Newark's Absenteeism Crisis

Another year, another Newark attendance campaign. Can León succeed where others have failed?

PHOTO: Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat
Like his predecessors, Superintendent Roger León is taking on Newark's "epidemic" of absenteeism. It won't be easy.

As the final days of summer melted away last month and Newark families began stuffing backpacks and straightening uniforms, district officials commenced their own back-to-school tradition: They launched a new attendance campaign.

In late August, the new superintendent, Roger León, summoned the district’s entire workforce to a hockey arena to announce, among other initiatives, a plan to achieve perfect attendance in every school — an audacious and improbable goal in any district but especially so in a system where nearly one in three students is considered chronically absent. It’s part of an age-old battle — as well as a new push locally and nationally — to ensure students show up daily for class.

Before long, families were fielding calls from district employees, who had each been assigned five households to remind of the school year’s Sept. 4 start date, and from León himself, who recorded a back-to-school message. At a local principal’s request, the manager of a ShopRite supermarket even spread the word over his store’s loudspeaker.

“We want to make sure that students come to school everyday,” León told reporters after August’s all-staff meeting. “Every day matters.”

Nationwide, districts are trying to boost attendance this school year — raffling off gift cards and even cars for perfect attendance and conducting home visits — as states, including New Jersey, begin factoring absenteeism rates into school and district ratings under the Every Student Succeeds Act, the new federal education law that replaced No Child Left Behind in 2015.

In May, Gov. Phil Murphy signed new legislation requiring schools where 10 percent or more of students are chronically absent to create corrective plans. In Newark, 62 of 64 district schools had absenteeism rates that high in the 2016-17 school year, the latest for which data is publicly available.

The nationwide crackdown on absenteeism is backed by extensive research showing that students who are chronically absent — typically defined as missing 10 percent or more of the days in a single school year for any reason — are at serious risk of having lower grades and test scores, dropping out of school, and becoming ensnared in the juvenile-justice system. Low-income students, who make up three-fourths of Newark’s enrollment, are among the most likely to miss school.


But as León, a 25-year Newark Public Schools veteran who became superintendent on July 1, is sure to find, recognizing an attendance problem is one matter — solving it is quite another.

His two immediate predecessors also launched ambitious campaigns to improve attendance. But as they tried to slash through the thicket of obstacles that keep students from school — problems with health and housing, transportation and school culture — both watched their initiatives to combat absenteeism fizzle as school employees struggled to carry out the plans.

Indeed, by the end of the 2016-17 school year, the district’s chronic absenteeism rate was actually higher than in 2011-12, when the first of León’s two predecessors took the reins. Whether León will learn from their mistakes — or fall into similar traps — remains to be seen.

“The bottom line is that the superintendent can say whatever he wants,” said Pastor Van Ness Roper of True Deliverance Christian Life Church, an education advocate who was recruited to help with the first attendance campaign. “But if your staff and those you give the plan to don’t implement it, it’s just a wasted idea.”

Big ambitions, disappointing results

PHOTO: Governor's Office/Tim Larsen
Former Superintendent Cami Anderson launched a campaign called “Attend Today, Achieve Tomorrow.”

Five years ago, Newark’s then-state appointed superintendent, Cami Anderson, declared an absenteeism “epidemic” and insisted she had the cure.

Like León would later do, she unveiled an attendance campaign at the start of the 2013-14 school year with a lofty goal — to cut absenteeism in half within three years. If successful, the campaign, called “Attend Today, Achieve Tomorrow,” would expose students to 1 million hours of learning they would have otherwise missed, Anderson said.

Before school started, district officials asked religious leaders to adopt schools and bodegas to stop selling snacks to students during school hours. They asked community-based organizations to post back-to-school flyers and call families using scripts the district provided.

But almost immediately, the plan ran into challenges.

Three former Anderson officials said her administration struggled to stay focused on the campaign as they scrambled to enact a host of other sweeping policy changes — including a district overhaul Anderson announced in December 2013, which sparked widespread protests.

Amid that backlash, some community and parent leaders were reluctant to support Anderson’s attendance drive, even though it was relatively uncontroversial. Meanwhile, school leaders were hard pressed to meet the demands of the new campaign — which involved creating attendance plans, developing reward programs, scheduling community events, and following up with frequently absent students — without the help of attendance counselors, whom Anderson had laid off that July as a cost-cutting measure.

