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.”

How I Teach

For this Pagosa Springs math teacher, mountain biking and ultimate frisbee hold lessons, too.

PHOTO: Andy Guinn
Teacher Andy Guinn with his students during a trip to Moab, Utah.

How do teachers captivate their students? Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask great educators how they approach their jobs. You can see other pieces in this series here.

A couple years ago, Andy Guinn was about to take his Pagosa Springs Middle School students on a mountain bike ride in Utah when a hiker offered an unsolicited opinion: The kids should be in school not at a state park. The government was going to hear about it, the hiker warned.

The criticism made Guinn, who teaches mountain biking and ultimate frisbee electives in addition to eighth-grade math, second-guess himself. Were the outings a waste of time and money?

Shortly thereafter, he got his answer. The parents of a student contacted him to say what a difference the mountain biking class had made for their son. He’d gone from a kid who hated school to one who’d finally found his niche.

Guinn talked to Chalkbeat about the parent feedback that reaffirmed his belief in outdoor trips, his meatball math lesson and how he brings life to his windowless classroom.

Guinn is one of 20 educators selected for the state’s new Commissioner’s Teacher Cabinet. The group provides input to officials at the Colorado Department of Education on the impact of education policies in the classroom.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a teacher?
I grew up swearing I would never be a teacher because so many members of my family were teachers. I remained stubborn until grad school when I realized that I really enjoyed being a teaching assistant and working with students. Three years later, I was in a teaching program getting my license.

What does your classroom look like?
My room is the ugliest classroom I have ever been in. It has cinder block walls, no windows, and orange carpet. I almost didn’t take the job because it was so awful. Luckily, everything else about our school is phenomenal. I have pictures all over my windowless walls from our Adventure Learning trips to Moab and Los Alamos as well as day trips to our local ski area and hikes in the mountains that surround us. They remind me how important it is to allow students opportunities to explore, spend time outside and learn beyond our academic standards. They also remind me how lucky I am to live and work in such a beautiful place.

Fill in the blank. I couldn’t teach without my __________. Why?
Dogs. They make me smile after a bad day. They keep me active and healthy during busy times of the year. They remind me that it takes a lot of training to make a habit. But most of all, they remind me to be patient with my students.

What is one of your favorite lessons to teach? How did you come up with the idea?
I steal a lot of stuff from Dan Meyer (http://blog.mrmeyer.com/). His Three Acts are fantastic and go over really well with students. One of my favorites that I adapted was his meatball lesson to teach students about the volumes of spheres and cylinders.

Originally I just used his videos, but I wanted to add in a classroom demonstration. I didn’t think I could logistically pull off a pot of meatballs for each class so I had to come up with something else. I decided on a cylindrical glass filled almost to the top with water. I tell the students we’re going to see how many marbles can fit into it without it spilling over. I raise the stakes by telling them we’ll be dropping the marbles in with their phones stacked around the base of the glass. They tend to get really engaged at that point.

How do you respond when a student doesn’t understand your lesson?
This is one of my favorite parts of teaching because I will never be done figuring out new ways to explain things, new ways for students to experience the material and new ways for students to show me what they’ve learned. I’ve found that having other students share their strategies can show both me and the confused student a new perspective on a problem. It’s also a great way to get a glimpse into the mind of someone who is just learning a concept, which is a perspective I no longer have.

How do you get your class’s attention if students are talking or off task?
We count to three in different languages. They repeat each number after me. Through the years, students have asked to teach the class some new languages so I have about six or seven I use now. Our school has also embraced physical activity breaks in the classroom as a strategy to keep engagement and focus at a high level throughout a class. I love these and can really feel a difference in the energy in my classroom when we use these.

How do you get to know your students and build relationships with them? What questions do you ask or what actions do you take?
I start the year building relationships with students for a week while we work on problem-solving skills. We also take our whole 8th grade class to Moab, Utah, for a four-day camping trip where I get a lot of opportunities to get to know students outside of the classroom. When they see me roll out of my tent with some crazy bed hair, a lot of them let their guard down and are willing to work even harder for me in the classroom when we get back.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
In Moab a couple years ago, my mountain biking elective class was going for a ride at Dead Horse State Park. A visitor to the park approached a couple of my students and asked them why they weren’t in school. They replied that they actually were and that they were about to have their class along one of the trails in the park. The visitor wasn’t happy at all and told my students he was going to to write to the government to complain. I felt bad for my students and I started to question if the class was really a good use of time and resources.

