call for help

Some Bronx students in crisis more likely to be sent to the hospital than a school social worker, advocates say

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
The New Settlement Parent Action committee tied balloons to empty auditorium seats to represent District 9 students who go without social workers.

On a recent visit to a Bronx emergency room, Dejohn Jones witnessed something shocking: a young child who had apparently been removed from his school, who was now surrounded by police officers and strapped to a gurney.

“He was screaming, ‘Unstrap me!’” she remembered.

It’s an all-too-common sight in the Bronx, where schools in community districts 9 and 10 called emergency medical workers to remove students in crisis more often than schools in any other part of the city over the past three years, according to advocates. Those districts encompass some of the city’s poorest neighborhoods, but parents say their schools are forced to over-rely on emergency workers because they are not equipped to meet their students’ mental health needs.

Now — in the wake of a fatal stabbing in a Bronx school — a group of local parents is calling on the city to provide more support services in their schools as a way to prevent mental-health crises and violent outbursts. At a rally this week, the New Settlement Parent Action Committee demanded more social workers in District 9, along with better training for teachers and school leaders.

“It’s evident to me that schools are now deficient in these areas,” said Amanda Gonzalez, a parent leader for the committee, “and there are fewer supports for students and families like mine.”

District 9 includes Yankee Stadium and the neighborhoods of Grand Concourse, Morrisania and Tremont. It borders District 12, where police say an 18-year-old student at Urban Assembly School for Wildlife Conservation used a switchblade to stab two classmates during history class, one fatally. Though schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña recently said there weren’t clear warning signs that something was wrong, reports suggest bullying was a factor, and that the student struggled with mental health difficulties such as depression.

The needs in District 9 are immense, according to the committee.

Last year, 20 percent of students were homeless — the highest percentage in the city, according to the Institute for Children Poverty and Homelessness. Over the last three years, there were more than 280 emergency calls from District 9 schools and 230 transports to the hospital, according to Bronx Legal Services.

Meanwhile, the action committee says there is only one social worker for every 589 students in the district — nearly 12 times higher than the 1-to-50 ratio that the National Association of Social Workers recommends for high-needs communities. The District 9 parent group is calling for the education department to hire more social workers to bring the district in line with those recommendations.

Wesley Guzman, a sophomore at the Bronx Academy for Software Engineering in District 10, said his school tries to support all students, but the one social worker and two guidance counselors on staff are seriously overworked. Guzman said they are important resources for helping students deal with issues in a healthy way rather than acting out.

“I confide in these people because they bring a culture of real and meaningful safety,” he said.

Jones, a parent leader with the committee, said more mental health support will not only keep students safe, but also steer them away from trouble that could lead them into criminal justice system.

She added that students of color rarely get the full support they need. However, she said she was encouraged that officials from the education department attended the rally on Wednesday.

“There’s work that’s being done,” she said, “little by little.”

Education department spokeswoman Miranda Barbot said the District 9 superintendent has offered training in how to “de-escalate” and manage situations that could lead to behavior crises. She also pointed out that there are 21 “community schools” in the district, which provide extra social supports to families.

To Do

Tennessee’s new ed chief says troubleshooting testing is first priority

PHOTO: (Caiaimage/Robert Daly)

Penny Schwinn knows that ensuring a smooth testing experience for Tennessee students this spring will be her first order of business as the state’s new education chief.

Even before Gov.-elect Bill Lee announced her hiring on Thursday, she was poring over a recent report by the state’s chief investigator about what went wrong with TNReady testing last spring and figuring out her strategy for a different outcome.

“My first days will be spent talking with educators and superintendents in the field to really understand the scenario here in Tennessee,” said Schwinn, who’s been chief deputy commissioner of academics in Texas since 2016.

“I’ll approach this problem with a healthy mixture of listening and learning,” she added.

Schwinn’s experience with state assessment programs in Texas and in Delaware — where she was assistant secretary of education — is one of the strengths cited by Lee in selecting her for one of his most critical cabinet posts.

The Republican governor-elect has said that getting TNReady right is a must after three straight years of missteps in administration and scoring in Tennessee’s transition to online testing. Last year, technical disruptions interrupted so many testing days that state lawmakers passed emergency legislation ordering that poor scores couldn’t be used to penalize students, teachers, schools, or districts.

Schwinn, 36, recalls dealing with testing headaches during her first days on the job in Texas.

“We had testing disruptions. We had test booklets mailed to the wrong schools. We had answer documents in testing booklets. We had online administration failures,” she told Chalkbeat. “From that, we brought together teachers, superintendents, and experts to figure out solutions, and we had a near-perfect administration of our assessment the next year.”

What she learned in the process: the importance of tight vendor management, including setting clear expectations of what’s expected.