“There was no systemic way to deal with the attendance issue after she got rid of the attendance counselors,” said Antoinette Baskerville Richardson, a school board member at the time who is now the mayor’s education advisor. “Somebody has to be responsible who doesn’t have 100 other responsibilities.”

Officials at the time said the counselors had done little to combat absenteeism and insisted that principals and teachers needed to play a bigger role in raising attendance. But Anderson’s campaign also appeared to have a limited impact — rather than falling by 50 percent as projected, the chronic absenteeism rate was basically unchanged after three years.

Meanwhile, the firing of the 46 attendance counselors would continue to dog Anderson. In 2016, an administrative law judge sided with the Newark Teachers Union in a lawsuit challenging the layoffs, though the state education commissioner later overturned that decision. And during an earlier legislative hearing, a state lawmaker argued that the layoffs had doomed Anderson’s attendance plan from the start.

“You don’t gut out the social support network in a system like Newark,” said former Assemblywoman Sheila Oliver, now Murphy’s lieutenant governor, at the Jan. 2015 hearing, “and anticipate that we’re going to have great improvements.”

Fine-tuned policies amid daunting obstacles

PHOTO: Newark Press Information Office
Former Superintendent Christopher Cerf (center, in purple tie) aimed for better implementation of the district’s attendance policies.

Three years after the launch of Anderson’s attendance campaign, she was replaced by a new superintendent, Christopher Cerf, who in an instance of district déjà vu, newly declared absenteeism “an issue of crisis proportions” in Newark’s schools.

At an Oct. 2016 school board meeting, he said the crisis did not stem from a lack of attendance policies. For example, teachers were required to record daily attendance by 10 a.m., and schools were to call, write, and finally meet with families as absences accumulated. The problem with these plans, Cerf said, was the lack of follow-through.

“We do not believe those policies and procedures have been consistently implemented,” he said at the board meeting, “and that is on us.”

His administration set out to fix that.

Teachers were urged to take daily attendance so that schools would have reliable data to analyze. “School support teams” — the group of employees in every school who had inherited the tasks of the fired attendance counselors — were asked to review the data and come up with rewards and interventions. High schools had to establish daily “advisory” periods when faculty members would meet with a small group of students — an effort to forge personal connections strong enough to draw teenagers to school.

But a program that the district piloted during that same period, modeled off one used in New York City, suggested that schools also need more supports — not just better policy implementation — to reverse patterns of absenteeism.

At five South Ward schools that had been outfitted with extra social services through a “community schools” initiative, part-time “success mentors” were hired to work closely with students who were repeatedly absent and with their families.

Early data showed the mentors were having a positive impact on attendance — so much so that officials had hoped to place mentors in additional schools, said Brad Haggerty, Cerf’s chief innovation officer, adding that Cerf stepped down in February before the additional mentors were added. The planned expansion was a tacit acknowledgement that schools needed more people-power to curb absenteeism.

“That’s the direction we were going in — to give more people resources,” Haggerty said, adding a caveat that he believes extra personnel dedicated to attendance will only be effective if school-based teams share in the work. “You’re not going to solve that with one person.”

And some barriers to attendance go beyond policies and resources. In 2016 and 2017, the nonprofit Advocates for Children of New Jersey published reports based on interviews with students, parents, and educators that explored the tangle of factors behind Newark’s chronic absenteeism rate, which exceeds the level even in other high-poverty New Jersey districts.

Among younger students, the causes included high asthma rates and a lack of busing for students who live less than two miles from school. Among high schoolers, boring classes, long or dangerous commutes, and adult responsibilities such as caring for younger siblings or holding down jobs were cited. One student told the researchers: “I’ve gotta go out and make money. I’ll worry about school tomorrow.”

“You can’t simply mandate your way out of these kinds of issues,” said Peter Chen, who co-authored the reports with Cynthia Rice. For instance, the district can set a deadline for submitting daily attendance, he added, “But that’s not going to suddenly make students live closer to schools or their asthma go away or not have to work a job to support their family.”

A ‘refreshing’ promise to send backup

Superintendent León called his back-to-school campaign “Give Me Five!”

If one lesson of the past five years is the stubbornness of the district’s absenteeism problem, Newark’s new superintendent appears undaunted.

