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.

testing 1-2-3

Tennessee students to test the test under reworked computer platform

PHOTO: Getty Images

About 45,000 high school students in a third of Tennessee districts will log on Tuesday for a 40-minute simulation to make sure the state’s testing company has worked the bugs out of its online platform.

That platform, called Nextera, was rife with glitches last spring, disrupting days of testing and mostly disqualifying the results from the state’s accountability systems for students, teachers, and schools.

This week’s simulation is designed to make sure those technical problems don’t happen again under Questar, which in June will finish out its contract to administer the state’s TNReady assessment.

Tuesday’s trial run will begin at 8:30 a.m. in participating high schools statewide to simulate testing scheduled for Nov. 26-Dec. 14, when some students will take their TNReady exams. Another simulation is planned before spring testing begins in April on a much larger scale.

The simulation is expected to involve far more than the 30,000 students who will test in real life after Thanksgiving. It also will take into account that Tennessee is split into two time zones.

“We’re looking at a true simulation,” said Education Commissioner Candice McQueen, noting that students on Eastern Time will be submitting their trial test forms while students on Central Time are logging on to their computers and tablets.

The goal is to verify that Questar, which has struggled to deliver a clean TNReady administration the last two years, has fixed the online problems that caused headaches for students who tried unsuccessfully to log on or submit their end-of-course tests.


Here’s a list of everything that went wrong with TNReady testing in 2018


The two primary culprits were functions that Questar added after a successful administration of TNReady last fall but before spring testing began in April: 1) a text-to-speech tool that enabled students with special needs to receive audible instructions; and 2) coupling the test’s login system with a new system for teachers to build practice tests.

Because Questar made the changes without conferring with the state, the company breached its contract and was docked $2.5 million out of its $30 million agreement.

“At the end of the day, this is about vendor execution,” McQueen told members of the State Board of Education last week. “We feel like there was a readiness on the part of the department and the districts … but our vendor execution was poor.”

PHOTO: TN.gov
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen

She added: “That’s why we’re taking extra precautions to verify in real time, before the testing window, that things have actually been accomplished.”

By the year’s end, Tennessee plans to request proposals from other companies to take over its testing program beginning in the fall of 2019, with a contract likely to be awarded in April.

The administration of outgoing Gov. Bill Haslam has kept both of Tennessee’s top gubernatorial candidates — Democrat Karl Dean and Republican Bill Lee — in the loop about the process. Officials say they want to avoid the pitfalls that happened as the state raced to find a new vendor in 2014 after the legislature pulled the plug on participating in a multi-state testing consortium known as PARCC.


Why state lawmakers share the blame, too, for TNReady testing headaches


“We feel like, during the first RFP process, there was lots of content expertise, meaning people who understood math and English language arts,” McQueen said. “But the need to have folks that understand assessment deeply as well as the technical side of assessment was potentially missing.”

talking SHSAT

Love or hate the specialized high school test, New York City students take the exam this weekend

PHOTO: Christina Veiga/Chalkbeat
At a town hall this summer in Brooklyn's District 15, parents protested city plans to overhaul admissions to elite specialized high schools.

The Specialized High Schools Admissions Test has been both lauded as a fair measure for who gets accepted to the city’s most coveted high schools — and derided as the cause for starkly segregating them.

This weekend, the tense debate is likely to be far from the minds of thousands of students as they sit for the three-hour exam, which currently stands as the sole admissions criteria for vaunted schools such as Stuyvesant and Brooklyn Tech.

All the debate and all the policy stuff that’s been happening —  it’s just words and there really isn’t anything concrete that’s been put into place yet. So until it happens, they just continue on,” said Mahalia Watson, founder of the website Let’s Talk Schools, an online guide for parents navigating their school options.

Mayor Bill de Blasio this summer ignited a firestorm with a proposal to nix the SHSAT and instead offer admission to top middle school students across the city. Critics say the test is what segregates students, offering an advantage to families who can afford tutoring or simply are more aware of the importance of the exam. Only 10 percent of specialized high school students are black or Hispanic, compared to almost 70 percent of all students citywide.

For some, the uproar, coupled with a high profile lawsuit claiming Harvard University discriminates against Asian applicants, has only added to the pressure to get a seat at a specialized school. Asian students make up about 62 percent of enrollment at specialized high schools, and families from that community have lobbied hard to preserve the way students are admitted.

One Asian mother told Chalkbeat in an email that, while she believes in the need for programs that promote diversity, the SHSAT is “a color blind and unbiased” admissions measure. Her daughter has been studying with the help of test prep books, and now she wonders whether it will be enough.  

“In my opinion, options for a good competitive high school are very limited,” the mom wrote. “With all the recent news of the mayor trying to change the admission process to the specialized high schools and the Harvard lawsuit makes that more important for her to get acceptance.”

Last year, 28,000 students took the SHSAT, and only 5,000 were offered admission. Among this year’s crop of hopeful students is Robert Mercier’s son, an eighth grader with his sights set on High School of American Studies at Lehman College.

Mercier has encouraged his son to study for the test — even while hoping that the admissions system will eventually change. His son plays catcher on a baseball team and is an avid debater at school, activities that Mercier said are important for a well-rounded student and should be factored into admissions decisions.

“If you don’t do well on that one test but you’ve been a great student your whole career,” Mercier said, “I just don’t think that’s fair and I don’t think that’s necessarily a complete assessment of a student’s abilities or worth.”