This article examines the field experiences of Hong Kong school social workers in empowering school personnel to provide a school setting that facilitates positive youth development. The purpose of school social work is to enable every student to receive the greatest benefit from schooling (Allen-Meares, 2004; Constable, 1999). This simple statement includes both the personal and environmental. The personal aspect is to help young people cultivate their potential to the fullest, achieve healthful personal growth, establish harmonious relationships, and elicit their concern for the community (Nystrom, 1989; Pittman, Irby, & Ferber, 2001). The environmental aspect entails creating a climate in which students can make maximum use of the opportunity to learn and grow (Germain, 1988; Kurtz, 1997). This study focuses on the environmental aspect of empowerment and explores how practitioners interact with school personnel to construct an environment that maximizes students' positive learning experience.
One impediment to the practice of empowerment in this setting is the political environment of the school system. School social workers enter a complex school organization--a vortex of government mandates, social and economic pressures, as well as conflicting values and interests involving school administrators, teachers, students, and parents (Ball, 1987; Blase, 1991; Gronn, 1986; Hoyle, 1986). Practitioners have to cooperate with all stakeholders to maintain the proper functioning of schools; they also need to wrestle with contradictory opinions and clashing demands (Dupper, 2003; Harris & Franklin, 2004). While the interplay of power in the school system is so complicated and the school setting could be better perceived as a political arena in which different actors struggle with political forces, it seems school social workers have to fight for survival in order to initiate system change on behalf of students.
School social work is commonly regarded as an auxiliary service in the education sector. Rendering service in a "host" setting in which social work is not the dominant profession, practitioners may complain of feeling isolated and vulnerable when they are perceived as outsiders and when their work is under scrutiny by school personnel (Dupper, 2003; Harris & Franklin, 2004). They may encounter an "identity crisis": whether to be loyal to the school they serve or to the social work profession that is the source of their ethical beliefs and professional expertise. Role conflicts and power struggles may thus occur between workers and other staff (Lee, 1983; Rees, 1991). Unless practitioners can consolidate their position through political understanding and skills, as well as by strategically handling relationships with different parties, the objectives of empowerment are unlikely to be attained in a school setting.
In Hong Kong, school social work service has existed for more than 30 years, and the policy of "one school social worker for each secondary school" was implemented in 2000. Although literature on local school social work gives little account of the political dimensions in this service (Chan, 1997), the working lives of practitioners provide some insights into this area. Ma (1992) and Ching (1998) consider local school social workers to be under great stress while interacting with the school system. Other studies suggest that practitioners may be treated as "aliens" in a school setting, as they and school personnel are from different sectors that may have clashing ideologies, and they often find it difficult to protect the welfare of students while maintaining good rapport with school personnel (Chan, 1979; Law, 1981; Wong, 1983).
These findings imply that local practitioners are in a complex political environment. Is the practice of empowerment in the field of school social work simply empty rhetoric? The present article examines how practitioners use various strategies to interact with school personnel to carry out empowering practices in the school setting. …