Tabor returns to social welfare field with new program

Debbie Gray has been heading the effort to launch the Social Welfare degree at Tabor College.

If all goes as planned, Tabor College students will be able to earn a degree that will prepare them to pass the state licensure exam, enabling them to practice social work in Kansas.

That?s the primary goal for the first social welfare graduates from the college?s recently added major, said Debbie Gray, assistant professor of social welfare.

As director of the new program, Gray has spent much of the summer developing policies and program curriculum to send to the Behavioral Sciences Regulatory Board of Kansas for its approval.

BRSB is authorized by the Legislature to regulate and license social workers in Kansas.

?Even though we would not be accredited (as a social work program), the board would look at our program and say, ?OK, it has the fundamentals of this; (graduates) can go ahead and sit for the exam,?? said Gray, adding those who graduate from accredited social work programs can automatically sit for the licensure exam.

BSRB currently licenses 1,970 social workers at the bachelor-degree level in Kansas, according to its Web site.

?Kansas is very strict,? said Gray, who earned her master?s degree in social work at the University of Illinois in Chicago in 1992. ?You cannot do social work or you cannot be a social worker unless you?re licensed.?

This is not true of all states, Gray said, such as California, where she worked as a child-abuse investigator for an arm of the juvenile court system before moving to Hillsboro in 2006 with her family.

Her husband, Del, is a New Testament scholar and teaches in the Department of Religious and Biblical Studies at Tabor.

Professional limits

Most recently, Tabor students who wanted to work in helping-profession positions would major in sociology and primarily get entry-level jobs after graduation.

?Different agencies we (department faculty) have talked to are saying they need interns or qualified social workers, but unless they?re licensed, they cannot hire them,? Gray said. ?There?s this vacuum that we desperately want to (fill).?

At the undergraduate level, social work programs train students to be generalists who ?work in different areas with different kinds of people,? Gray said.

?It gives them a basic foundation?how to work with people, how to look at them in their environment, their strengths and how to provide services for them.?

Previous program

Tabor was the first private college in Kansas to have an undergraduate social work program. The program, begun by John Bower in 1968, was first accredited in 1974 and re-accredited in 1980 and 1984.

The program was discontinued in 1991 because of low enrollment, staff turnover and decreases in funding, Gray said.

?It was sad that (the previous program) was dropped,? Gray said. ?It?s going to take so much money to get it back.?

Others, as well, have looked back on that decision with regret.

?When I came (to Tabor), it was again one of those decisions I would hear again and again people bemoan as a decision that was a regretful one,? said Lawrence Ressler, who assumed the role of vice president of academic affairs and student development in 2005.

?It may have been a necessary decision, but it was a decision that even nearly 20 years later, people still look back with some sense of sadness, almost a sense of duty,? he said.

Theological fit

With Tabor grounded in Anabaptist theology, having a social work program seems to be a good fit.

?Of any schools that should have a social work program, a Mennonite or Mennonite Brethren should,? Ressler said. ?Social work seems to be a major that is highly consistent with theology, mission and service.?

Ressler himself holds a doctorate in social work and has developed social work programs at several other private institutions.

Without a social work major at Tabor, students wanting professional people skills usually chose a sociology/sociological practices major at Tabor.

That major prepares students to be paraprofessionals, Ressler said.

?So we have graduates going to Prairie View and other agencies,? Ressler said. ?They?re just not as well prepared as what a social worker would be if we had a degree.?

State standards

Ressler reviewed the Kansas state licensing law and talked with members of the regulatory board.

?What I discovered when I went up and met with them (is) the state does not approve programs,? he said. ?But they will allow students who graduate from recognized programs to sit for the exam.

?They?re not in the business of putting together site teams, they don?t look at curriculum, they do all that, but they do have an oversight committee. So they were delighted, because in fact, anybody can appeal from the state and ask to sit for the exam if they can show they meet the requirements.?

The state?s standards involve students having 400 hours in the field, the kinds of courses/areas taken and requiring that two faculty teach in the program. These standards, he said, align with those of the Council on Social Work Education, which accredits social work programs.

Because social work practice courses must be taught by a faculty member with an MSW degree and two years of post-graduate work, Ressler said Gray will teach those courses.

?There?s no prohibition from having other qualified people teach the courses,? he said. ?We have three people in the Depart?ment of Behavioral and Social Science. What we believe is that these three people?together?provide more than the two that they?re calling for.?

In addition to Gray, the department includes chair Brian Mills, assistant professor of psychology, and Jeanelle Herrel, assistant professor of family studies.

Gray and her colleagues are building a program to meet these state standards.

?It was for integrity reasons that (the new program offers) a social welfare degree,? Ressler said, adding the term ?social work? implies courses or degree programs have been approved by the state or CSWE accredited.

The state regulatory board will determine whether the program meets those standards.

?But we?ve positioned ourselves and redesigned (the courses) for two things: to meet the state guidelines and with an eye to CSWE,? Ressler said. ?When we reach the size, and have the resources to proceed toward accreditation, there will be some changes, but it?s not going to overhaul the whole curriculum. It?s got the skeleton, structure or framework that allows you to move right toward CSWE.?

Tabor?s social welfare major includes entry-level classes, upper-level core classes of practice and policy, internship hours, and research and ethics components.

?A huge piece that?s getting added this year is a seminar on integrity and ethics?what does it mean to be a Christian in this field and how to deal with ethical decisions,? Gray said. ?That?s where we have a niche. That?s what Tabor?s good at.?

About 10 seniors are registered as majors and 11 are signed up for the fall semester introductory class, Gray said, adding she believes Tabor?s students will benefit from this major.

?We have some really quality students that desire to work in the inner city or with kids at risk,? she said. ?They have this craving to make a difference. We hope this program will give them the tools to do that.?

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