making moves

The big IDEA: Inside the fast-growing charter network you might not know yet

It’s been 20 years since teachers Tom Torkelson and JoAnn Gama founded an after-school program in Donna, Texas, a city of about 16,000 along the U.S.-Mexico border.

By 2000, Torkelson and Gama had turned the program into a charter school with a light bulb logo. They named it “Individuals Dedicated to Excellence and Achievement.”

Now, it’s just known as IDEA, and is a network of 79 schools. Portable classrooms remain on that Donna campus, with “WHATEVER IT TAKES” and “CLOSING THE ACHIEVEMENT GAP” on signs in the windows — reminders, educators said during a recent tour, of the network’s origins. But IDEA’s roots are now spreading even further beyond the dusty Texas terrain where it was founded.

The campus in Donna is the flagship of a network poised to become the second largest nonprofit charter network in the U.S. this year. IDEA already serves 45,000 students, mostly in the Austin, San Antonio, and El Paso areas, and it’s moving fast, starting 18 schools this fall alone. Four opened in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, the network’s first foray outside Texas.

IDEA is also planning schools for New Orleans and Tampa, Florida, and its leaders have had talks with state officials in New Mexico. It’s making deeper inroads into the Lone Star State, too, including competitive areas like Houston and Dallas-Fort Worth. In four years, the network hopes to have 100,000 students in 173 schools.

But Torkelson told Chalkbeat his big-picture goal is even larger: in 10 years, IDEA wants to reach 250,000 students, putting it on par with some of the country’s largest school districts.

To get there, the network is looking at cities across the country where they think IDEA could succeed, including Cincinnati, Ohio. Sixty principals-in-training are already on staff, he said.

“The need piece is obviously easy — almost every urban area in the U.S. needs better schools,” Torkelson said. Now, they’re looking for outside support. “Our whole thing is, this is who we are. Let’s find people who like who we are.”

Big ambitions are nothing new for charter school networks. But this is an expansion worth watching, as IDEA tries to export the model it forged by teaching mostly Latino students near the border to very different communities — at a pace that few, if any, others are looking to match.

Nationally, that kind of growth is “more the exception,” said Todd Ziebarth of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. “It’s challenging enough to do it even if you’re just trying to open another school nearby or within the same state.”

That pace of growth raises lots of questions, he said: How will you fund the schools? Staff them all? Handle regulations in new states?

Some networks with “radical” growth plans have faltered, he noted, pointing to the Rocketship charter schools. But IDEA’s steady, deliberate growth to this point and the schools’ results for low-income students of color may put it on steadier footing, he said.

Indeed, IDEA has a track record of doing well with students who often struggle. Nearly 90 percent of IDEA’s students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, and most are students of color living in historically Latino-dominant communities. A national study of charter networks found IDEA was among those that had a positive impact on student learning.

According to a recent analysis by the Dallas Morning News, 29 of 56 eligible IDEA campuses would have earned an A under Texas’s new A-F accountability system. That’s one of the highest rates of any school system in the state. (The state did not release campus grades this year; the News calculated those ratings using available data.) IDEA also says 58 percent of graduates earn a diploma in six years from a four-year college.

Who, exactly, those graduates are is a topic of contention, especially among leaders of local school districts. IDEA’s schools enroll students through a lottery, but some students with past criminal or disciplinary records can be excluded.

“We don’t have a choice as to who comes to our doors,” said René Gutiérrez, superintendent of the Edinburg school district, where IDEA has three campuses.

Once students arrive, a sizeable chunk also leave IDEA within four years — at one point, at least one-third of students did. The schools’ share of students with disabilities is low, too: 4.8 percent in 2016-17. Texas’ statewide rate was 8.8 percent that year, and the state’s rates have been low enough to spark a federal investigation. (Torkelson says the network’s teaching practices allow students to avoid being labeled; the network did not provide updated numbers on students who leave.)

The network leans into its “no excuses” motto — it’s even on their uniforms. Discipline is strict, school days are somewhat long, and students are required to apply to a college and get accepted to earn their high school diploma.

And as other no-excuses networks have tried to add more wiggle room to the “college for all” idea, IDEA has held firm. “If you don’t believe that every student should go to college, you don’t belong,” Ernesto Cantu, head of IDEA’s El Paso office, said earlier this year.

But IDEA has been able to avoid some of the criticism that has dogged other no-excuses schools because observers also say IDEA is unusually culturally competent. The schools’ suspension numbers are low, and the network’s teaching staff is 85 percent non-white. Counselors at the Donna campus said in the days after the 2016 presidential election, leaders spent time reassuring students and staff that the school would help them navigate any immigration policy changes and acknowledged the growing amount of racist rhetoric about Latinos that students were encountering.