Superintendent León has set a goal of every school reaching 100 percent attendance. (Experts caution against focusing solely on attendance rates, noting that schools with high average daily attendance can still have a core group of chronically absent students.) For now, he sees his role as largely that of a cheerleader, but aims to provide more personnel in time.

“Right now, what we do is, we say, ‘The objective’s high — you figure out how to get there,’” he said in a recent interview.

He has promised to restore the attendance counselors — a move welcomed by many educators and community leaders. But, in a nod to the past, where the presence of counselors often did little to improve attendance, he insisted that schools must partner with these counselors rather than simply outsource attendance efforts to them.

“The last thing that needs to happen is for people to walk away saying, ‘Oh, attendance is going to be solved because now we have the attendance counselors,’” he said. “No, everyone has to worry about attendance.”

León pointed to his back-to-school campaign as an early success, saying this year’s first-day attendance rate was higher than last year’s. The real test, however, will be whether schools can maintain any initial gains throughout the year — when rates tend to sag — while at the same time driving down chronic absenteeism among the third of students who miss roughly a month or more of class each year.

Already, some educators say they are heartened by León’s early moves. Maria Ortiz, principal of Luis Muñoz Marin School, said the message conveyed by the back-to-school campaign and attendance counselors is that the district leadership is committed to helping schools improve attendance, rather than simply ordering them to do so.

“I don’t feel like we’re doing this alone,” she said, “which is really refreshing.”

In the coming weeks, Chalkbeat will dig deeper into Newark’s absenteeism crisis. Do you have questions you want answered? Thoughts on what causes students to miss school? Or promising attendance practices you want to highlight? If so, please take this brief survey. You can also email me at pwall@chalkbeat.org.

Miseducation

AP, vocational classes, and how to make Chicago’s disparate high schools more equal

PHOTO: Adeshina Emmanuel/Chalkbeat
A culinary course at Theodore Roosevelt High School in Albany Park

This story is part of a partnership between Chalkbeat and the nonprofit investigative news organization ProPublica. Using federal data from Miseducation, an interactive database built by ProPublica, we are publishing a series of stories exploring inequities in education at the local level.

It’s a Thursday morning at Roosevelt High School, and Gillian McLennan’s first-period class takes place where her students have wanted to be all week — in the kitchen.

Today, McLennan jokes, “is a bit of a gory day.”

Quartets of students wearing bonnets, aprons, and gloves stand around metal prep tables, threatening a whole chicken spread on a cutting board.

One 16-year-old junior works his boning knife carefully, making precise incisions between joints and flesh. “We are removing the entire leg,” he explains.

The student — his first name is Lan, and school officials asked that students’ full names not be published — lives in Albany Park on Chicago’s Northwest Side. He considered applying to North Side schools with better reputations and higher test scores, such as Lane Tech or Lake View.

But Lan ultimately landed at Roosevelt because he thought its popular culinary certification program offered more options. He could be a chef, go to college, or both.

Lan highly recommends Roosevelt for that reason — despite the bad things he’s heard people say about his school.

“I don’t think they know Roosevelt,” he said.

By one important measure, Roosevelt, where nearly 93 percent of students qualify for subsidized meals, looks like a school that might not offer the richest educational opportunities. Less than 10 percent of students there take Advanced Placement classes, the college-level courses that often mark the transcripts of students at schools with more affluence.

At the same time, far more students take AP courses at two other schools in Albany Park, one of the city’s most diverse neighborhoods. Those differences in educational opportunity are put in stark relief through a new interactive database from the news organization ProPublica built using federal education statistics.

Even as Chicago Public Schools has made some historic academic gains, the data show vast disparities in the kind of coursework available to students.

But as Lan’s experience illustrates — it’s vocational education that drew him to the neighborhood school — opportunity doesn’t hinge on just one class, on one measure.

This underscores a critical question confronting principals and top Chicago school administrators alike: What does opportunity look like? And what’s the right balance between classes that boost their schools’ reputations and those that serve their students’ varied needs?

A fresh look at data

In a starkly segregated city like Chicago, Albany Park appears more diverse. Nearly all-white as recently as the 1970s, the neighborhood has become a major port of entry for new immigrants and is now nearly half Latino, with residents who are Korean, Indian, Lebanese, African, German, and Eastern European too.

