Interview with Maggie Brown, LCSW, PPSC on School Social Work

About Maggie Brown, LCSW, PPSC: Ms. Brown has worked as a bilingual school social worker with the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) for over 9 years. After graduating from her MSW program, she began working for SFUSD with the Child Development Program (currently the Early Education Department program), consulting with school staff, families, and child development centers throughout the city. After two years, she changed departments and worked as a school social worker for two elementary schools in the Mission District of San Francisco.

Ms. Brown earned her undergraduate degree from the University of North Carolina in 1997, where she double majored in Spanish and Psychology. She earned her MSW and PPSC credential at the University of California at Berkeley in 2003, where she specialized in School Social Work. She has been a Licensed Clinical Social Worker since 2011. Ms. Brown has traveled extensively, most often with a focus on Latin America, and has lived abroad several times. Most recently she lived in Madrid, Spain for two years while teaching English. Maggie Brown was compensated to participate in this interview.

[] Can you give an overview of your core responsibilities as a school social worker at SFUSD? What types of clients do you work with, and what kinds of challenges do they face? How do you support your clients through these challenges?

[Maggie Brown, LCSW, PPSC] I am currently at two elementary schools but next year I will be full-time at just one. One has approximately 500 students, is located in the Excelsior district and has both Spanish and Chinese immersion programs. The other is located in Noe Valley and is solely for Spanish speaking Newcomer students (new to the country) and has around 200 students currently. They stay for 1-2 years before transitioning to other schools in SFUSD.

Every elementary school in San Francisco has at least a half-time social worker, and I believe this is also true at the middle and high school levels as well. The elementary and K-8 cohorts meet monthly. Each social worker facilitates and coordinates the Student Assistance Program (SAP), which case manages students on an individual level, and also trouble shoots classroom and school wide climate, behavior, and discipline issues. The SAP team meets weekly and includes the principal, social worker, school psychologist (who assesses for learning disabilities), speech therapist (assesses for speech and language difficulties), school nurse and other support staff as needed (after school program, literacy teachers). Teachers fill out a “Request for Assistance” form and we discuss those students in SAP to get a multi-disciplinary perspective. Areas of concern may include academic, attendance, emotional or behavioral, family/home situations, and physical health/medical challenges. The form includes space for student strengths as well as prior interventions already tried. We then discuss next steps and how to move forward to support student success.

Frequently, the social worker will next schedule and facilitate Student Success Team (SST) meetings between teachers and the parents of children discussed in SAP team meetings. SST meetings are strengths-based, collaborative meetings between teachers and parents that seek to build on student success and to plan and implement interventions where needed. As the costs of living in San Francisco continue to rise, many students and families are confronted with issues of neighborhood violence, inadequate housing, limited opportunities for recreation, and financial stress. All of this can result in stress at home between family members, which often manifests in student behavioral, emotional, social, and/or academic issues.

Furthermore, Newcomer students in particular have the challenge of adjusting to being in a new country away from familiar supports and environments, and their families are often being reunited after many years of separation. Newcomer students have often not attended school consistently in their home countries and many are several years behind academically. I work closely with the Parent Liaison to provide twice monthly parent support groups that include information/presentations on various topics of child development and parenting (positive discipline, managing stress, navigating the school system, etc.) but also offer a chance for parents to connect with each other and share insights and information.

Even without having an SST meeting, school social workers constantly consult with teachers about particular students as well as larger classroom issues, and also help to facilitate the Special Education evaluation process (for students with possible learning disabilities). We are available to families to help link them to community resources as well as to provide some short-term counseling to students, individually and in groups. Our administrators rely on us to assist with behavioral issues and discipline as well.

[] Do you primarily engage in micro-level counseling work with students, or have you also engaged in educational programming for groups of students/assemblies? What opportunities would you say exist for school social workers to engage in mezzo and macro-level social work, such as student/staff workshops, trainings, research, and advocacy? How do you recommend students find and engage in these opportunities?

[Maggie Brown, LCSW, PPSC] My role has changed during my 7 years at the elementary level. I used to do much more individual and group counseling and I still am able to do some of that but I am finding that I am starting to be spread more thinly and pulled into a variety of tasks that make it difficult to maintain a consistent schedule with students.

I now meet monthly with an SFUSD attendance liaison in order to case manage students with truancy issues. This involves making contact with individual families who are struggling with attendance and consulting with teachers as well. One of my schools also received year-long training in Restorative Practices and I was on the planning committee for that effort. I was also part of the School Operations team, which meets to streamline school rules & discipline procedures.

