mental health 'crisis'

City’s new mental health plan includes 100 school health workers and focus on pre-K

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña

New York City’s efforts to improve mental health services in schools will reach many more students by 2017, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced Monday.

De Blasio laid out a sweeping set of $850 million initiatives, including some designed to help students and improve their schools by extension. The plan, which builds on earlier efforts, includes hiring a new team of 100 health consultants designed to connect schools to education department resources and local partners, and a number of programs aimed at supporting the emotional development of preschool students.

“It means that if you’re at a school and you’re a principal or a teacher or a classroom aide and you see a child has a problem, we’ll send a mental health professional to that school to figure out with you a plan to help that child get well,” de Blasio said during an emotional press conference, where he detailed his father’s and daughter’s own mental health struggles.

De Blasio, aided by his wife, Chirlane McCray, has made mental health a focus of his mayoralty and repeatedly cited mental-health services as one way to improve struggling schools. Many low-performing schools in the city’s turnaround program, and another group the city has designated as “community schools,” have gained additional access to mental health workers. Some plan to open in-school clinics.

The announcement comes on the heels of a city report detailing the depth and breadth of mental illness in New York. Some of the paper’s most striking numbers were related to school-aged children, including that 8 percent of the city’s high school students report attempting to commit suicide and another 73,000 students said they feel sad or hopeless each month.

That report also notes the tight link between childhood mental illness and poverty. And in New York City’s public schools, where the Independent Budget Office estimates that eight in 10 qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, teachers and administrators can find themselves without the resources, staff, or knowledge to provide what students need.

The city’s plan promises to “act early” and help more students learn how to regulate their emotions and adapt to new situations as soon as pre-kindergarten. The city will training 9,000 new teachers, assistants, and school leaders over the next three years to make sure pre-K students are learning to control their emotions, expanding an effort announced earlier this month to introduce “social-emotional learning” to all classrooms by 2016.

Jennifer March, executive director of the advocacy organization Citizens’ Committee for Children, said the effort is a warranted addition of resources.

“We know from our experience that there’s a gap between supply and demand for children’s mental health services generally,” she said, “and that historically there’s been not a lot of resources committed to really young children.”

The 100 “school mental health consultants” the city will hire will be tasked with assessing schools’ needs and and connecting them to appropriate education department resources. This new team of counselors and social workers will also implement new programs in schools, according to the plan.

Another 52 schools will assess mental health service needs starting in 2017, according to the report. These services will be modeled after those now available to “community schools,” a group the city expects to grow in number by 2017.

Additionally, the plan also calls for more training of middle and high school staff to help them identify and offer assistance for children with mental illnesses.

Dr. Jeffrey Borenstein, president and CEO of the Brain & Behavior Research Foundation, said that since teachers interact with students on a daily basis, it is crucial they are able to identify and find help for students.

“It’s important to reach people where they are,” Borenstein said. “So having in the school, a professional who can really do an intervention and help the student and the student’s family, is the best way.”

Vision quest

Colorado lawmakers want to reimagine the state’s schools. Here’s how.

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Students at Merino Elementary School work during class.

What should Colorado schools look like in 2030, and how should the state pay for them?

Those are two big questions a bipartisan coalition of state lawmakers hope to answer in the next several years.

State Reps. Millie Hamner and Bob Rankin, two of the state’s most influential lawmakers on education policy, are asking their colleagues this spring to approve a bill that would create a legislative process for rethinking the state’s entire public education system.

“Right now, there’s dissatisfaction with our system,” said Rankin, a Carbondale Republican and member of the state’s budget committee. “We’re sort of average. We’re average in the U.S. We’re average in the world. That’s not good enough for Colorado.”

The bill’s sponsors have two outcomes in mind: Create a vision for improving and modernizing Colorado schools and change the way the state pays for them. The plan, they think, could create enough support to convince voters to send more money to schools as needed.

“We realize it’s time to have a conversation with the state of Colorado around what is it that they want for their kids, how can we achieve that and how can we fund it,” said Hamner, a Frisco Democrat and vice-chair of the state’s budget committee, noting two recent failed attempts at the ballot to raise statewide taxes for schools.

The discussion over the future of Colorado’s schools comes as states are being handed more control over education policy. The nation’s new education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, has fewer requirements than previous iterations of the federal law.

And soon, Colorado will no longer be bound by agreements it made with the Obama administration. The state may re-evaluate and perhaps repeal some of the policies it enacted during the last decade in an effort to win federal money.