But even here, three high schools in the area that sit within 10 blocks of one another and share an El stop couldn’t be more different. 

About half of the 1,100 students at Northside College Preparatory High School, a test-in school that is one of the top in the state, are white or Asian. Nearly 60 percent of Northside students take Advanced Placement classes, compared with the district average of 22 percent.

Blocks away sits the 1,800-student Von Steuben Metropolitan Science Center, a magnet high school with a citywide lottery to enter and a separate selective “scholars” program for those with a minimum 3.0 GPA. There, 37 percent of students take AP classes.

Chicago rates both Northside and Von Steuben Level 1-plus schools, its top rating. At both schools, few students are English language learners.

At neighboring Roosevelt High, there are no admissions requirements. Nearly 69 percent of students are Latino, and 28 percent are English language learners. Only 8 percent of the students take AP classes, and there’s no AP math courses or calculus offered.

Such contrasts extend systemwide. Even though the Chicago district is just 14 percent white and Asian, those students have disproportionate access to elite high schools, AP classes, International Baccalaureate programs, and even arts and music education in some neighborhoods.

What to do about those inequities at the school level is far from clear. At Roosevelt, Principal Dan Kramer is working to revitalize the neighborhood high school by improving safety and boosting achievement. He and his predecessors have made progress: Roosevelt is graduating more students than in recent years, up from 56 percent in 2011 to 66.5 percent this year. He is also growing a program that lets students take courses for college credit.

Roosevelt’s enrollment has dropped by more than 400 students since 2014. Two-thirds of its current students take vocational classes, formally dubbed career technical education.

Lan and some of his classmates say they want more courses on aviation mechanics, engineering, digital media, and nursing — classes that will secure them certifications, apprenticeships, and jobs.   

Now Kramer, like principals at other underenrolled neighborhood schools, faces a tough decision. To attract and prepare more college-bound students, should the school invest in more AP classes? Or should it provide more career prep — like its popular culinary program that graduates students with kitchen experience and certifications that provide an entre to the food and hospitality industry?

“Pushing students into the AP classes for the sake of saying, ‘look how many kids I’ve got in AP classes’ — I think is really unfair to those students,” Kramer said, “for the sake of trying to make the school look good.”

One way Kramer hopes to attract more students is a pilot “scholars” program that steers high achievers to honors and AP classes. The program is in its first year.

No guarantee of equity

Nearby Von Steuben Metropolitan Science Center, which is considered a high-quality alternative to selective-enrollment high schools like Northside, has come up with its own way to attract students: an honors-level “scholars” program that requires a 3.0 GPA and an application with an essay. It split the school’s population into “scholars” and what students call the “regulars.”

In practice, the tiers mean that access to advanced coursework varies by race.

“It creates a sense that, if you’re a scholar, you deserve more, you’re smarter, you have all of these opportunities available to you, and if you’re a magnet school student, you’re just regular,” said Ashayla Freeman, 18, a senior who lives in Austin on the city’s West Side.

And, she said, while the student body is diverse, “I feel like in the scholars program you see that diversity less and less.”

At Von, 43 percent of the students who take AP courses are white or Asian — groups that together make up on 31 percent of the school. Overall, the school is 56 percent Latino and 11 percent black, but those groups make up just 46 percent and 8 percent, respectively, of AP enrollment.

Friends Jade Trejo Tello, 16, and Itzel Espino, 15, who are both Latino and live in Albany Park or neighborhoods nearby, have had divergent experiences at the school. Both applied for the honors track. Tello, who passed, takes all honors or AP classes and loves geometry and algebra.

Espino, meanwhile, didn’t get into the selective program. She’s still happy with her high school experience — she’s focused on keeping her grades up, so she can become a teacher — but feels that the selection criteria for the scholars program wasn’t entirely fair.

“I didn’t get the chance to be able to show myself, and I know some kids do have troubles that affect their school life and their grades,” she said. “We are not given a second chance to show ‘Oh, I can handle an honors class.’”

Messages seeking comment from Von Steuben leadership were not returned.

Declining enrollment

To have the budget to offer more courses for students like Espino, schools need to attract more students. But to attract more students, schools need a robust menu of courses. It can become a chicken-and-egg proposition.