Also, as SFUSD moves toward RTI (Response to Intervention), the social worker often becomes the person responsible for tracking the interventions online. Response to Intervention (RTI) is a “multi-tier approach to the early identification and support of students with learning and behavior needs,” according to the RTI Action Network website. The RTI process combines universal screening of all children in the general education classroom with high-quality instruction to try and improve learning outcomes and overall student support in the school setting.

In the RTI model, schools provide students who are struggling with their studies with interventions that increase in intensity according to their needs, and which are aimed at accelerating students’ academic progress. Basically there are three tiers of interventions for both academics and behavior; tier 1 is universal (every student is receiving the intervention), while tiers 2 and 3 are more targeted and specific (may be for small groups or on an individual level). Examples of tier 2 behavioral interventions may include small group social skills trainings, a school-to-home note or a behavioral contract. Tier 3 interventions may include family therapy at a mental health agency or an evaluation by Special Education or an outside provider. RTI is an attempt to reduce referrals to Special Education by intervening earlier. Many other states and school districts have already adopted RTI.

We are also involved in determining eligibility and creating 504 plans. Section 504 is a federal civil rights law that allows for accommodations and modifications for students with special health needs. These students are mostly not eligible for Special Education, but still have needs that must be addressed in order to participate fully in their education. This could include a child with a chronic illness or a hearing disorder, for example. SFUSD has recently added a behavior observation that must be conducted by the social worker, and as one of my schools does not have a nurse, I am the 504 coordinator as well.

I am still very involved in the SAP and SST processes; that is one of our main roles at the elementary level. I prepare the agenda and facilitate the meetings and we rotate roles for taking notes, giving feedback, and providing updates to teachers. The SAP team meets weekly and I typically have 3-4 SSTs each week. I may see 4-5 students for individual counseling and about the same number of small groups or dyads weekly. The topics of discussion for these groups are usually around friendship and social skills. I typically meet formally or informally with the principal 2-3 times a week and provide support for behavior issues as needed. Teacher consultations are ongoing. At the Newcomer school, I leave space in my schedule to meet with families on an as needed basis. Next year I will be full time at one school, and am hoping to have more time to present Second Step lessons in each classroom (Second Step is a tier 1 social/emotional curriculum that is presented to the entire class at once).

[] Why did you decide to become a school social worker, and what have been some of the most rewarding experiences you have had during your seven years at SFUSD?

[Maggie Brown, LCSW, PPSC] While in college, I considered studying Clinical Psychology in graduate school but I spent six months volunteering with families living in extreme poverty in Guatemala after graduation and decided to change course and focus on social work instead. I became more interested in social justice and realized that many people have difficulty getting their basic needs met; social work focuses on meeting people “where they are” and working with what the highest priority need is at that time, not just on psychological disorders.

I worked as a counselor on a residential unit in Maine and then as a Behavior Specialist at a Non Public School for students with Emotional Disturbance after moving to San Francisco, so I was always interested in children and their relationships at/with school.

Some of my most rewarding experiences have been working with the Latino community in San Francisco and in particular at the school for Newcomers. Moving to a new country is such a unique time in the life cycle of a family that it feels like we are able to have a big impact when we intervene early.

[] On the other hand, what are the most challenging aspects of your job?

[Maggie Brown, LCSW, PPSC] I never had doubts about my profession, although it can certainly be stressful and there are always a lot of pieces to manage. I find that working closely with the SAP team helps to form community and share the workload, since there usually aren’t other mental health staff on-site. Also, creating strong boundaries has always been important for me, since the work is really never done. A specific challenge for me is helping families look for resources when they become homeless since there is such a high need for affordable housing in San Francisco. It can be emotionally draining to support families as they wait 3-6 months for shelters to become available and often have to check into emergency shelters on a daily basis in the meantime. We also have many families dealing with immigration and deportation issues, which is obviously hard on families. Luckily San Francisco has many resources available and we work in close collaboration with community agencies.

[] How do you recommend students who are interested in school social work prepare for the specific responsibilities and challenges of this profession?

[Maggie Brown, LCSW, PPSC] I recommend that people make certain that they are pursuing the career/degree that is correct for them; for example, being a therapist in a mental health agency is a very different experience. Part of being a school social worker is viewing the entire school as your client, which includes teachers, after school staff, the secretary etc. Being comfortable with a wide variety of people is helpful. My university did not offer an undergraduate degree in Social Work at that time but I think studying Psychology was a good foundation and I would recommend that rather than Child Development/Early Education if given the option. Volunteering at schools may help in getting familiar with students and the school environment but the field internship is irreplaceable, in my opinion.

Thank you Ms. Brown for your time and insights into school social work.

Last updated: April 2020