The week after we got back from the trip, a parent contacted me to tell me what a positive difference the mountain biking class was making for their student. They told me that their son had never wanted to go to school until this year, had never put in much effort into his classes and had always felt like his teachers disliked him. But with the mountain biking class, their student found motivation to come to school, a place where he could excel, a chance to feel comfortable around his classmates and me, and a chance to get some of his energy out in a positive way. It was the perfect timing as it reconfirmed for me the importance of providing students with these types of opportunities in school as ways to build relationships with students and improve their academic performance at the same time.

What are you reading for enjoyment?
I just started “The Book of Joy” by the Dalai Lama, Desmond Tutu and Douglas Adams. I got to see them speak together on a panel when I was in college and I still vividly remember how giddy and happy they were up on stage so I’m excited for the book.

What’s the best advice you ever received?
“Mr. Guinn, why do you have those games in your classroom if you’re never going to let us play them?” — one of my former students, talking about the board games, cards and dice I keep on a shelf in the corner. It reminds me that sometimes what we all need is just a day to have some fun.

Struggling Detroit schools

The story of Detroit’s schools is much more nuanced than many people realize. Here’s how we can cover it together.

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Rynell Sturkey, a first-grade teacher at Paul Robeson Malcolm X Academy on Detroit's west side often manages jam-packed classrooms of 37 kids or more. Her students have no music or art or gym. “They’re with me all day in this room. We’re tired,” she said.

Ever since my husband and I announced to friends and family three years ago that we’d made the somewhat-impulsive decision to sell our apartment in Brooklyn and move with our two small children to downtown Detroit, we’ve been confronted with the same persistent questions:

Erin Einhorn
Erin Einhorn

“You live in Detroit” we’re asked, with a tone of skepticism and, frankly, judgement. “And you have kids?”

The questions are rooted in the perception that the schools in Detroit are so awful that no decent parent with other options would reasonably choose to live in this city. It’s a perception I know is grounded in some deeply concerning conditions in Detroit schools, including many of the issues I’ve covered as a reporter for Chalkbeat. I’ve written about the Detroit teachers and families who alleged in a federal lawsuit last year that the conditions in Detroit schools are so deplorable that they violate children’s right to literacy. I’ve spent time in classrooms where a teaching shortage has meant 37 first-graders packed together all day without a break for music, art or gym. And I’ve seen the heartbreak on the faces of students and parents who’ve learned that the charter school they’d chosen would be closing, leaving them to scramble for another school in a city where choice is abundant, but quality is rare.  

I appreciate the concern from friends and family who are worried about my children, but the truth is that my kids are going to be completely fine. My husband and I have a car and accommodating jobs that enable us to enroll our kids in any school in any neighborhood  — options that poor transportation and the uneven distribution of schools have put out of reach for far too many kids. And, as it happens, we found a great public school right in our own neighborhood where our oldest child now walks every day to kindergarten.

The truth is that the story of Detroit’s school is much more nuanced than most people realize. There are serious challenges — no doubt about that — but we’re not going to be able to address them until we stop asking each other what we’re going to do about educating our own children. We need to start asking what we can do to make sure that families in every neighborhood have a shot at a decent education. That’s what we try to do at Chalkbeat. We aim to tell the stories of teachers and students and parents, to put a human face on challenges that would otherwise be difficult to understand. We look at what’s working in our schools and what urgently needs to change.

This school year marks the first full year that Detroit’s main school district will be led by a new school board and superintendent. And it will be Chalkbeat’s first full school year since we formally launched in Detroit last winter. We hope to grow this year, adding another reporter to help us expand our coverage of early childhood education, special education and other matters crucial to the city’s future. And we’ll continue to cover the important issues affecting Detroit children and the way they learn.

We can’t tell these stories without you. So please — reach out! Introduce yourself, join our community by submitting a story tip, giving us feedback or making a financial contribution. Contact us at detroit.ti[email protected], follow us on Facebook and at @ChalkbeatDET. And, please, keep reading!