She plans to use the same approach in Tennessee, working closely with people in her new department and Questar Assessment, the state’s current vendor.

“Our job is to think about how to get online testing as close to perfect as possible for our students and educators, and that is going to be a major focus,” she said.

The test itself has gotten good reviews in Tennessee; it’s the online miscues that have many teachers and parents questioning the switch from paper-and-pencil exams. Schwinn sees no choice but to forge ahead online and is quick to list the benefits.

“If you think about how children learn and access information today, many are getting that information from hand-held devices and computers,” she said, “so reflecting that natural experience in our classrooms is incredibly important.”

Schwinn said computerized testing also holds promise for accommodating students with disabilities and provides for a more engaging experience for all students.

“When you look at the multiple-choice tests that we took in school and compare that to an online platform where students can watch videos, perform science experiments, do drag-and-drop and other features, students are just more engaged in the content,” she said.

“It’s a more authentic experience,” she added, “and therefore a better measure of learning.”

Schwinn plans to examine Tennessee’s overall state testing program to look for ways to reduce the number of minutes dedicated to assessment and also to elevate transparency.

She also will oversee the transition when one or more companies take over the state’s testing program beginning next school year. Former Commissioner Candice McQueen ordered a new request for proposals from vendors to provide paper testing for younger students and online testing for older ones. State officials have said they hope to award the contract by spring.

In Texas, a 2018 state audit criticized Schwinn’s handling of two major education contracts, including a no-bid special education contract that lost the state more than $2 million.

In Tennessee, an evaluation committee that includes programmatic, assessment, and technology experts will help to decide the new testing contract, and state lawmakers on the legislature’s Government Operations Committee plan to provide another layer of oversight.

Spring testing in Tennessee is scheduled to begin on April 15. You can learn more about TNReady on the state education department’s website.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated with new information about problems with the handling of two education contracts in Texas. 

food fight

As government shutdown drags on, New York City vows to protect school food program

PHOTO: Christina Veiga/Chalkbeat
Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza and Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer served lunch at P.S./I.S. 180 in Harlem on the first day of the 2018-2019 school year. Mayor Bill de Blasio has warned that federal funding for school food could end in April if the government shutdown drags on.

The historic partial government shutdown could soon threaten New York City’s school food program, which serves about a million students breakfast and lunch.

Mayor Bill de Blasio said the city is drafting plans to keep school cafeterias open if the shutdown drags on, calling food for children “the number one thing we’re going to try to address.”

“In terms of drawing on some of our reserves, that would be a priority,” he said Thursday at a press conference to discuss the impact of the longest-ever shutdown.

The federal government provides about $43 million a month to pay for school meals in New York City, and right now the city has money on hand that would last until April.

School food is lifeline for many families. About 75 percent of New York City students qualify for free or reduced price lunch — to meet that threshold, a family of three would earn about $33,000 a year, said Liz Accles, executive director of Community Food Advocates, an organization that fought to make school lunch free for all city students.

“The real threat of [the meal programs] not being available lays bare some very real suffering,” Accles said. “The impact is pretty scary to think about.”

Other school districts are already beginning to feel the effects. One North Carolina school district recently announced it would scale-down its school lunches, cutting back on fresh produce and ice cream. Meanwhile, in Tennessee, one school district is hoping to recruit furloughed workers to fill in as substitute teachers.

The shutdown has dragged into its fourth week with no resolution in sight. President Trump and Congress are at an impasse over the president’s request for $5 billion to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.

De Blasio’s media availability about the shutdown’s impact comes as he appears to be trying to bolster his national reputation. His State of the City speech last week focused on larger issues of income inequality and was followed up by appearances on CNN and “The View.”

De Blasio said it’s unclear whether the city would be eligible for reimbursement if it taps its own money to fund school food programs. And he warned that it would be impossible for the city to make up for all of the federal spending on programs that help poor families, which totals about $500 million a month.

“It is a dire situation, there is no other way to say it,” de Blasio said. “It will overwhelm us quickly.”

There are other ways the shutdown could be felt by students in the country’s largest school system, with funding for rental assistance and food benefits also in the balance. New York City is already struggling with a crisis in student homelessness: More than 100,000 lack permanent housing. Payments for food assistance are expected to stop in March, de Blasio said. An estimated 535,000 children under 18 years old benefit from that program.

Such out-of-school factors can have profound effects on student achievement. Cash benefits and food stamps have been linked to boosts in learning and students’ likelihood to stay in school. In New York City, the average family receives $230 in food assistance a month, according to city figures.

“The stress that the families are under, worrying about work and when they’re going to get paid, the children sense it. They hear it. They feel it,” said Mark Cannizzaro, president of the union that represents school administrators. “We see the impacts of that.”