Journey with the CAST Curriculum: University of WI – Eau Claire’s Social Work Program

Title IV-E Funding & CAST:
An Empowering Combination

Shared with us by Dr. Jamie Tester Morfoot, Assistant Professor of Social Work at UWEC

Bachelor of Social Work students at the University of Wisconsin – Eau Claire have had the option of earning a certificate focused on child welfare for more than 20 years; but in October 2015, our department began to explore the idea of shifting our in-house certificate to a CAST Certificate. As social work educators, we were aware of the high turnover rates in Child Protection and Initial Intervention positions and committed to creating changes in our curriculum to better prepare students for the reality of the profession to address this turnover crisis and its negatively impacts on children and families.

Implementing CAST

The first step we took was to have a faculty member attend a CAST Conference focused on the intricacies of implementing the CAST Curriculum. We knew that providing our students with a nationally recognized certificate would make them better prepared and more competitive in the job market, but we were unsure of how to improve what we had traditionally been doing. That conference helped immensely. We were provided with a “How To” manual of syllabi and clear explanation of what a CAST program needed to include. It provided our program with connections to individuals who had already started their own CAST programs and were willing to walk us through the process over the next five years.  These individuals also became partners who provided other educational opportunities for our students as we became more engaged in the CAST network. Overall, attending the CAST Conference made the idea of a CAST program at UWEC a more realistic and tangible goal.

We explored the courses we already offered and examined where we could adjust our course content versus creating a whole new course. In the end, we realized we could utilize three already existing courses with some small tweaks and that we would need to create one additional course. We secured internal funding for course development as a summer project with the intent of Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL) Research to be conducted.  The new course was originally scheduled to launch in fall 2019, but due to enrollment concerns caused by a pre-requisite course, we decided to wait a semester and run the course for the first time in spring 2020.

Developing Experiential Learning Opportunities

At the same time as our incremental curriculum adjustments, UWEC was focused on what we could change more quickly. In the fall of 2016, we met with community partners and sought their input and support for our changing program. Our outreach included local judges, attorneys, social workers, educators, and medical facilities. These discussions assisted us in understanding what skills stakeholders from our students as child welfare workers graduating from our program. Overwhelmingly, the message we heard was that students needed to be prepared for the steep learning curve and ready for the high level of documentation involved in child welfare work.  To better prepare students for the steep learning curve that can lead to burnout and turnover, we became intentional and transparent with sharing the quantitative data we had, high percentage of our students passing the licensing exam on the first try; and the qualitative data, consistent feedback from area supervisors regarding the high level of competence our graduates showed, to create an internal message for our students that they leave our program more prepared than they may feel in those early days of their career. By providing data to support our message we saw the shift in our students understanding that it is not just that we believe in them, the outside data told us they were competent and capable.

We added to this by developing more experiential learning opportunities to practice and demonstrate skills. We addressed this by cultivating a partnership with the University of Illinois – Springfield Child Protection Training Academy and offered a seven-day domestic immersion for UWEC students. The first immersion cohort of eight students traveled in May 2017. This immersion allowed students to practice investigation in the mock house and interviewing skills with the training academy’s actors. Students experienced what it felt like to be questioned and to testify in the mock courtroom. The immersion also involved traveling to Chicago and visiting the Cook County Child Advocacy Center. This allowed our students, many of whom come from rural Wisconsin, to better understand the differences between urban and rural child welfare work. This experience and partnership not only challenged our students, but also our faculty. We returned to the UWEC campus and began looking for ways to create similar experiences for our students who are not able to travel. The result: a repurposed classroom that now resembles an efficiency apartment came to fruition in the fall of 2019 (pictured).

Students take courses focused on interviewing skills, facilitating groups, and conducting home visits. Using the mock apartment for lab sessions, we have seen changes in the way that students experience and practice their skills. It has added to class discussion around safety, awareness, and secondary observation skills that workers rely on when stepping into a client’s living environment. By simply being in a “home” it changes the way that students learn or view the content being presented.

