call for help

Some Bronx students in crisis more likely to be sent to the hospital than a school social worker, advocates say

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
The New Settlement Parent Action committee tied balloons to empty auditorium seats to represent District 9 students who go without social workers.

On a recent visit to a Bronx emergency room, Dejohn Jones witnessed something shocking: a young child who had apparently been removed from his school, who was now surrounded by police officers and strapped to a gurney.

“He was screaming, ‘Unstrap me!’” she remembered.

It’s an all-too-common sight in the Bronx, where schools in community districts 9 and 10 called emergency medical workers to remove students in crisis more often than schools in any other part of the city over the past three years, according to advocates. Those districts encompass some of the city’s poorest neighborhoods, but parents say their schools are forced to over-rely on emergency workers because they are not equipped to meet their students’ mental health needs.

Now — in the wake of a fatal stabbing in a Bronx school — a group of local parents is calling on the city to provide more support services in their schools as a way to prevent mental-health crises and violent outbursts. At a rally this week, the New Settlement Parent Action Committee demanded more social workers in District 9, along with better training for teachers and school leaders.

“It’s evident to me that schools are now deficient in these areas,” said Amanda Gonzalez, a parent leader for the committee, “and there are fewer supports for students and families like mine.”

District 9 includes Yankee Stadium and the neighborhoods of Grand Concourse, Morrisania and Tremont. It borders District 12, where police say an 18-year-old student at Urban Assembly School for Wildlife Conservation used a switchblade to stab two classmates during history class, one fatally. Though schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña recently said there weren’t clear warning signs that something was wrong, reports suggest bullying was a factor, and that the student struggled with mental health difficulties such as depression.

The needs in District 9 are immense, according to the committee.

Last year, 20 percent of students were homeless — the highest percentage in the city, according to the Institute for Children Poverty and Homelessness. Over the last three years, there were more than 280 emergency calls from District 9 schools and 230 transports to the hospital, according to Bronx Legal Services.

Meanwhile, the action committee says there is only one social worker for every 589 students in the district — nearly 12 times higher than the 1-to-50 ratio that the National Association of Social Workers recommends for high-needs communities. The District 9 parent group is calling for the education department to hire more social workers to bring the district in line with those recommendations.

Wesley Guzman, a sophomore at the Bronx Academy for Software Engineering in District 10, said his school tries to support all students, but the one social worker and two guidance counselors on staff are seriously overworked. Guzman said they are important resources for helping students deal with issues in a healthy way rather than acting out.

“I confide in these people because they bring a culture of real and meaningful safety,” he said.

Jones, a parent leader with the committee, said more mental health support will not only keep students safe, but also steer them away from trouble that could lead them into criminal justice system.

She added that students of color rarely get the full support they need. However, she said she was encouraged that officials from the education department attended the rally on Wednesday.

“There’s work that’s being done,” she said, “little by little.”

Education department spokeswoman Miranda Barbot said the District 9 superintendent has offered training in how to “de-escalate” and manage situations that could lead to behavior crises. She also pointed out that there are 21 “community schools” in the district, which provide extra social supports to families.

making the rounds

Tennessee’s new education chief ‘very confident’ that online testing will be smooth in April

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
Tennessee's new education commissioner Penny Schwinn (second from left) met with Douglass High School students and Shelby County Schools leaders Friday.

As Tennessee’s new education commissioner wrapped up her second week on the job by visiting four schools in Shelby County, Penny Schwinn said she feels “very confident” the state has learned from its mistakes in online testing.

During the more than three-hour ride to Memphis on Friday, Schwinn said she continued to pore over documents showing evidence that the corrections the state department staff have put in place will work.

“I feel very confident that our team has looked into that,” she told reporters in a press conference after meeting with students. “They’re working with the vendor to ensure that testing is as smooth as possible this year.” Currently the state is working with Questar, who administered TNReady online last year.

She also said the state’s request for proposals from testing vendors, which is already months behind, will be released in about two weeks.

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
From left: John Bush, principal of Douglass High School; Penny Schwinn, Tennessee Education Commissioner; and Joris Ray, interim superintendent for Shelby County Schools.

“No later than that,” she said. “We hope and expect to have a vendor in place before the end of the fiscal year,” in late June.

The day Schwinn was hired, she said getting state testing right would be her first priority. Three years of major technical failures have severely damaged the trust educators and parents have in the state’s test, TNReady. It is the main measure of how schools and teachers are doing, but state lawmakers exempted districts from most testing consequences in 2018.


From Schwinn’s first day on the job: Tennessee’s new education chief wants to ‘listen and learn’ with school visits


Prior to talking with reporters, Schwinn said she heard “hard-hitting questions” from several students at Douglass High School in Memphis about what the state can do to improve education. Schwinn has said she will visit Tennessee schools throughout her tenure to ‘listen and learn’ by talking to students and educators.

Reporters were not allowed to attend the student discussion with Schwinn and some Shelby County Schools leaders.

