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.”

Future of Schools

What it could mean for Indianapolis Public Schools if Ferebee takes a new job

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Lews Ferebee

The revelation that Superintendent Lewis Ferebee was a finalist for the top job in the Los Angeles school district will have broad implications at a critical moment for Indianapolis Public Schools — even though he decided not to pursue the job.

Although Ferebee has withdrawn his name from contention in Los Angeles, he still could be an option for other districts. As U.S. News and World Report’s Lauren Camera reported earlier this month, about a dozen cities are on the hunt for new leaders, including large districts such as Houston and smaller districts such as Washington, D.C.

Five years into his tenure as superintendent of Indiana’s largest district, Ferebee’s agenda has been ambitious, potentially making him a desirable candidate for other school districts. He has spearheaded a radical new approach that is transforming the city’s schools by creating innovation schools, which are considered part of the district but managed by charter or nonprofit operators.

In Indianapolis, Ferebee has faced many of the same issues that urban districts across the country are grappling with, such as declining enrollment, pressure to improve academic results, and severe budget crunches.

But while he may have an itch to move on from Indianapolis, his administration is in the midst of closing nearly half of the district’s high schools, and the district is pursuing plans to ask voters for a dramatic boost in school funding.

Here’s how all those changes could be altered by the news that Ferebee is at least weighing other job opportunities.

It’s not a surprise that he was considering a new job.

Urban superintendents don’t often stay for long — the average tenure is just over three years, according to the Council of Great City Schools — so it’s not surprising that a relatively young superintendent who is drawing national attention might be interested in other jobs.

For superintendents to move up in their careers, hopping to new cities is fairly typical.

A native of South Carolina, Ferebee, 43, spent most of his career in North Carolina before moving in 2013 to take the helm in Indianapolis. He has few ties to the city, and critics and supporters alike have long recognized that Indianapolis is likely just one rung on his career ladder.

For school districts where leaders are interested in offering a portfolio of school options, Ferebee’s track record in Indianapolis — and his increasing national prominence — could be particularly appealing.

In 2016, Ferebee was profiled in Education Week as a leader to learn from, and last year, he was chosen as a fellow by The Broad Academy, a leadership development program supported charter advocate and philanthropist Eli Broad.

But his tenure in Indianapolis hasn’t gone perfectly.

Ferebee’s administration has also had some significant stumbles that cast doubt on whether he would be ready for a larger district. Last year, he announced plans to appeal to voters to increase local taxes and school funding. In the face of pushback, however, the district first reduced its request and then suspended the campaign. Now, leaders are hoping that the Indy Chamber will be able to help them craft a plan that will win voter support.

If he left, it might put Indy in a bind — temporarily.

If Ferebee took another job, it would put Indianapolis leaders in a tough position. The school board would need to find his replacement at the same time the district is facing a host of pressing issues, including high school closings, a school board election, and a campaign to convince taxpayers to increase local school funding.

And he could take some of his top deputies with him, as he did when he came to Indianapolis, leaving the district short-handed at a particularly challenging time.

The current board has largely been on the same page with Ferebee when it comes to the most controversial initiatives in the district, such as creating innovation schools and closing high schools. Board members would likely choose a candidate who would sustain those policies.

But a lot of his most controversial changes could stay in place.

A new superintendent would have huge sway over the district’s future direction. But many of the changes Ferebee has led would be difficult to unwind. Innovation schools, for example, have contracts that last several years, and many of them are also authorized as charter schools, so the district would not immediately be able to back away from the innovation strategy.

Plus, innovation schools have strong support from other players in Indianapolis, such as lawmakers and The Mind Trust, a nonprofit that led the push for the hybrid model.

It is also unlikely that the district would change course on its plan to close high schools because the new superintendent would almost certainly take the helm after the painful process of closing schools was already complete.

It would make the November election of the school board more important.

Three of the seven school board seats are up for election in November, and it is likely that the newly elected board would choose Ferebee’s replacement. It’s not yet clear who is running and how strong the competition might be, but the outcome would be especially important if Ferebee leaves.

