single shepherd

With more guidance counselors, one Bronx school is no longer merely ‘putting out fires’

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Nicholas Melendez says his job as a guidance counselor has changed since Nycole Dash joined Bronx Letters as a Single Shepherd counselor.

Nicholas Melendez was always in triage mode.

As the only counselor at The Urban Assembly Bronx Academy of Letters, Melendez was responsible for 600 students in middle and high school. With dozens of hours of required counseling sessions every week, there was only time for the neediest students.

“It constantly felt like I was putting out fires,” he said.

That was before the New York City Department of Education launched Single Shepherd, a program that placed more than 100 additional counselors and social workers in two of the city’s neediest school districts: District 7 in the South Bronx and District 23 in Brooklyn. Both have among the lowest graduation rates in the city; most students are poor and homelessness is prevalent.

The city’s goal is to pair every student in middle and high school in those districts with a dedicated counselor who will work closely with not just students, but also their teachers and families.

The $15 million-a-year program is only one piece of the city’s larger Equity and Excellence initiative, which has infused schools with extra resources with the ultimate goal of getting more students to graduation. It’s too early to know whether that will happen — or how similar Bronx Letters’ experience is to other schools. But teachers and counselors there say they’re already seeing an impact.

With extra hands on deck, Melendez has time to notice when a student’s grades start to slip. He can counsel students who are still learning English on the possibility of taking state tests in their native language, or schedule a phone call with a family that needs help navigating social services systems — rather than relying on an outside agency that may be too overwhelmed to follow up.

“I feel like we’re serving all the students,” he said.

Nycole Dash became a Single Shepherd counselor at Bronx Letters after working with young people in the nonprofit world. She’s assigned to the freshman class, and makes time to see every student at least once a month.

“It creates almost like a family for these kids, where they have somebody to go to — and it’s a consistent person,” she said.

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Nycole Dash is a Single Shepherd counselor at Bronx Letters.

 

Dash has already seen that bond pay off. Most school days, Dash said her morning routine includes a knock on the door from a particular student. On a recent visit, the student needed to talk about a tough situation she dealt with over the weekend.

“Normally she was someone who would kind of just keep it to herself and react in class,” Dash said. “But because she’s close with me — she sees me every day — she was able to let out something that she wasn’t able to before.”

Counselors like Dash and Melendez also serve as a resource for teachers when there’s trouble in the classroom.

Klajd Kovaci, who teaches high school history and English, remembered one case in particular. One moment, he was leading a class discussion on politics. The next, a student with special needs was in a frenzy, hurling curse words as he stormed out of class.

Kovaci called for Melendez as the student walked out, and the counselor was able to usher the young man into his office. There, they came up with a plan: Whenever the student felt overwhelmed, he could leave class and cool down by Melendez’s side.

Melendez also worked with Kovaci to track the student’s behavior and pinpoint what set him off. With Melendez’s help, Kovaci agreed to work short breaks into his lectures so the student wouldn’t get anxious.

“We have a lot of conversations with teachers to make individual plans for students, which is something we couldn’t do before,” Melendez said.

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Nicholas Melendez is a guidance counselor at Bronx Letters.

In Kovaci’s case, the difference has been remarkable. He credits the relationship that counselors have been able to build with their students — and the time counselors can give to teachers who come to them with classroom problems.

“Because their case load is smaller, they actually know who I’m talking about,” Kovaci said. “They’re able to get to more students.”

Often times, that means understanding what’s going on in a child’s life outside of the school building. When the school realized parents were often reluctant to send their children away for college, counselors helped launch informational sessions at the beginning of the year. That way, families could have conversations and set expectations for their children earlier in the application process.

In return, counselors worked to understand families’ needs. For example, if a student needed to stay close to home to help pay bills or take care of family members, counselors could help find the best university settings nearby.

“We want to include the values of the community in the education process,” Melendez said. “It’s meeting the family and the parent where they are.”

Student activist

With Townsend Harris in turmoil over interim principal, one student quietly takes a leading role

PHOTO: The Classic
Alex Chen walks the hallway during a student sit-in he helped organize at Townsend Harris High School.

While students across the nation have taken to the streets to protest President Trump, some are fighting battles closer to home. Just ask Alex Chen, the student union president at Townsend Harris High School, who is helping to lead a high-profile fight against Interim Acting Principal Rosemarie Jahoda.

Chen spent much of his February break rallying fellow students, alumni and parents from the elite Queens school to demonstrate in front of City Hall on Friday, asking the city to remove Jahoda from consideration for the permanent post. The controversy has put the 17-year-old in the uncomfortable position of going against his school’s top official.

But Chen insists this isn’t a student vs. principal situation.

“It might have felt like that sometimes, but I don’t really see it that way. I see it more as a community that’s rising up,” he said.

Opposition has mounted against Jahoda since September, when she stepped in to lead the school. More than 3,500 people, including self-identified parents and alumni, have signed a petition against her, claiming that she has harassed faculty, changed course offerings without proper input and that she has been “aloof or even combative” toward students.