Douglass High entered Shelby County Schools’ turnaround program, known as the iZone, in 2016 and saw high academic growth in its first year. But test scores fell this past year as the state wrestled with online malfunctions.

Timmy Becton Jr., a senior at Douglass High, said he hopes for fewer tests and more projects to demonstrate what a student has learned. Those kind of assessments, he said, can help a student connect what they are learning to their daily life.

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
Tennessee’s new education commissioner met with students at Douglass High School and Shelby County Schools leaders.

“We figured it would be a different way to measure and see how much knowledge a student really has on a specific subject,” he told Chalkbeat after meeting with Schwinn during a student roundtable session. “It’s a good alternative to taking tests.”

He said he was “surprised and happy” to see Schwinn actively seek student perspectives.

“I really think that’s the most important part because students are the ones going to school every day,” Becton said. “So, if you want to find a good perspective on how to solve a problem, it’s really great to talk to the people who are actively involved in it and the people who are actually experiencing these problems directly.”

The state’s annual testing window runs from April 15 to May 3.

Unmet needs

A social worker in every grade? Perhaps for 10 Colorado elementary schools

PHOTO: Ann Schimke/Chalkbeat
Fifth-graders practice mindfulness at Munroe Elementary School in Denver.

Educators, parents, and social workers told of students struggling with depression, younger and younger children attempting suicide, and youths ending up in prison. A bill approved Thursday by a Colorado House committee would pay for a three-year trial to provide social and emotional help for elementary students in the hopes of addressing some of these challenges.

If approved by the full legislature and signed into law, the measure would create a three-year pilot program at 10 high-needs schools. It is estimated to cost about $5 million a year. House Bill 1017 would place social workers, counselors or psychologists in every elementary grade at the test schools starting next year.

In an impassioned presentation, bill sponsor state Rep. Dafna Michaelson Jenet, a Commerce City Democrat, said schools need more social workers “to stop our children from dying by suicide, from ending up incarcerated, from being failed by our system.”

Suicide is a leading cause of death among youth ages 10 to 24 in Colorado, and advocates of the bill said schools are often ill-equipped to deal with children suffering from trauma, bullying and behavioral challenges.

The bill was scaled back from an original version that would have cost $16 million a year. Michaelson Jenet said the nearly $5 million annual cost would be funded in part by $2.5 million from the state’s marijuana cash fund, with the rest from private foundations.

The National Association of Social Workers recommends one social worker for every 250 students, and one for every 50 students at high-needs schools.

Colorado schools don’t come close to those numbers.

About one-third of the state’s 178 school districts employed social workers during the 2016-17 school year, the most recent for which data was available from the Colorado Department of Education. Those districts represented about 89 percent of that year’s 905,000 pre-K through 12th grade students.

The nearly 590 social workers employed worked out to less than one full-time employee per 1,000 students.

Englewood’s Sheridan School District had three social workers for 1,511 students, while Yuma County had 1½ social workers for 807 students.

The two largest districts, Denver and Jefferson County, employed more than one-third of school social workers that year, with more than one social worker for every 1,000 students. Denver voters approved a 2016 tax to help pay for more social workers.

But many districts have no social workers. And most school social workers are stretched thin.

Jessie Caggiano is a social worker who serves more than 3,000 students at four high schools in Weld County.

“I’m not able to meet with students effectively on a one-on-one basis, because I’m trying to implement other services schoolwide,” she said. “I’m only at each of my schools one day a week, so I’m not able to meet their needs by any means.”

Darlene Sampson, president of the Colorado chapter of the Association of Black Social Workers, recalled working at a Denver school when a student was killed in the cafeteria.

“Many kids are carrying their trauma in their backpacks into the school,” Sampson said.

And Cam Short-Camilli, representing the Colorado School Social Work Association, said students are facing increased emotional problems at most schools. The increase in youth suicide and suicide attempts is especially difficult, she said. One Denver incident last fall attracted national attention.

“Every school district, every student is impacted, that’s rural, urban, suburban schools,” Short-Camilli said. “In the past five years, I’ve been at elementary schools, and it’s been extremely shocking. Kids at those schools, there’s an immense ripple effect.”

But state Rep. James Wilson, a Salida Republican, questioned whether the pilot program would be possible to replicate because of the high number of professionals needed.

“I’m sitting here feeling like the Grinch,” Wilson said. “I cannot bring myself to put together an unrealistic pilot. Will it really work in the real world?”

State Rep. Janet Buckner, an Aurora Democrat, also expressed concerns, but voted for the bill.

“I’m concerned how we’re going to fund it,” she sad. “The suicide rate is off the chart and our kids need so much help. I don’t think we can wait. I have a lot of phone calls and emails about this bill, people who really need the help.”

HB-1017 next goes to the Appropriations Committee before being considered by the full House, then the Senate. It is one of several measures aimed at offering help for students and their families beyond academics at public schools.