As IDEA started serving more black students in schools north of the Rio Grande Valley, and after high-profile shootings in 2016 left both police officers and unarmed young black men dead, Gama and other school leaders lamented the deaths on Facebook using the Black Lives Matter hashtag. Some parents complained the posts were anti-police and even threatened to withdraw their kids in protest, according to Texas media reports. But IDEA reiterated its support, saying it sent an important message to their black students.

“This was a school I tried to recruit a decade ago to come into Louisiana when I was working in the state department of education there,” said Chris Meyer, now the CEO of the pro-school-choice organization New Schools for Baton Rouge, where IDEA serves a largely black student population and plans to open more schools. “They seem to know their DNA well.”

That sense of identity has already been tested as the network moved out of its base in the Valley.

When IDEA first expanded into Austin in 2011, the network took over a low-scoring campus in the local school district. Community activists mobilized, the backlash sent people to the polls, the school board’s membership changed, and the partnership offer was rescinded the following year. IDEA failed to build local relationships, Torkelson acknowledges.

“We should’ve known better,” he said. “It was naïve and it was foolish and we got clobbered.”

As IDEA’s initial foray into Austin was imploding, the charter won crucial support in San Antonio from David Robinson, the locally beloved NBA champion. He handed IDEA the keys to Carver Academy, a school he had helped create, and smoothed over relations in that community.

IDEA went on to open its own campus in Austin. It now has 10 schools there, and thanks to a $16 million boost from the Austin-based KLE Foundation, IDEA’s plans are to reach 26 schools in the Austin area by 2022, serving as many as 20,000 students.

Those experiences have led IDEA to its current playbook — one that more communities are likely to see up close in the years ahead.

The network’s leaders say they do a better job of finding trusted local advocates. Torkelson said the reason they are headed to Louisiana and Tampa Bay, Florida is because leaders have welcomed them. In Florida, Torkelson said State Rep. Michael Bileca — who pushed for that state’s new “Schools of Hope” program, which encourages charter schools to open near struggling district schools — reached out to IDEA several years ago.

Another factor: money. Last year, IDEA launched a fundraising campaign of $250 million to help fund its growth. It won $67 million from the federal government last year as well; a document it filed then indicates it had raised nearly $75 million from the state of Texas and a number of foundations. The organization’s goal has since been upped to $350 million.

That money allows IDEA to spend on facilities and teacher training before opening a campus and hire salaried administrators months and sometimes years in advance.

“It’s no coincidence I’m on the ground 18 months before the schools launch,” Ana Martinez, who is leading IDEA’s expansion into the Fort Worth area, told Education Post earlier this year.

Research has shown that high-performing charter schools can scale without losing their effectiveness by closely emulating the original schools’ practices. In that sense, IDEA appears to have well-laid plans.

“I have been hired to bake an IDEA cake,” Martinez said. “There are things that always go in the cake, whether I bake it in Baton Rouge or Fort Worth: the sugar, the eggs, the flour. I won’t negotiate the eggs, the flour and the sugar but I have autonomy for everything else.”

Still, scaling fast comes with risks. KIPP, which Torkelson has called a “close cousin,” remains the country’s biggest nonprofit network and is still expanding rapidly: its enrollment goal by 2020 represents doubling the number of students served in about five years, a KIPP spokesman said. But many other networks have decided against opening more than a couple of schools per year because of concerns about maintaining quality.

“KIPP is really one of the only successful networks doing what IDEA is doing on a larger scale,” Ziebarth said.

Robin Lake of the Center for Reinventing Public Education, which is generally supportive of charters, said that rapidly growing systems can also start to face the same bureaucratic challenges that larger traditional public school districts do. There are also signs that it will be harder to mount this expansion now than it might have been a decade ago. National polls show that charters have become increasingly synonymous with the Republican political agenda, which is itself unpopular among the key places IDEA plans to go.

“The conversation around charter and private schools is more politicized than it used to be, and is a chief dynamic that has had an impact in urban areas, which tend to be more liberal and where charters are most active,” Lake said.

Many school districts are also beginning to really feel the pain of falling enrollment as networks like IDEA siphon anywhere from 5, 10, or even 20 percent of their students. That could provoke backlash against IDEA’s expansion, Lake said.

The network’s national plans beyond Louisiana remain a few years off. In the shorter term, though, IDEA’s biggest battles may happen in its own home state.

Already, if you drive from San Antonio to Austin, you’ll see a billboard alongside Interstate 35 touting IDEA’s new campus in Kyle, a growing town outside of Austin. And along the main highway into and out of the Valley, you’ll encounter a billboard by the Edinburg Consolidated Independent School District touting its “A” ratings. That district has seen enrollment fall by several hundred students in the last five years.

“We each just go about own business, and we just focus on ourselves and, for me personally, on what I can do and what I can control,” said Gutiérrez, the Edinburg superintendent. “I think we try to better ourselves every year regardless if there are charter schools or not.”


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.



‘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.”