Director McDonald with the SWEP graduates honored at the University of Chicago's School of Social Services Administration.

Twenty-two graduate students filed into a corner classroom to share stories, pizza and an informal recognition ceremony with one of the school's most recognized alumni -- Jess McDonald. Last month, Director McDonald, Assistant to the Director Celeste Pena and faculty at the University of Chicago's School of Social Services Administration honored the students -- all of whom are members of the Department's Social Work Education Program (SWEP) for managers and supervisors.

"You know what you'll be facing," Director McDonald told the DCFS workers who would soon return to full-time schedules at DCFS offices, bringing with them new master's in social work degrees. "Being prepared to do a job and doing it right makes a big difference," McDonald said. "And I can already tell the differences in offices around the state. The people involved with SWEP have changed the culture of their offices. Everyone is into learning."

Dean Jeanne Marsh reminded the students of the initial skepticism many felt about returning to the classroom midway in their careers. Yet, she added, both DCFS workers and the Social Services Administration have evolved into more effective leaders, and "what we've accomplished in the last 18 months will have a profound impact on child welfare."

After the luncheon ceremony, Celeste Pena noted that the school had taken an unusual step in reorganizing its two-year program into an 18-month calendar. "It's the first time in the school's history they had summer school, and overall it was the most intense in timing. But it was a big advantage for our department because we got our workers back sooner."

Pena added that schools like the University of Chicago are also benefiting. "We're on the cutting edge in Illinois working with child welfare schools. The universities help to develop our workforce for us and we have a great opportunity to influence changes in curricula to meet real world needs," Pena said.

The Department's SWEP program opened in 1995 in response to a series of drives to "reprofessionalize" Department staff, especially direct service managers and supervisors. BH consent decree reforms, efforts to become an accredited child welfare agency and the personal commitment of Director McDonald in bolstering the Department's ranks of M.S.W. career professionals all contributed to the creation of this unique advanced degree program for DCFS managers and supervisors.

Approximately 110 SWEP students are now attending or finishing classes at the University of Chicago, The University of Illinois-Chicago, Loyola University, George Williams College, the University of Illinois-Champaign and Southern Illinois University-Carbondale. The 22 students attending the March ceremony are part of SWEP's first group of "cohort" students who began and completed their graduate programs together.

"Everyone is watching what you folks are doing, and I mean nationally," McDonald told the students, referring to recent Congressional testimony mentioning the Illinois program. "We are making an investment in the leadership of the child welfare system. Over the last few years, we've seen remarkable improvement in the public perception of the child welfare system, and it's because people are doing their work better. You are making an enormous difference."