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June 24, 2020

A South Bronx school still reeling from the loss of students’ parents to COVID-19 and the unexpected death of a beloved principal is now losing five of its eight guidance counselors due to city budget cuts.

“We’ve been hit hard,” said Kevin Brooks, one of the three remaining counselors at Bronx Academy of Letters. “This added blow was just almost too much.”

Bronx Letters is one of dozens of middle and high schools in the South Bronx and Brownsville, Brooklyn, losing more than 100 critically-needed guidance counselors and social workers after city officials slashed the “Single Shepherd” initiative. Mayor de Blasio once touted the program as central to his education agenda.

The roughly 130 Single Shepherd counselors will be “excessed,” meaning they’ll be reassigned to other open positions in the Education Department, an agency spokesperson said.

It wasn’t immediately clear how much money the city will save by eliminating the program, but an Education Department spokesman said the savings will come from “non-personnel costs.”

Staff at Single Shepherd schools, which serve some of the city’s most vulnerable students, said the cuts make no sense at a time when their students need close emotional support and connection more than ever.

“We’ve definitely experienced a lot of loss,” said Brooks. “Losing our principal, I don’t even really have words for it ... students are going to need someone to talk to.”

De Blasio rolled out the Single Shepherd program in 2016 to fanfare — part of a years-long effort to mend persistent achievement gaps among city students.

The program placed 130 counselors and social workers in the historically under-served South Bronx and Brownsville neighborhoods with the goal of driving down the student-counselor ratios to 100:1 in a city where the average ratio in high schools is more than 200:1.

“They’re the backbone of the community in a lot of ways,” said Brooks, noting the school’s graduation rate rose by more than 30 points in the first year of the initiative. The influx of new counselors lowered the ratio from 325:1 to fewer than 100:1, school staff said.

The deep connections counselors can cultivate with students because of their relatively small caseloads have been particularly vital as students deal with the compounding traumas of the pandemic, pervasive images of police brutality, and the June 4 death of Erin Garry, 36, the school’s principal since 2018.

“Even during the pandemic they have a pulse on how all our kids are doing,” Brooks added.

But the program was among the first on the chopping block when city officials announced more than $200 million in cuts to the Education Department in early April. Since then, officials have announced hundreds of millions more in proposed cuts to the Education Department as the city stares down a projected $9 billion in revenue losses from the pandemic.

Critics including City Council Education Chair Mark Treyger (D-Brooklyn) have said the city should prioritize cuts to the Education Department’s central bureaucracy over slashing schools and classrooms.

City officials are in the midst of budget negotiations, and must reach an agreement by June 30.

Union officials said “excessed” staff will be placed in the same district and borough as their current school, if possible.

In a Friday email reviewed by the Daily News, United Federation of Teachers chapter leaders said they “disagree” with the decision to slash the counseling initiative.

“We made clear to the DOE what you have accomplished and told DOE officials that they should not eliminate the Single Shepherd program, especially now with what we are all facing,” union officials wrote.

Education Department spokesman Nathaniel Styer said schools losing counselors will get additional support from School Resource Clinicians — social workers partially funded by First Lady Chirlane McCray’s ThriveNYC mental health initiative.

“Caring for the students most impacted by this pandemic is absolutely critical, and Shepherds will support schools through the end of the year while we work to make sure they have the support they need for the fall,” he added.

Brooks said his colleagues are devastated they won’t be able to return to Bronx Letters next year, and worry how their already-demoralized students will fare.

Even if the axed counselors do find work at other city schools, they’ll lose the relationships and trust they’ve worked years to build at their current schools, Brooks said.

And schools like Bronx Letters won’t feel the full force of the loss until fall hits, he added.

“It’s not going to be like next year we have a reset,” Brooks said. “There’s going to be a lot of ramifications from this time period that are going to carry over into September.”



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