“We’ve all been working hard, but I’m not convinced we’ve been working toward the same direction — the right direction,” Hamner said.

House Bill 1287 would create a series of committees to craft a vision and strategic plan for the state’s schools.

Already, it is being met with caution by some district-level school board members who hold dear their constitutionally protected local control.

“I can see the noble desire to invest in a vision and strategic plan. But many school districts have already done this locally,” said Doug Lidiak, a member of the Greeley school board. “I worry the outcome is more education bills coming from our state legislature.”

The idea faces other challenges: educators who feel taxed by a slew of mandates and are wary of change; school leaders already dealing with with tightening school budgets; and growing inequalities between schools on the Front Range and in the more rural parts of the state.

“Whatever comes out of this process needs to take into consideration the various differences of districts in size and geography,” said Kerrie Dallman, president of the Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union.

Some education lobbyists at the Capitol have also voiced concern that the process laid out in the bill is too bureaucratic and could take too long to address urgent needs.

The bill would create a series of committees.

The first legislative steering committee would be made up of a dozen state lawmakers, including the chairs of the House and Senate education committees and two members of the Joint Budget Committee.

A second executive advisory board would be made up of the state education commissioner, two members of the State Board of Education, representatives from the early childhood leadership commission and higher education department. The governor would also have a representative on the advisory board.

The third committee would be made up of teachers, parents, school board members, education policy advocates, representatives of the business community and others. These individuals would be appointed by the legislative steering committee.

The work would be done in four stages.

In the first phase, the committees would take stock of Colorado’s current education landscape and create a process to solicit input on what the state’s schools should look like. The second phase would collect that input. The vision and plan would be drafted in the third phase. And lawmakers would consider any legislation necessary to make the vision and plan a reality in the fourth phase.

The bill also requires the committees to meet periodically after the vision and plan are adopted to monitor how the plan is being carried out across the state.

Rankin, the House Republican, said Colorado’s education system could benefit from short-term fixes, but that it was important to take the long view, too.

“If you fight a lot of tactical battles, it ought to fit into your overall strategy,” he said. “We’re trying to build something the public can buy in to.”

funding feud

Three struggling New York City schools in line to get millions in back payments from the state

PHOTO: Kevin P. Coughlin-Office of the Governor/Flickr
Mayor Bill de Blasio and Gov. Andrew Cuomo at a press conference in 2014.

Three struggling schools in New York City will receive millions of dollars in back payments from the state, thanks to a recent ruling from an appellate court.

The schools — Automotive High School and P.S. 328 Phyllis Wheatley School in Brooklyn and Mosholu Parkway Middle School in the Bronx — were added to the state’s list of persistently struggling schools in July 2015, making them eligible for extra state funding.

But last February, the State Education Department, citing new test data, removed four of the seven original “persistently struggling” New York City schools from the list. One of the schools, P.S. 64 in the Bronx, was closed. Because the remaining three were no longer on the list of lowest-performing schools, they became ineligible for their second year of funding through the grant, according to the state Division of the Budget.

That decision angered advocates such as the union-backed Alliance for Quality Education, which helped organize parents to file suit over the lost funding, which amounts to more than $3 million for the three New York City schools alone. Most of the $75 million originally granted to struggling schools never made it to them, according to Wendy Lecker, an attorney at the Education Law Center, who helped argue the case. Twenty total schools are owed money, according to the ELC.

“We’re thrilled the money can now be released to the schools because the money was providing vital services that were completely interrupted,” Lecker said, including extended learning time and additional teacher training. “It will affect hundreds of kids.”

Last week’s decision, issued by a panel of state judges, technically doesn’t end the litigation. The ruling lifts a stay that had frozen the funding while the case continues on to an “expedited” appeal, Lecker said. In the meantime, the state must release the money.

But since the case hasn’t been completely resolved, it is possible that the schools would have to hand the money back, though Lecker believes that outcome is unlikely.

Since the lawsuit was filed last September, different arms of the state bureaucracy have pointed fingers at each other over who is responsible for withholding the money, even while they all agree the money should be paid out. The state Division of the Budget has largely blamed the State Education Department, while SED said removal from the persistently struggling schools list should not require a loss of funding.

Morris Peters, a spokesman for the state Division of the Budget, would not comment on whether the state will keep pursuing the case. “We’re reviewing the decision,” he wrote in a statement.

And for its part, the State Education Department seemed to celebrate the decision. “We are pleased with the Court’s decision to lift the stay,” spokeswoman Emily DeSantis wrote in an email, “and allow for the release of funding for these at-risk schools.”