Our Early History: Pioneers of Progressive Curriculum

From right to left: John Romanyshyn, Jean Soule (AA), Barbara Rich, Joe Kreisler, Richard Steinman, Ann Loth, James Tierney, Ana Lazar, and Luisa Deprez. Photo taken by Jim Fiori (student) around 1978.

The USM School of Social Work (SSW) has a distinguished history dating back to 1971 when the school was founded as a department of social welfare.  The early history of the SSW is notable as our present-day ethos and mission retains the values of the school’s earliest origins.  The SSW was established in 1971 as a Department of Social Welfare, where students earned a B.A. in Social Welfare. The program was accredited in 1974 by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE), the year after the establishment of the first national accreditation standards in social work education. Given the context of the active social movements in the 1970’s, social work became a very popular major at USM. In fact, the Department of Social Welfare developed noteworthy pioneering courses: Women and Social Change, taught in 1974, was one of the first women’s studies courses at USM. Further, the first course at USM addressing LGBTQ concerns, Relating Professionally to Homosexuality, was developed and taught in our school in 1978. While this is not a controversial course topic today, there was resistance within the university system to offer such a course at that time and it was finally allowed on an “experimental” basis. The course then drew national attention: CSWE identified it as “cutting edge” curriculum, and it was featured at the 1980 Annual Program Meeting in Los Angeles, California, and it became a regular offering at USM.

Fast Forward:  Launching the MSW Program in 2001

Given the growing need for graduate level social workers in the region, the MSW program was developed to provide advanced training for individuals seeking careers in clinical practice or macro practice. The first MSW cohort entered in 2001, and by 2003 when they graduated, the school received its provisional CSWE accreditation.  With resolution of a few issues, the program was granted full accreditation in 2004.  The social work department became the School of Social Work (SSW) at that time.  The SSW has undergone several subsequent accreditation cycles and has remained fully accredited since 2003.  The Advanced Social Work Practice curriculum model of the MSW program is designed to prepare students for a range of career possibilities, including clinical practice and licensure. In 2018, we launched a low-residency cohort option for MSW students, adding an online cohort option. The School also offers an Advanced Standing cohort, an option reserved exclusively for eligible students with a BSW degree from a CSWE accredited program. 

Deep Community Connections

The SSW has a rich history of community immersion in Portland and the surrounding areas. A highly distinguished achievement in this regard with enduring impact that came directly from the USM Department of Social Welfare in its early years is what is now named the Preble Street Resource Center (PSRC). The PSRC was founded in 1972, by an infamous faculty member, Joe Kreisler, a Rhodes Scholar and Community Organizer from New York City. Kreisler, who later became the Department Chair, had a vision to create a community setting to provide support and low barrier, empowering services for unhoused people while also providing real world training for USM social work students. In 1975, Kreisler made this happen and overcame many challenges to implement it. Initially named the High Street Resource Center, it was a part of USM, situated at the former location of the University of Maine Law School. The program was an enormous success for students and the clients served. The Center was moved to its current location on Preble Street in Portland after several interim locations, and was re-named the Preble Street Resource Center. In 1996 a Teen Center was founded to serve homeless youth, and in 2013, this center was named the Joe Kreisler Teen Center. Joe Kreisler died at age 82 in 2002 and remains an iconic figure in the SSW. He was known for his deep kindness, unwavering integrity, keen intellect, steadfast sense of purpose and passion for social justice and human rights, the embodiment of social work values. His legacy set the stage for the strong community values and cultural norms in the SSW that persist today among faculty and students and in our mission. The PSRC continues to train USM social work students annually through many programs, and a number of our graduates have become leaders in the organization.

Our Home in Beautiful Portland, Maine

As the largest city in the state, Portland is a very suitable home for the Social Work School as it has the largest concentration of service providers and is within easy commuting distance from areas south, west and north. Portland has more social service agencies than any other region in the state, such as agencies that serve unhoused populations; people suffering from addictions and mental health conditions; victims of human trafficking; disabled individuals or those suffering from acute and chronic health conditions; the aging population; and people involved in the criminal justice system.  Maine Medical Center’s main campus is less than a mile from campus, along with many other organizations that provide our students internships and employ our graduates. Portland is also a refugee resettlement community and has become home to refugees, immigrants and asylum seekers from countries in Africa, the Middle East and Asia. Many services for these populations are also based in Portland as well as in Lewiston, about 45 minutes northwest of the city. Because of our proximity to a wide range of service providers in Greater Portland, many within a 2-mile radius of our campus, the SSW has roughly 250 agency affiliations for fieldwork, with 100-120 actively training our students in any given year. This allows our students a wide range of training options to meet their learning and career aims. These organizations also employ many of our graduates!

The SSW is located in the Portland Campus in Masterton Hall—all of our courses are taught in Portland or online. The SSW is one of four schools of the College of Management and Human Service (CMHS). The CMHS office is also located in Portland, in Luther Bonney Hall. In addition to the SSW, CMHS is home to the School of Education, the Muskie School of Public Service and the School of Business.  These four schools within CMHS frequently work together, forging  cross-disciplinary partnerships for research, curriculum development, and community projects.

The USM SSW stands out for providing high quality, accessible, affordable social work education. The SSW faculty is committed to both teaching and mentoring students to be well-rounded, confident, and competent professionals who emerge prepared to pursue licensure, provide direct service to a wide range of populations and to facilitate progressive change in social service and macro systems, enacting the mission and goals of the profession in the broader world.