To boost Roosevelt’s declining enrollment, Kramer has made the choice to market its vocational curriculum. “We’re meeting a demand,” Kramer said, emphasizing that many students have family members who work in child care, preschools, restaurants and health care — classic vocational education tracks.

PHOTO: Adeshina Emmanuel/Chalkbeat
Roosevelt High School in Albany Park

“Families see there’s a lot of career opportunity without much investment in postsecondary education,” he said. “In working-class neighborhoods in Chicago there’s an appreciation that these are growth industry areas.”

But if a school like Roosevelt offers culinary courses but no AP math classes, that could limit students’ choices in other ways. Advanced courses can signal students’ readiness for college work, and passing scores can earn students college credits, though research isn’t conclusive on the benefits if students don’t pass the tests.

P. Zitlali Morales, an associate professor of curriculum and instruction in the College of Education at the University of Illinois at Chicago, argues that vocational courses should be available throughout the city— but it’s important to not allow that path to become an either/or choice for students.

“Right now, certain vocational opportunities are offered at certain schools for certain kids, and right now those are the kids who are English learners and also the children of immigrants,” she said.

For the first time, Chicago has hired someone whose job it is to wrestle with that and other tough questions of race and opportunity. Schools chief Janice Jackson has tasked new Chief Equity Officer Maurice Swinney with tackling the imbalance of opportunity districtwide for black and Latino students.

Jackson also has offered neighborhood high schools the chance to apply to offer specialized programs, including vocational offerings, arts programs, dual language certifications, or designations such as International Baccalaureate, magnet or gifted programs.

The competitive application lures principals with a pledge: Selected schools will also win money to cover the expenses of new teachers or certifications. It’s meant to help principals like Kramer to avoid having to make such stark choices about programming.

Kramer says he’s planning to propose applying for a dual-language academy. Students would have the opportunity to earn a prestigious seal of biliteracy, which will allow them to waive two years of a foreign language requirement at any Illinois public university.

Letters of intent are due Oct. 26. Kramer sounds almost giddy at the prospect.

 

Miseducation

‘You try to triage’: NYC is spending big on counseling, but staff on the front lines say needs are going unmet

PHOTO: Christina Veiga/Chalkbeat
Students at P.S. 398 in Crown Heights hold hands before heading to lunch. With about half of their students experiencing homelessness, the school has a guidance counselor, a social worker, and a psychologist.

This story is part of a partnership between Chalkbeat and the nonprofit investigative news organization ProPublica. Using federal data from Miseducation, an interactive database built by ProPublica, we are publishing a series of stories exploring inequities in education at the local level.

Eugene Harding knows what it’s like to feel stretched thin. A social worker with 25 years of experience in New York City’s public schools, he splits his time among three Manhattan high schools with a collective enrollment of more than 2,000 students.

“It’s Wednesday, and I have to go downtown, and it’s Thursday at another school, and I’m still thinking about the student from Monday,” he said.

Harding knows some crises won’t wait, such as when he’s told students are engaging in dangerous behavior like cutting themselves. But at the same moment, another student may show up to talk, and the problem could be minor or serious. “Like an emergency room, you try to triage,” he explained. But sometimes, he said, “You find out the person who really needed you, needed you last week.”

Harding is part of a legion of school counselors, social workers, and psychologists who help New York City students navigate everything from class schedules to family crises. Their role is essential, according to both research and the people they work with, yet advocates say the city has struggled to make sure enough of them are working in city schools.

In the 2015-16 school year, New York City had 4.9 support workers for every 1,000 students, according to federal data — fewer than in many cities, including Los Angeles or Washington, D.C., though more than in some others, such as Chicago and Broward County, Florida. The data, compiled by ProPublica from federal civil rights reports from every school in the country, show how much ground the city must cover if Mayor Bill de Blasio is to achieve his goal of using schools to combat the effects of poverty.

Under de Blasio, the city has poured hundreds of millions of dollars into hiring additional guidance counselors, opening school-based clinics, and expanding access to mental health services for students. People who work in schools say they’re starting to see that money turn into additional help, but many say more still is needed — and they worry that the patchwork of providers being constructed could fall apart when a new mayor with new priorities takes office in the future.