Receiving Title IV-E Funding

While we were confident that the addition of the immersion experience, mock apartment, and Advanced Child Welfare course would improve the overall preparation of students interested in child welfare work, our program also wanted to provide financial support to students who expressed a commitment to social work practice in a child welfare setting. Many students within our major report working 25 – 30+ hours each week while maintaining a full course load of five classes. Our program began to explore ways to ease the financial burden for students interested in pursuing positions in child welfare both in the short and long term. In 2017, UWEC Social Work Program applied for and was awarded a Federal Title IV-E grant. Title IV-E is Federally earmarked funds in the Social Security Act designated to provide financial support for the education and training of students interested in a career in public child welfare. The program was established with the intent to strengthen the child welfare workforce with the hope of reducing the turnover rate by better preparing professionals on what the job will look like before they get there. The funding received by UWEC allows the program to award up to eight students with full tuition coverage for one year as well as a$1,800 stipend.

To become a UWEC Title IV-E grant recipient, interested students must apply three semesters prior to graduation. Applications are evaluated by a team consisting of faculty and community partners. Selected students participate in interviews conducted by the same team. Chosen recipients then receive funding for their final two semesters within the Social Work program. Recipients are required to complete six credits of child welfare specific course work (the same classes as for the CAST Certificate) and participate in the one-week domestic immersion in Illinois (University of Illinois Springfield CAST program).  The cost for participation in the immersion is fully covered through the Title IV-E grant. Recipients sign a contract agreeing to provide month for month employment payback (12 months) in a county, state, or tribal child welfare agency in the State of Wisconsin upon graduation.

As an accredited Social Work Program, students complete a 12-credit internship during their last semester. UWEC’s Social Work Department has formed close partnerships with the three county agencies within 20 miles of UWEC, as well as the State of WI Department of Children and Families Eau Claire Office and with two tribal welfare agencies. Title IV-E students are placed directly within these agencies for 432 hours of internship (32 hours/week) over the course of a semester. Recipients receive firsthand experience focused on CPS, Initial Intervention, and Juvenile Justice work. In addition, Title IV-E recipients are provided other unique training opportunities as they arise.

Testimonials

To date, the UWEC Social Work program has 16 Title IV-E grant recipients, eight of whom have graduated with seven currently employed. Four students are in internship and an additional four students are in their first semester of receiving the grant. Current students and alumni who have participated in the Title IV-E program at UWEC have indicated that the experience has been beneficial.

Christina Bichner, a member of the first Title IV-E cohort and a May 2020 graduate, affirmed that the Title IV-E program was a key part in preparing and educating her to understand what her role as a Child Protective Services Social Worker truly entailed. Christina stated, “I continue to use the knowledge I learned through the Title IV-E training and preparation and apply it to the work I do every day in our communities with children and their families.”

Derek Powers, a May 2020 graduate, explained how the grant was more than financial stability:

Receiving the Title IV-E scholarship made a HUGE impact on my family. Being recognized by my professors as a recipient of this grant was of one my biggest academic achievements. When I received the news I was awarded the grant, I felt for the first time like I made the right choice to go back to school. Title IV-E helped lower the mental and financial stress I was under during my senior year of college. Focusing on school is a lot easier when you know it is paid for by Title IV-E. As a father of 3 daughters, this was enormous. Now, instead of paying off my own college debt, I can start raising money for my daughters’ college tuition.

Alexia Dellemann, a current intern preparing to graduate in May 2021 shared that being “accepted as a Title IV-E recipient was an eye-opening experience that others believe in me and my abilities in the field of social work. It has helped me to build my knowledge of child welfare.”

The process of modifying our program to better meet the needs of our students, the community, and our profession has required ongoing communication and thinking outside the box. It has involved imagining what we wanted something to look like and at times working backwards to find ways to accomplish it. Nevertheless, it has allowed UWEC to directly improve, expand, and enrich the child welfare profession.