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History of School Social Work

By Dr. Dee Stalnecker, LSW, BCBA, SSWAA Board Member

School social work has its roots in the fundamental social work values of helping the under-privileged employed through settlement houses (Allen, 1928; Allen-Mears, 1996,2004, 2006; Costin, 1969; Sugrue, 2017). Initially called, “visiting teachers,” school social workers acted as a liaison between home and school by emphasizing the value of education to parents and informing teachers some of the barriers students experience at home (Allen-Mears, 2004, 2006; Costin, 1969; Sugrue, 2017). The profession emerged circa 1906 when, almost simultaneously, three major cities, Boston, MA, New York, NY, and Hartford, CT responded to a need for better communication between schools and homes (Allen-Mears, 2004, 2006; Costin, 1969; Sugrue, 2017). Often omitted in the abbreviated history of school social work, original works by Ethel B. Allen (1928) and Julius Oppenheimer (1924) identified not only the pioneering efforts of visiting teachers as a profession, but the names of the women who laid the foundation of school social work and are owed due recognition.

Mary Marot, a teacher, is credited with the idea of school-home visiting and in the winter of 1905 began to flesh out her idea by visiting several schools in Chicago and New York City before landing at the Lighthouse Settlement, Philadelphia. There, she was able to extend purposeful visits from the school to the home and shared school report information with the families (Allen, 1928; Oppenheimer, 1924; Staring, Aldridge, & Bouchard, 2015). She returned to New York City in the spring of 1906 to implement her experimental idea and went to the Hartley House Settlement to continue her work as a liaison between schools and homes with a goal to provide better education for the whole child (Allen, 1928; Oppenheimer, 1924; Staring et al., 2015). About the same time, Miss Elisabeth Roemer, head worker of New York City’s Greenwich House, also identified a need for visiting teachers to courier information between the homes and school and allowed many teachers who were interested in student’s home life to accompany social workers so they too could garner an understanding of their pupil’s circumstances and improve a child’s educational experience (Allen, 1928; Allen-Mears, 2004, 2006; Costin, 1969).

New York also led the visiting teacher movement by hosting the first formal meeting to discuss the practice of home and school visiting. In the summer of 1906 under the name “Committee on Home and School Visiting”, Mary Marot, along with Elizabeth Williams from the College Settlement, Philadelphia; Elisabeth Roemer, Richmond Hill House, Philadelphia; and Effie Abrams, Greenwich House, and the Public Education Association, assembled to share experiences toward the advancement of their work in home and school visiting (Allen, 1928). As a result, the Public Education Association became the first organization to formally employ a visiting teacher in October of 1907 (Allen, 1928; Oppenheimer, 1924). They chose Miss Jane Day who initially worked in Louisville, Kentucky as a teacher and became interested in visiting teaching as a means of linking the home and school. In 1907, she traveled to New York City to study social work and lived at Richmond Hill House where she honed her social work skills (Allen, 1928). Later that year she was hired by the Public Education Association, was given the title ‘Home and School Visitor’, and worked in lower New York City School District (Allen, 1928; Oppenheimer, 1924). The following year her title was changed to ‘Visiting Teacher’ and those in the profession held that title until 1942 when the profession became known as ‘School Social Work’ (Allen, 1928; McCullagh, 1986).

While New York was discovering the usefulness of visiting teachers in 1906, so were Hartford and Boston. Sara Holbrook was an assistant to Dr. George E. Dawson, Director of the Psychological Clinic in Hartford, Connecticut, who conducted psychological testing at the Barnard School (Allen, 1928; Oppenheimer, 1924). She was first identified as a ‘Special Teacher’ (Oppenheimer, 1924) because she visited homes to complete social histories and implemented treatment plans for children in the clinic (Allen-Mears, 2004, 2006). As a result of her multiple environment assessment, observations of the student’s home and environment were added to the report and provided valuable information to educating the whole child (Sugrae, 2017).

Meanwhile in Boston, Massachusetts, Mrs. Joseph Lee is credited with initiating home visiting programs, similar to that of New York, in settlement houses where the need for a cooperative union between homes and schools was identified due to the ongoing misunderstandings of both environments resulting in educational injustices of the student (Allen, 1928, Oppenheimer, 1924). The Women’s Education Association in Boston initially financed the visiting teacher in the South End (Boston was delineated by directional sections) and after successfully demonstrating the effectiveness of a visiting teacher, expanded their support throughout the city until 1913, when schools began to hire and finance their own visiting teachers (Allen, 1928).

Between 1913-1921, Boards of Education and the National Committee on Visiting Teachers placed visiting teachers in schools along the east coast into Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Vermont; to the south in Virginia, Georgia, North Carolina, Kentucky, and Alabama, and expanded to the west through Ohio, Illinois, South Dakota, Missouri, Michigan, Iowa, Minneapolis, and Kansas (Oppenheimer, 1924). In addition, in November 1921, the Commonwealth Fund financed a national visiting teacher program by placing thirty visiting teachers in rural and urban communities as part of their efforts in the Program for the Prevention of Delinquency (Allen, 1928, Allen-Mears, 2004, 2006). The experiment was successful and when the funds were withdrawn in 1930, twenty-one communities continued to financially support the visiting teachers and thirty-one states accounted for the 244 school social workers placed in schools (Allen-Mears 2004, 2006).


Dr. Dee Stalnecker is a school social worker in Hershey, PA. Her primary role is to connect families to resources, truancy prevention, and addressing food insecurities. She completed a DSW through Millersville/Kutztown Universities joint program. She holds an MSW from Temple University, and is a board-certified behavior analyst. She is the vice-president of the Pennsylvania Association of School Social Work Personnel (PASSWP) and the Northeast Representative Board Member of SSWAA.

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12 hours ago

When bored in class, think about what things to do when bored in class like doodling or making to-do lists. You can also write a short story or plan your next break. Observing your surroundings or organizing your backpack are good ways to stay busy when you think of what things to do when bored in class.

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