In a statement, Jahoda said: “While I am frustrated by many of these inaccurate allegations, I remain 100% focused on serving students and families at Townsend Harris and working to move the school community forward.”

Meanwhile, Chen has been thrust into the spotlight. In December, during a student sit-in he helped organize, he had a tense standoff with Deputy Superintendent Leticia Pineiro.

“How are your teachers being harassed? I’m curious,” the superintendent quipped to Chen in a livestream broadcast by the student newspaper. “You’re speaking and I believe people should speak from fact. I’m a factual person.”

Chen spoke slowly, his voice a near whisper. Even when the superintendent suggested Chen had invaded her personal space, Chen stayed quiet and calm.

“I really just wanted to be able to communicate with her,” he later told Chalkbeat.

He returned to class, replaying the scene in his head and wondering whether he had handled it right. When he walked in the door, his classmates burst into applause.

“He’s become this symbol for everyone involved. And I think he earned it,” said Brian Sweeney, an English teacher and newspaper advisor who has Chen in his journalism class. “When you’re in that video with everyone watching, and you’re willing to keep talking and keep saying what you think … there’s a lot of trust for everyone involved.”

Since the sit-in, the School Leadership Team at Townsend took the unusual step of making Chen a co-chair of the board, made up of teachers, parents and union reps.

“I believe it was a matter of trust and productivity. We needed co-chairs who could move forward with the issues at the table, rather than be stuck in tension,” Chen said.

Even while he fights to make sure Jahoda isn’t appointed permanently, Chen said he has maintained a “very professional relationship” with her. In SLT and student union meetings where Jahoda is present, Chen said he makes an effort to “stick to the agenda.”

“We still have to keep the school running,” he said. “In the hallways, I’ll say good morning. I’ll say hello. Because that’s what you’re supposed to do.”

The Department of Education opened applications for a permanent principal on Feb. 1 and said the process takes up to 90 days. The pushback against Jahoda means many are watching the department’s next moves. This week, Queens Borough President Melinda Katz wrote a letter to Chancellor Carmen Fariña about the matter.

“Accusations and troubling accounts are occurring on a daily basis,” she wrote. “The students of our system deserve to know that the DOE is providing the tools, atmosphere and attention needed to fulfill our responsibilities to them.”

Chen has responsibilities of his own. At home in Hollis Hills, he helps take care of his younger sister and is expected to finish his chores. He’s looking for a job to have a bit of his own money. And with senior year winding down, he spends a lot of time chasing scholarships. Chen hopes to study business at University of Pennsylvania, though lately many people have asked him whether he’ll go into politics.

“I don’t think I will for now, because there’s a lot that goes on in politics that kind of disturbs me,” he said. “After high school, after college, after your youth, it seems like people [tend] to be more self-interested than to help in the community.”

Read to be Ready

McQueen takes stock of Tennessee’s literacy campaign after first year

A year ago, Tennessee began a quest to address its lagging literacy rate.

It started with its youngest readers through an initiative called Read to be Ready. The goal was to change the state’s approach to reading instruction beyond alphabet recognition to “authentic” experiences in which students read to learn — and for fun.

On Thursday, Education Commissioner Candice McQueen took stock of the progress after one year, laying out next steps that will focus on classroom instruction and teacher support.

The initiative, she said, must outlive its funding, which includes $4.2 million that pays mostly for a literacy coaching network and an additional $30 million for reading camps to serve 30,000 students during the next three summers.

Year Two will be about “building the framework” that can be used for years to come to teach Tennessee’s youngest students to read.

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
McQueen holds up a report detailing the second year of Tennessee’s Read to be Ready initiative.

“We know the gains that we want to make will not happen overnight,” she said during a celebration event in Nashville attended by about 120 stakeholders. “The reason I’m truly optimistic is the success we have started seeing in such a short period of time.”

Researchers found that schools participating in the state’s new literacy coaching network invested significantly more time in reading comprehension last year in grades K-2 — 67 percent, compared to 37 percent in 2015.

But Tennessee has a heavy lift ahead. Only a third of its fourth-graders are proficient in reading, according to the most recent National Assessment of Education Progress. The state wants to get 75 percent of its third-graders reading on grade level by 2025.

The new network of literacy coaches sprawls across two-thirds of the state’s districts and includes 200 teacher-coaches. Working with other teachers, they select texts designed to engage and challenge students to practice more on reading and writing, and less on filling out worksheets.

“That’s why we’re investing so much in you as teachers and educators, saying your knowledge matters,” McQueen said.

Michael Ramsey, an instructional coach in Grainger County, is already seeing changes at his elementary school.

“With the coaching network, teachers have the opportunity to reflect and take (instruction) to the next step,” he said.

But, “it takes time,” Ramsey said of training the teachers and working with students. He urged state and local leaders to “just stay consistent and give us time.”