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Let’s Start at the Very Beginning


The School Social Work Association of America is pleased to begin our 30th Anniversary blog series regarding the creation and development of SSWAA by providing a little history of School Social Work organizations which actually began as “Visiting Teacher” associations. It was not until later that “visiting teachers” became known as “school social workers”. This blog will then highlight an interview with Randy Fisher, who served as the first President of SSWAA starting in 1996 and then was hired as Executive Director from 2001 to 2006, regarding his observations of organizational development in the years from 1970 until 1996.

The first organization of “Visiting Teachers” was the “Committee on Home and School Visiting” led by Mary Marot in 1906, which included visiting teachers who were experimenting with their practice (Allen, 1928; Staring, et al, 2015). The Public Education Association was interested in the advancement of public schools and curious about Marot’s movement (Allen, 1928; Staring, et al., 2015). Therefore, they welcomed the Committee on Home and School Visiting into their auspices and provided their strong political and organization support to the expansion of this new profession (Allen, 1928; Staring, et al., 2015). The National Visiting Teachers Association (NVTA) was formed in 1916 and three years later the NVTA re-organized as the National Association of Visiting Teachers and Home and School Visitors with Jane Culbert as president (Allen, 1928; Staring et al., 2015; Flexner, 1915). The primary purpose of the NVTA was to define the role of school social workers (SSW), develop standards of practice and training, and develop school social work programming in all schools (Allen, 1928; Flexner, 1915). The organization went through many name changes; American Association of Visiting Teachers [1929], American Association of School Social Workers [1942], and the National Association of School Social Workers [1945] (McCullagh, 1986.). However, in 1955, The National Association of School Social Workers merged with The National Association of Social Work (NASW), along with six other national, but separate, social work organizations.

Although the merging of all branches of social work professions may have been appropriate for the time, generalized social work did not consistently meet the needs of specialized fields (Allen-Meares, 1999; McDonald, et al, 1999). As a result, NASW developed specialty practice sections including school social work. Over the next several years, perhaps because NASW’s focus was primarily on the broad field of Social Work, the National Association of State Consultants in School Social Work representing Illinois, Iowa, and Wisconsin took it upon themselves to meet regularly to promote and elevate the profession. They invited state departments of education as well as SSW consultants from neighboring states to the meetings where it was decided a national SSW conference was needed to clarify the role of SSWs. Eventually, the first Midwest School Social Work Conference was held in September 1968 in Illinois where 600 people attended (and 200 were turned away due to reaching capacity).

Randy, you came onto the school social work scene in the 1970s. At that time NASW had a specialty section for school social workers and there was a school social work group meeting in the Midwest . What happened during this time and between the various organizations?

I would hear the more experienced school social workers expressing feelings around a perceived lack of attention from NASW regarding school social work issues. That feeling came to a dramatic head at the 1976 Midwest School Social Work Conference held in Chicago where two forces came together at the conference. First, was the attendance of Molly Freeman, who was the newly hired NASW school social work staff person in Washington, D.C. Ms. Freeman was eager to represent NASW’s future with school social work but powerless to defend their earlier record in regard to school social work. There had been no staff person focused on school social work prior to her hire and unfortunately many in attendance projected that perceived slight directly onto Ms. Freeman. One would think the assembled school social work community would have greeted her with open arms, but that didn’t happen.

The second force was P.L. 94-142, The Education for All Handicapped Children’s Act of 1975. The Midwest group had read the Act and failed to find “school social work” mentioned. Remember, school social workers were excluded as a related service and therefore not identified as a profession who could provide counseling or supportive service to students with disabilities. The immediate blame was directed at NASW and their perceived lack of attention to this major law affecting the core of school social work practice. This was the first organized airing of grievances in a public forum. Ms. Freeman took the information back to NASW but had little power for major changes.

What was NASW’s response to these grievances?

While nothing came of this feedback at the time, some seeds were planted regarding the NASW’s national presence on behalf of school social work. A Commission was founded made up of five members of the school social work community; a school social work journal, Social Work in Education, was begun in 1977 (a year after the Illinois Association of School Social Workers began the School Social Work Journal); and a National School Social Work Conference was sponsored by NASW in Denver in 1978, Washington DC in 1981 and New Orleans in 1985. The first edition of School Social Work Standards was published fulfilling a great need in school social work. NASW also heard the concerns of school social workers and increased lobbying efforts on the implementation of P.L. 94-146 where school social workers were eventually included under related services.

One interesting footnote was that Molly Freeman addressed the issue of the potential formation of a new national school social work association in a memo to NASW Executive Director Chancy Alexander. She named two groups that might be the source of that movement, the Midwest School Social Work Council and the Illinois Association of School Social Workers. Her prediction came true some 18 years later.

