Building strong home, school and community networks is key to student success, says Milton Elementary social worker Gloria Ho, the first person in Delaware to become nationally certified by the School Social Work Association of America.
Criteria for school social workers seeking national certification include a master’s degree in social work, at least four years postgraduate experience as a school social worker, current active licensure or certification, and active membership in the SSWAA.
SSWAA spokesperson Ali Langen said Ho is also the 11th person nationwide to receive the certification.
Becoming a school social worker wasn’t the Dover native’s first goal; she originally planned on law school but decided against it.
“I knew I wanted to help children even back then, so I’m very happy with the life decision I made,” she said.
After receiving her bachelor’s degree in philosophy from West Virginia University, Ho accepted a full-time job in Wilmington and took a night class in sociology at the University of Delaware. She enjoyed research, history and the study of people, and when she learned about social work, it seemed like a perfect fit.
Ho returned to West Virginia University to earn her master’s degree in social work, focusing on children and families. After graduation, she worked for the then-Delaware Division of Child Mental Health as a psychiatric social worker before joining the Delaware Guidance Services children’s crisis unit.
After seven years as a family crisis therapist at Lake Forest Elementary, Ho joined Milton Elementary in 2005 as one of the area’s first school social workers.
“Cape was one of the very first districts that understood there was an intersectionality of mental health, equity and student achievement,” Ho said. “I give credit to Cape, because 17 years ago, they already had school social workers in place to address the whole child, not just their academic needs.”
Now, Ho said, schools recognize the need for social workers to help not just kids, but families as well. And House Bill 100, which was signed into law in August 2021, helped advance the profession by establishing a mental health services unit in Delaware schools, she said.
Ho said students’ mental health needs increased during the pandemic. When students worked remotely, Ho adapted her role to serve children by visiting their homes to deliver school supplies, iPads, mobile hot spots and bags of food.
“The pandemic has really shown us the inequities for students who were remote learning and didn’t have access to the internet, or lunches from school, things we take for granted,” she said.
Many students who returned to in-person learning had lost their social skills and stamina, Ho said. Unaccustomed to being in school all day, they were tired and acting out, had trouble paying attention, and many felt the loss of friendships, routines and connections with teachers, she said.
Every day is different for Ho, who manages a caseload of students, provides individual and group counseling, oversees students who are temporarily experiencing homelessness, responds to crisis interventions, performs risk assessments and serves as the mental health lead for the district.
Ho is proud to note that Milton Elementary now has Delaware’s only nationally certified school mental health team, which includes counselor Mindy Adams and psychologist Heather Flood.
“I’m happy and proud the district supports professional development in advanced certifications,” she said. “It’s nice to have the support.”
In addition to her work in the school, Ho is co-president and founding member of the School Social Workers Association of Delaware, a board member of the Harry K Foundation, and on the Cape Community Minority Liaison Committee.
In all, Ho says she has a challenging but very satisfying job.
“When you see these kids grow up, do well, and be successful and happy,” she said, “you definitely feel a sense of pride and happiness.”