This week, a Florida teen committed suicide on the campus of her Orlando High School. In a post-Parkland world, tragedies like this reinforce the need for mental health professionals in our school. But Investigative Reporter Katie LaGrone discovers a test is forcing some school social workers out.
In our two-year long quest to understand why Florida’s teacher licensing exam has resulted in so many repeat failures, we recently found Julie Grace.
Grace is a college educated, master’s degree-holder who recently lost her job at a Florida middle school because she couldn’t pass the state’s General Knowledge math test. The test is one of four must-pass teacher tests for anyone who wants to teach in a public Florida classroom.
But Julie’s story is a little different. For starters, she isn’t a teacher.
“I never planned to be a teacher. I always wanted to be a social worker,” she told us.
A former juvenile probation officer and director of a drug treatment program, Grace eventually turned to social work and was hired last year by the Brevard County School district to be her school’s only social worker at the time.
“I loved it, I absolutely loved it,” she said. Grace questions why a school social worker needs to pass a test designed for teachers.
“Passing a math test when I don’t do any education stuff? I don’t think that should be a requirement,” she said.
But according to the Florida Department of Education and Florida statutes, school social workers are considered educators and are required to take and pass the General Knowledge part of the Florida Teacher Certification Exam (FTCE).
Across the state, we’ve learned a few handful of school social workers lost their jobs last year because they couldn’t pass the test, this year more are also at risk.
It’s a requirement frustrated examinees like Grace question, especially when the state has made providing mental health help a priority in schools. Shortly after the Parkland shooting on Valentine’s Day in 2018, the state legislature approved an historic $69 million dollars go to schools to improve how it helps students in crisis.
Florida Senator Manny Diaz, Jr (R) of Miami leads an education committee. He had no idea school social workers had to pass the state’s teacher certification test.
“That’s disturbing, that’s disturbing,” he said. “If a social worker can do they’re job effectively, math is not necessarily relevant to that as far as I know,” he said.
Diaz recently filed SB 7070, which is aimed at helping teachers struggling to pass the test, which was made tougher in 2015. The bill, however, does not address school social workers on campus who are struggling to pass.
Julie Grace took the math portion of a total of six times. She’s now out of the field of helping kids in crisis because of a state test, she just couldn’t survive.
“I’m not going to give up. But this really needs to be changed. This isn’t right,” she said through tears.
A spokesperson with the Florida Department of Education tells us the Florida Board of Education will be voting a on a new rule that will allow school social workers to be exempt from taking the teacher certification test if they hold a state license in social work. The board votes next week. If approved, the new rule will take effect during the 2019-2020 school year.