Austin ISD Internship Program Increases Services to Homeless and At-Risk Students

by Mollie T. Marchione

Texas schoolchildren who are homeless face barriers to education that remain largely unnoticed by the general public. At many school campuses in the Austin Independent School District (AISD) there is an unmet need for additional counseling and social work services for homeless or at-risk students. However, a new collaboration involving the School of Social Work Office of Field Education, AISD, and CapCityKids, a private nonprofit, is providing this segment of the city’s school population with support and services to overcome obstacles and succeed.

Since 2007, CapCityKids has given more than $250,000 in grants to AISD for pilot programs aimed at discovering and implementing effective practices and procedures to minimize the problems that homeless students face. During the 2009-2010 school year, CapCityKids has also provided direct supplies and services to homeless students in AISD, including nearly 700 backpacks, school supplies, personal needs items, and city bus transportation.

“The focus of the CapCityKids Board of Directors is to get our benefits directly to the kids and to investigate and develop pilot programs that provide assistance in ways not currently available,” said board member Jim Cannon. He said that another board member, Joslyn Dobson, became aware of the possibility of increasing the social work services available to schoolchildren through the School of Social Work Field Education Office. CapCityKids provided funding to AISD to hire Kate Amerson, LCSW, and establish the Social Work Internship Program through Project HELP.

“The number of children who are homeless or at real risk of being homeless has gone up as the economy has gone down,” said Tanya Voss, assistant dean for field education at the School of Social Work. “CapCityKids has invested in those families by supporting a school-based unit of interns from the School of Social Work to provide services and a safety net at several AISD campuses. Alumna Kate Amerson has done an amazing job leading this program and making everything work for the kids and our interns.”

The Social Work Internship Program is a collaboration between two AISD departments: the Department of Family, School and Community Education and the Department of Learning Support Services. Amerson is the Social Work Intern Specialist with AISD Department of Family, School and Community Education, which includes the Project HELP (Homeless Education and Learning Program) program. Project HELP assists students in temporary living situations due to crisis and/or economic hardship, to enroll, participate and succeed in school by providing basic needs and academic services as well as linking students and their families to key AISD and local community support services. The AISD Department of Learning Support Services includes Guidance and Counseling, and the School to Community Liaisons program (SCL), both of which provide critical support to the social work internship.

As a School of Social Work Field Instructor, Amerson supervises eight social work graduate field interns (five first-year and three second-year MSSW students) who are providing direct services to more than 140 children and families on 13 AISD campuses this spring. Common themes Amerson identifies in working with the kids include special education needs, grief and loss, high mobility, incarceration of parents, substance abuse, and mental health.



Field Instructor Kate Amerson and social work graduate students have provided direct services to more than 140 children and families on 13 AISD campuses this spring.

“In order to make the best use of the social work interns, I work with the SCLs, Guidance and Counseling, and Project HELP to identify campuses that have a need for additional counseling/social work services but don’t have Communities in Schools, a full-time social worker, or other on-site support services,” said Amerson.

Each social work intern assists a school counselor and manages 4 to 6 individual student cases and facilitates small groups during the school day. Additionally, they provide outreach services to the students’ families as needed.  Claire Woll, a first-year MSSW intern, provides individual counseling services to students at Graham Elementary. She also counsels individual students at McCallum High School and, with another social work intern, co-facilitates a grief and loss group there that provides support to students currently dealing with loss.

“This internship opportunity has been incredibly rewarding and of extreme educational value. Through my internship, I have seen some of the most committed administrators, teachers and support staff who have been instrumental partners in advocating for students’ academic progress and educational development,” said Woll. “Despite the many programs that AISD provides to students and families, there is so much more need in this community. It truly takes a collaborative effort and through this internship I have enjoyed being welcomed and respected as part of the team.”

January Moult, a second-year MSSW intern, provides individual and group counseling to students in grades K-5 at Cook and Hart Elementary Schools. “This is a fantastic learning experience, working with larger macro-level issues that affect the students. My visits with parents allow me to hear their perspective on issues at school and also identify resources that families in crisis need,” said Moult.

Another aspect of the Social Work Internship Program through Project HELP is the opportunity for collaboration with community organizations. By partnering with For Love of Christi, a Travis- and Williamson County-based organization that provides free, ongoing grief support to anyone who has lost a loved one, the AISD Social Work Internship Program is providing grief and loss counseling services to students at McCallum High School and at Cook and Pease Elementary Schools.

Moult co-facilitates and prepares curriculum for a group of children in grades 3 and 4 who are dealing with the death of a parent. “It’s amazing for these grieving students to see that they’re not alone,” said Moult.

Teachers and guardians of children receiving services from the Social Work Internship Program tell Amerson they are already seeing benefits from this intervention. School counselors have personally thanked her for bringing in social work interns to assist them, and preliminary reviews indicate that a positive change is taking place.

“It feels good to be able to serve AISD campuses that have a need but don’t have the assistance available due to limited time and resources,” said Amerson. “We collaborate with the counselors and the SCLs to determine where the campuses are that have unmet needs plus a desire to host an intern, and get social work graduate interns there to help.”

Next, Amerson plans to work with Project HELP to increase awareness and identification of the homeless population at nine elementary schools; the goal is to increase the school’s capacity to serve these students and the district’s funding for this population. Her plans for the Social Work Internship Program in the 2010-2011 school year are to increase the number of social work interns and number of school campuses served, begin to work with additional middle- and high-schools that meet the criteria for placement, incorporate more evidence-based practice in the interns’ work, and increase collaborations with community agencies and district programs.

Jim Cannon says he’s excited about the development of the relationship between CapCityKids, AISD, and the School of Social Work. “It is a natural extension of our philosophy where we can partner with and provide funding to an existing structure to enhance the services directly reaching kids and their families. CapCityKids is greatly enhanced by the credibility that the UT School of Social Work lends to our partnership,” Cannon said. “Information to-date indicates that the program is producing very positive results, and we will be looking for ways to improve and expand the Social Work Internship Program.”