And it’s unclear whether the new investments will be enough to help students in the city’s most troubled corners, at a time when some challenges that they face, especially homelessness, are on the rise. While national guidance counselors and social workers groups recommend having one counselor and one social worker each for every 250 students, in schools with “intensive” needs, that ratio falls to one social worker for every 50 students.

Across the city, that recommendation resonates with the counseling staff working to help students.

P.S. 398 in Crown Heights has a guidance counselor, social worker, and psychologist. Typically, guidance counselors and psychologists focus on students’ learning inside the classroom, while social workers engage in the emotionally wrenching work of helping them grapple with the challenges presented by their lives outside of school. At P.S. 398, where almost half of the 300 students are homeless, everyone pitches in to meet the needs of families and students. Still, Jemma Byam, the lone guidance counselor, said she wishes she had more one-on-one time with students.

“There’s not enough time. It’s always an ongoing, continuous situation we deal with,” she said.

At Curtis High School on Staten Island, school psychologist Kelly Margaret Batson says a backlog of more than 30 cases has piled up — each representing a student who is overdue for an evaluation into whether their special education plans are meeting their needs. While she’s grateful the school has a clinic that provides extra mental health support for students, her day is often interrupted by those with immediate needs, pushing her cases further past their deadlines.

“If we would have enough time, we could really work with the kids and try to avert crises before they happen,” Batson said.  

Leanne Nunes, a junior who attends high school in the Bronx, cried in the bathroom when she was overcome with anxiety at the start of the school year. Her school has a brigade of guidance counselors, but the social worker whom Nunes previously relied on left, and the position hasn’t been filled this year. Nunes wiped her face and returned to class without anyone noticing she was upset.

“I was so angry that I didn’t have anybody,” she said, noting that she’s reluctant to share personal matters with an adult she has no connection to.

Significant investments

De Blasio’s election in 2013 promised change. His administration ushered in a radical shift in the way the city sought to improve education in the country’s largest school system. Rather than closing struggling schools, the city has spent almost $1 billion to infuse them with extra resources.  

The administration also launched the largest community schools movement in the country, investing in services such as health clinics across more than 200 schools. Another $17 million annually has gone toward Single Shepherd, which provides more than 100 additional counselors and social workers for the neediest school districts. The most recent city budget dedicates $14 million to support homeless students with extra social workers. And through other programs like ThriveNYC, an initiative of First Lady Chirlane McCray, officials say that every school now has access to mental health services.

“We’re committed to meeting the needs of every student so they succeed academically, socially and emotionally,” education department spokeswoman Miranda Barbot wrote in an email. “We’ve made significant investments in initiatives to improve school culture and initiatives to increase the number and effectiveness of guidance counselors and social workers across the city.”

Principal Daniel Russo said the city’s efforts have made a real difference at his school, P.S. 294 in the Bronx. About 30 percent of students there — 150 in total — are in temporary housing, which means students sometimes have to travel long distances to get to school, and may show up to class hungry or sleepy. P.S. 294 has help through Bridging the Gap, a city program that has put 69 social workers in schools with high rates of student homelessness. Thanks to the city’s community schools push, a nonprofit provides mental health services to families.

When the school social worker recently noticed in counseling sessions that one student could benefit from mental health services at home, the nonprofit was able to step in with family counseling.

“For us, it was important to take a real, holistic approach to how we support families,” Russo said. “Everybody’s needs are going to be met.”

‘We’re lacking’

Staffing data that the City Council started collecting in 2015 bears out Russo’s experience — but also suggests that many other schools aren’t so lucky. Last year, the city reported there were 2,880 guidance counselors serving the city’s 1 million students, or one counselor for every 348 students. That ratio has come down by about 7.5 percent, or 28 students, over the last four years.

But there were only half as many social workers employed by the city, suggesting that each one is working with an average of more than 700 students.

“The data is very clear on how much support staff we’re lacking,” said Mark Treyger, chairman of the City Council’s education committee. He advocates that the city meet the national recommendations for guidance counselors and social workers, but could not immediately say how much that would cost. “I don’t think you make an effective dent if you don’t close that ratio.”

Harding, the social worker responsible for 2,000 students at three city high schools, described some of what students are up against. “Somebody in their family was recently arrested, or an ICE raid results in an uncle being taken away, and they come to school and ask a teacher or a social worker,” he said, because they know who to reach out to for help. “That family, due to poverty, doesn’t know who to go to, how to find a lawyer.”

