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.

showing up

Nearly 60 percent of Newark 12th-graders are chronically absent. A conference on Tuesday will tackle the issue.

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

Last school year, nearly one in three Newark students was chronically absent, meaning they missed 18 or more school days. For Newark 12th-graders, the rate was nearly 60 percent.

The problem is the subject of an all-day conference on Tuesday at Rutgers University-Newark called, “Showing Up Matters: Shifting the Culture of Chronic Absenteeism.” Mayor Ras Baraka and Interim Superintendent Robert Gregory are both scheduled to speak.

The conference comes as educators and policymakers nationwide have zeroed in on chronic absenteeism, following research that shows it’s linked to negative outcomes for students including lower test scores, higher dropout rates, and even a greater risk of entering the criminal justice system.

New Jersey is one of three dozen states that plans to evaluate and potentially sanction schools based on how many of their students are chronically absent — a measure that counts any day a student misses school, whether the absence is excused, unexcused, or for disciplinary reasons.

Newark’s chronic absenteeism rate is more than double the national average of 13 percent (a rate based on a slightly lower definition of 15 or more absences per year). In response, the district launched an attendance initiative in 2016 to drive down its chronic absenteeism rate, which is worse than in other high-poverty districts across the state. And two different city advisory groups — the Children’s Cabinet and the Newark Youth Policy Board — are focused on the issue.

Unsurprisingly, students who are absent a lot tend to do worse in school. In Newark, as in other districts, students who were chronically absent had lower state test scores and were less likely to graduate. The district found that just 58 percent of ninth-graders who were chronically absent in 2011-2012 earned diplomas four years later, compared to 86 percent of students with good attendance.

A 2017 report by Advocates for Children of New Jersey shed some light on why Newark students miss so much school. Among the reasons cited by dozens of high-school students who were interviewed for the report were: boring classes, coursework they couldn’t keep up with, mental-health challenges, long walks to school, having to hold down jobs or help care for siblings, and neighborhood violence.

“How can we focus on school when someone got killed yesterday?” one student is quoted as saying. “It’s hard. I can’t balance the two. I can’t focus. How am I supposed to feel safe walking to school when at night in that area there [are] shootings?”

Attendees are likely to grapple with tough questions like those at Tuesday’s conference, which goes from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. at Rutgers Paul Robeson Campus Center. You can find details here.

not so fast

Why Tennessee legislators share blame, too, for TNReady testing headaches

PHOTO: TN.gov
Tennessee lawmakers listen to Gov. Bill Haslam deliver his 2016 State of the State address at the State Capitol in Nashville.

Exasperated with another round of testing problems in Tennessee public schools, state lawmakers have used their bully pulpit to rail against Education Commissioner Candice McQueen for her management of the state’s beleaguered standardized test.

Last week, they called her in to the State Capitol for a two-hour grilling about online snafus and a reported cyber attack that got TNReady testing off to another rocky start. Several called for McQueen’s resignation.

The next day, lawmakers dramatically stepped in and passed legislation so that this year’s scores mostly won’t count on student grades or in important decisions about teachers and schools, essentially gutting the state’s vaunted accountability system, at least for this year.

Few legislators have been willing to talk about the elephant in the room, but several education advocates have.

Just four years ago, PARCC was to be the vehicle for Tennessee students to begin testing online using questions aligned to Common Core academic standards for math and English language arts. At the time, Tennessee was a Common Core state and had been working for several years toward sharing an online test through a multi-state consortia known as PARCC, short for the Partnership for Assessment in College and Career Readiness.

But in April 2014, six months before testing was supposed to begin and amid political backlash over Common Core, the legislature voted to pull out abruptly from the partnership.

The decision, which was against the wishes of Gov. Bill Haslam and former Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman, set the state’s collision course toward TNReady. It meant that Tennessee had to develop a new test — pronto — and find a new company to administer it. Measurement  Inc., a small North Carolina-based firm, was hired for $108 million in November 2014.

Generally, it takes at least two years to create a test and prep for launch. State lawmakers gave Measurement Inc. about a year, with the first testing starting in the fall of 2015 for some high school students. But the real test came in February 2016. That’s when most students in grades 3-11 logged on and the platform collapsed on the very first day, the victim of too many students trying to test at one time with too few computer servers.

McQueen, who had replaced Huffman after the deal was inked with Measurement Inc., subsequently scrubbed tests for most students that year and fired the state’s testing company. A few months later, she turned to Minnesota-based Questar to pick up the pieces for $30 million annually beginning in July of 2016. Things went slightly better the next year with TNReady, though not perfectly.

This year, a lot was riding on Tennessee officials to get TNReady right in a return to statewide online testing. But when more technical problems erupted on the first day this spring, McQueen immediately became the target for blame.

PHOTO: TN.gov
Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen has been under fire for her oversight of the state’s standardized test, known as TNReady, which has had a string of high-profile problems since its 2016 rollout.

“We do want to have that one throat to choke,” she told reporters who asked who should be held accountable, before adding that “there’s lots and lots of people involved.”

During a legislative hearing that same day, Rep. Mark White reminded his colleagues about their pivotal 2014 decision to pull out of the testing consortia.

“General Assembly, we had some ownership in this,” said the Memphis Republican, who also voted to exit the partnership. “We had a testing company originally four years ago …[but] we pushed back against the commissioner and the Department of Education and said we don’t want PARCC for political reasons. … We fussed about Common Core and we fussed about the standards.”

Tennessee wasn’t alone. In 2014, it was one of 18 states that comprised the consortia. The partnership is now down to four states — Illinois, Maryland, New Jersey, and New Mexico — along with Washington, D.C., and schools operated by the U.S. Department of Defense and the Bureau of Indian Education.

"General Assembly, we had some ownership in this."Rep. Mark White, R-Memphis

The exodus was due to mostly Republican complaints of federal overreach by the Obama administration for incentivizing states to adopt the controversial Common Core standards. But superintendents back home were also fearful of the switch to computerized testing.

Online testing has gone fairly smoothly for those that stayed in the partnership, and PARCC is now the only assessment fully approved by the U.S. Department of Education.

“States that have continued with the program now have four years of longitudinal data measuring student performance and growth over time,” said Arthur VanderVeen, who leads New Meridian, the company that manages the partnership.

The shared test also has been a money saver.

Hanna Skandera, New Mexico’s former secretary of education, said economies of scale allowed her state to cut testing costs by more than a quarter by sticking with PARCC. More importantly, she said, the test has been an effective measuring stick.

“This is not about a brand. It’s about quality of assessment,” said Skandera, who formerly chaired the partnership’s board. “PARCC allowed us to measure the things we cared about — critical thinking, higher expectations aligned to higher education. In New Mexico, it’s been a big step in the right direction.”

Below, you can view a timeline of Tennessee’s testing journey from PARCC to TNReady.