How else were school social workers navigating the profession at the time?

In 1981 Ms. Freeman resigned and Isadora Hare, a former school social worker, joined NASW as the national resource person for school social work. Isadora Hare was very engaged and went to meetings and conferences but by the end of the 1980s NASW had financial difficulties which led to restructuring of the national office and Isadora Hare moved into the management track at NASW. It was during this time frame the NASW specialty groups, including the School Social Work Section, ceased to exist.

What other SSW organizations were formed or already formed?

In the meantime, independent school social work associations were still strong in twenty states and collectively in three regional councils (Southern, Midwest, and Western). In response to the perceived national void, the National Council of School Social Work (NCSSW) was formed in 1991, ironically enough at a Midwest School Social Work Conference in Illinois (remember the original conference group from the late 1960’s referenced above).

Members of the NCSSW were nominated from across the nation. My first impression of the composition of the group was that the majority of the members had strong ties to NASW and I didn’t think was a group that was going to form a new association. Each region was invited to send 2 people, a couple professors and a couple of ‘at large’ people. They met 4 times with two of those times in person. Unfortunately, the roadblock facing the committee was not the formation of a national group, but the lack of funding of the Council. Without a source of funding to support travel, lodging and meals for Council members; the viability of the Council quickly waned. It served its purpose for a year, but probably delayed the development of SSWAA by a year or two.

It sounds like school social workers always maintained unofficial organizations albeit through states or regions. What eventually moved everyone to a national model?

In 1993, two of the Midwest School Social Work Council members, Greg Petty (Illinois) and Sally Carlson (Wisconsin) took the initiative and proposed a meeting of leaders from the state associations and the other regional groups i.e. the Western Alliance of SSW Organizations, and the Southern Council of SSWs. The Illinois Association of School Social Workers (IASSW) agreed to help fund the meeting which took the place of their annual summer retreat. I furnished a mailing list of national leaders I maintained in order to keep my bibliography up to date. Invitations were sent out by the Midwest Council and the response was positive. The site of the July 1994 weekend meeting was at the Edwardsville campus of the Southern Illinois University near St. Louis. Sixty-two people from 19 states arrived for the three-day retreat. Isadora Hare was invited but unavailable for the meeting but NASW sent another representative to the gathering.

It was evident that the consensus favored the formation of an independent national association. When the formal vote was taken there were only two dissenting votes. The remainder of the meeting was spent on the basic framework of the association. This included supporting an individual membership model and the election of a steering committee until elections could be held in October, 1995.

The following statement of purpose was written and accepted by the Edwardsville gathering:

“The School Social Work Association of America (1995) is dedicated to promoting the professional development of School Social Workers to work with students and their families in order to enhance their educational experiences. This will be accomplished by:

· Offering opportunities of ongoing professional development

· Opening nationwide channels of communication and information sharing

· Responding in a timely and efficient manner to the changing needs of school social


· Influencing public policy and educational issues

· Demonstrating school social workers’ effectiveness through evaluation and research

· Linking home, school and community on behalf of students and their families”

Founding Members were those who were at Edwardsville. Anyone who joined in 1994 or 1995 was designated a Charter Member. The first group had included 60 members and 500 qualified as Charter Members. Charter Members received a small plaque celebrating their membership. Dues were established at $50 with a student rate of $20. The members came from thirty-five states and 20 members were students. The Northeast also developed the Northeast Council of School Social Workers and joined SSWAA. SSWAA’s constitution and bylaws were adopted the following summer during a meeting open to all SSWAA members. The Nominations Committee developed a slate for the first SSWAA election. The election took place in October 1995 with the newly elected board to take office on January 1, 1996. At that time, I was elected as the first SSWAA President.

Thank you, Randy, for your insights on the immediate history leading up to the formation of SSWAA. Thank you as well for your years of hard work and commitment not only in the years leading up to SSWAA but especially for piloting the beginnings of this Association from your role as Steering Committee Chair, to President, to Executive Director and Conference Director. SSWAA as well as the profession of School Social Work are greatly indebted to you for your unwavering passion and devotion to serving and developing the profession of School Social Work. We look forward to upcoming blogs from other school social work pioneers and early leaders with the School Social Work Association of America (SSWAA).


Dr. Dee Stalnecker is a school social worker at Derry Township School District in Hershey, PA. She completed a DSW through Millersville/Kutztown Universities and her dissertation, Revisiting the Visiting Teacher: A Historical Analysis of School Social Work Identity, highlights the role of home visiting, perceptions of school colleagues about school social work, and how the profession has evolved throughout the last 100 plus years. Randy Fisher’s extensive historical library of SSW was the foundation of her work.

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