Harding, who works at the Richard R. Green High School of Teaching, Urban Assembly School of Business for Young Women, and The High School of Fashion Industries, tries to maximize the difference he can make by conducting group counseling sessions.

During students’ lunch periods at one campus, for example, he conducts a regular group session called “Hot Topics with Hot Pockets,” where students can hang out and raise issues of concern. The conversation, which Harding sees partly as an exercise to build bonds he can rely on when crises later arise, runs the gamut, from suicidal feelings to current events to “tampons versus pads, which are better?”

At some of the schools he works in, Harding says guidance counselors “definitely try to help out,” but they can feel torn in as many directions as he sometimes does. Since guidance counselors often focus on keeping students on track academically — troubleshooting obstacles that can keep students from graduating on time, for instance — they don’t always “have the time to sit down one-on-one and talk with a student who’s going through a crisis,” he said. School psychologists, meanwhile, can be similarly pulled away by mandated evaluations of students with disabilities to see what services they need. The number of social workers, by contrast, remains critically low in many schools, the city’s statistics show.

‘It changes outcomes’

Research suggests schools have an incentive to beef up their support staffing. One commonly cited study from 2014 linked higher test scores and better discipline to more counselors. The study looked at one Florida district from the 1995-1996 through the 2002-2003 school year, when graduate students who were counseling interns bulked up staffs that had one full-time school counselor.

Specifically, boys’ test scores and behavior improved, according to the study. Girls’ behavior improved, too, but their test scores didn’t significantly budge.

“What we find is that increasing the number of counselors or lowering the student-to-counselor ratio affects student discipline, and subsequently improves student achievement and test scores,” said Scott Carrell, an economics professor at the University of California at Davis who co-authored the study and several related ones.

In New York City, the benefits of adequate counseling can be readily seen at Bronx Arena, an alternative high school in the Bronx that has a small army of counselors and social workers to help students who have struggled at traditional high schools, and are often at risk of dropping out. The school’s principal, Ty Cesene, said the school has a ratio of one counselor for every 27 students.

This support team can focus on out-of-school issues that often affect how well students do in school, said Anne Zincke, a program director at SCO Family of Services, which helps fund the counselors at Bronx Arena, where Zincke also works. Counselors there may show up in court alongside students accused of everything from turnstile jumping to felony charges. The small ratios also allow counselors to forge relationships that help students feel safe and comfortable enough to disclose when they need help paying for groceries, for example.

With those kinds of needs addressed, teachers can focus on teaching — and expectations can remain high for students, she added.

“When you get to that level of support, it changes outcomes,” Zincke said. “It’s very hard to say, ‘My mother left, and I don’t have any food in the refrigerator.’ They won’t do it. It’s not in the nature of a teenager.”

‘It’s too much for the counselors’

And yet city students are in fact asking for help. When students across the country recently marched out of their classrooms in the wake of a deadly school shooting in Florida, high schoolers in the Bronx didn’t call for more gun control. Rather, they shouted: “We need more social workers and counselors in all schools!”

Parents and elected officials also say counseling gaps need to be plugged.

Shortly after a fatal school stabbing — the first in the city in decades — a group of parent advocates found that there is only one social worker for every 589 students in the South Bronx, nearly 12 times the level recommended for needy communities.

A report by the Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer said the city’s push to provide more mental health supports is “patchwork” and “falling short,” with heavy caseloads for consultants who are supposed to connect schools with services. Yet some schools, Brewer said, were totally unaware that help is available to them.

More recently, Treyger, the city councilman, has demanded that the city education department hire more permanent support staff. While Treyger often points to individual Renewal or community schools that have made strides with help from social workers, he says the programs are too dependent on insecure nonprofit partnerships.

“I’m talking about full-time DOE employees, and not relying on an inconsistent funding stream,” Treyger said. “This mayor supports the community schools approach. The next mayor may not.”

On a full day of lunchtime counseling, Harding, the social worker, might see 40 to 50 students who swing by in groups of about 10 for each session. Still, he can’t help worrying about the many hundreds of students who may not join his lunch group or seek out help even if there are problems below the surface.

“I do think about what about all the ones who I never see,” he said, “and I just don’t know who they are.”