feelings of vulnerability, anxiety, powerlessness, and hopelessness. After a crisis period (typically lasting four to six weeks), students will either return to their previous coping skills or develop a new set of responses that may leave them functioning better or worse than prior to the crisis (Parad & Parad, 1990).

Concerned that our educational mission was being undermined by the wide range of stress-producing issues learners brought to class, we requested and received a planning grant from Metropolitan Alliance for Adult Learning (MAAL). MAAL is a metro-wide initiative operating under the umbrella of the Heart of America United Way in partnership with individuals and organizations from virtually every sector of the Independence, MO, community, including major philanthropists in the Kansas City area. The grant would allow us to document these issues in greater depth and develop a design and grant proposal that would, we hoped, enable us to address these problems so that FLC AEL students could focus on learning.

We contracted with a social worker who conducted classroom observations, 33 student interviews, and eight staff interviews. Students described feeling high levels of stress from many different sources including finances, health problems, interpersonal relationships, and lack of community resources. We learned that many students come from families that had not demonstrated positive parenting skills or positive interpersonal relationships. One student described being locked out of the house all night as a disciplinary measure. The social worker noticed, during conversations with individual students, with groups, and during support groups, that many students had difficulties concentrating due to a preoccupation with personal issues. This often resulted in what we felt to be excessive time and energy being used to discuss these concerns, leaving diminished time for study in the AEL classroom. The breadth and depth of problems faced are apparent in the following student responses:

In addition, 44 percent of students reported physical, sexual, or emotional abuse during childhood, 55 percent of students indicated current involvement in abusive relationships, and 92 percent of students experienced insufficient financial resources to meet daily needs.

What to Do?

The planning grant enabled us to document and validate our concerns: stressful events in learners' lives were accompanying them into the classroom and distracting them from learning. As we were then structured, FLC AEL offered minimal intervention and assistance: the three part-time teachers, trained in education, lacked the time, knowledge, and strategies necessary to deal with case management.

A committee that worked on the planning project decided that the complexity and seriousness of the issues facing our students warranted pursuing funding for a full-time social worker to work with the adult literacy program students. A similar model had been used with the teen parent program at the FLC.

A program grant, also from MAAL, allowed the FLC to contract with Heart of America Family Services (HASF), a counseling and family support agency serving the bistate Kansas City area, for the employment of a master's-level social worker (MSW). This grant was written to provide small group and individual counseling to assist students in removing barriers to their educational goals. Individual intervention was chosen to complement the instructional strategies used in the program. The proposal outlined a seamless system of support in meeting the social service needs of adult learners. By hiring a social worker, we hoped that AEL student attendance and GED attainment would increase, and that students would gain knowledge of community resources and problem-solving skills.

Nikki, the full-time MSW we hired through HAFS, serves students in three separate sites in the Independence community. Nikki uses an empowerment approach, which, in social work practice, is the process of helping individuals, families, groups, and communities to increase their personal, interpersonal, socioeconomic, and political strength and to develop influence toward improving their circumstances (Barker, 1995). The techniques Nikki uses include accepting the client's definition of a problem; identifying and building upon existing strengths; teaching specific empowering skills; and providing mediation and advocacy to mobilize community resources needed in a state of crisis. Nikki believes that the empowerment perspective has become an influential tool for students in the program she serves. Via individual counseling and small group instruction, she assists students in setting educational, career, and personal goals. In the first six months since she joined us, she has assisted 35 GED students in goal-setting. She has also provided short-term counseling, interpersonal relationship-building, academic instruction, and crisis intervention to 37 other students. Visiting individually with 73 students, Nikki has developed rapport with them. This has made the students more likely to depend on Nikki, rather than their classroom teachers, for assistance, thus allowing the teachers to focus on instruction.

Nikki has implemented Survival Skills for Women (http://www. flinthills.com/~ssed), a 10-week course that expands participants' growth and economic potential with sessions focusing on money management, child management, and re-entry to employment. Cindy was one of 10 graduates of the program and provided the inspirational speech at their graduation. Nikki also implemented a Young Men's Support Group for 10 males under the age of 25. This group met for six weeks, building positive relations between the members and strengthening the members' skills in areas chosen by them: making positive choices, job readiness, personal health, parenting, and assertiveness. Nikki has facilitated students' use of outside resources, referring 34 participants to support services such as treatment programs, housing, and vocational/technical services. She has built and maintained relationships with 23 community agencies.

Integration into FLC

As adult education and literacy, early education, and parenting staff interact with adult students, they refer them to Nikki and ask the learners' for permission to give Nikki their names. Nikki participates in weekly staff meetings to provide insight into family dynamics, confidentiality, and ways to address stressful situations. She is also available to staff for personal consultations, which facilitate their ability to be effective in the classroom setting.


It is an FLC AEL practice to compare attendance data to previous years. Since Nikki joined us, the average contact hours per day has risen from a three year average of 56 to 65.4 hours. The average students per day has risen from a three-year average of 14.2 to 17.7 students. Since July 1, 2001, 14 students have obtained their GED, including Cindy, with seven others scheduled to take the tests over the next two months. The number of GED recipients is slightly higher than in previous years.

The shock felt by the FLC staff when they realized how many students had serious barriers was probably the most unexpected outcome of the project. The initial planning grant enabled us to identify more precisely the barriers faced by our learners; however, the implementation of the project has revealed the magnitude of the issues in their lives:

43% Youth (ages 16-18) smoking cigarettes
21% Single-parent households
15% Youth living on their own without parental/guardian support
12% Inability to access reliable transportation to AEL site
7% Criminal behavior and involvement with probation and parole
4% Homeless 16 to 18 year olds
3% Suspected use/sale of illegal drugs

Adding a social worker to the AEL sites has been a successful endeavor that FLC's Board of Directors is committed to continuing. A reduced grant amount will be requested through the Alliance for an additional year of implementation. The program will be committing a portion of funding to the project in the upcoming year, along with United Way. During a recent dialogue, four students shared with Nikki their great appreciation for her assistance. They commented that her guidance, words of wisdom, and knowledge kept them coming to class even though they faced many challenges. Cindy and several other students wrote a poem for Nikki and gave her a candle, because she "was their light."

The multitude of services offered is a giant step toward meeting the personal and social needs of AEL students, allowing them to focus more energy on continuing their education. The addition of the student liaison social worker has demonstrated the center's proactive approach to best serve its participants like Cindy, once fearful and lacking hope, now enrolled in college and becoming equipped to achieve her goals and capture a promising future.


Barker, R.L. (1995). The Social Work Dictionary. Washington, DC: NASW Press.

Bergin, A.E., & Garfield, S.L. (1993). Handbook of Psychotherapy and Behavior Change. New York: Wiley, John & Sons, Inc.

Parad, H.J., & Parad, G.L. (1990). Crisis Intervention Book 2: The Practitioner's Sourcebook for Brief Therapy. Milwaukee: Family Service America.

About the Authors

Nikki Merritt, MSW, has worked in community based, school link social services for the past seven years.

Miriam Spencer, Executive Director of Family Literacy Center, has worked with family literacy programming for more than 10 years.

Lori Withers is a Parents as Teachers parent educator assigned to serve families within FLC's programming.


Updated 7/27/07 :: Copyright © 2005 NCSALL