If he does take another job, it could be an opportunity for critics of his administration. In recent elections, supporters of Ferebee have dominated. But there is a nascent opposition movement that could be influential in the fall election.

Even though he is staying, the honeymoon is over.

Even with Ferebee withdrawing his name from consideration, the revelation that he was interested in the job in Los Angeles could have a ripple effect. It raises questions about how long he plans to stay in Indianapolis and whether he is applying for other positions.

The new uncertainty about Ferebee’s commitment to Indianapolis comes at a particularly tough moment. In the face of a budget deficit of about $26 million, the administration could soon impose cuts across the district. Earlier this month, the district offered $20,000 buyouts to teachers who retire, and Ferebee has said they are considering other cuts, such as hiring freezes and furloughs for administrators. Those cutbacks will be extra painful if school staff and parents lose faith in the administration.

It also could have broad implications for the campaign to raise more money for schools. After district leaders initially fumbled plans to ask voters for additional money, they are planning to put a referendum on the ballot in November. For that measure to succeed, they must convince community members to vote in favor of raising their own taxes, a difficult sell that will also be made harder if the superintendent loses trust from the community.

contract details

Antwan Wilson being paid $60,000 to consult for Denver Public Schools

Antwan Wilson visits a fifth grade math class at the Brightwood Education Campus in Washington on his first day as D.C. schools chancellor. (Photo by Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

The Denver school district is paying former administrator Antwan Wilson $60,000 to be a part-time consultant for 12 weeks to help to build a strategic plan for a career and technical education program, according to Wilson’s contract.

The contract shows the district determined that Wilson, who was recently forced to resign as Washington, D.C. schools chancellor, was the only person qualified for the consultant job.

“We considered other local or national consulting organizations that could provide these services, but determined they would not be able to meet our needs,” Denver Public Schools Chief Operating Officer David Suppes wrote as justification for why the contract was not put out for competitive bid. Chalkbeat obtained the contract in an open records request.

Suppes cited Wilson’s years of experience managing large urban school districts, as well as his experience leading secondary schools in Denver. Wilson was principal of the now-closed Montbello High School and worked for five years as an assistant superintendent in Denver before becoming superintendent in Oakland, California, and then chancellor in D.C.

He resigned as chancellor in February after it came to light that he skirted the district’s competitive school lottery process to get his oldest daughter into a high-performing school.

Denver Superintendent Tom Boasberg said in a previous Chalkbeat interview that Wilson was a good fit for the consultant job because “he is probably the country’s foremost thinker on these issues around career and technical education and concurrent enrollment,” which allows high school students to take college classes and receive credit for free.

Wilson’s resume says he ran Denver Public Schools’ concurrent enrollment program during his tenure as the assistant superintendent for post-secondary readiness from 2009 to 2014. It also notes he led the district’s career and technical education program.

The number of students taking concurrent enrollment classes increased during his tenure, his resume says. Graduation rates increased and dropout rates decreased, partly due to efforts to open new alternative schools, which the district calls “multiple pathways schools,” it says.

Boasberg said Wilson will be helping to expand the district’s career and technical program, called CareerConnect, to those schools.

Wilson’s consultant contract says he will “support the strategic planning process, including stakeholder engagement, evaluation of successful practices used elsewhere, and assisting the team in thinking through systemic needs for the thoughtful growth of the program.”

The contract notes that Wilson’s position is grant funded. It says his fee includes a $69 per-diem expense and $178 in daily lodging expenses. His fee is based on a $150-per-hour rate, it says.

The contract specifies that Wilson will work two days a week for eight hours a day.

In his justification for why the contract was not competitive, Suppes wrote that local consulting companies that have worked with Denver Public Schools in the past “would not have experience in this area” and would have been more expensive at $175 to $200 an hour.

National consulting companies, Suppes wrote, “are often strong in doing this type of work, but might not have the skill depth available.” Plus, he wrote, the national consultants would have charged two to four times as much as the district is paying Wilson.