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Good ‘Shepherds’

Program uses guidance counselors and social workers to keep students from falling through cracks
New York Teacher

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PS/MS 31 colleagues (from left) Deidre Thomas, an assistant principal; guidance

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Social worker Angove helps a 7th-grade student look for a potential high school.
Social worker Juliette Angove had observed the disruptive behavior of the 7th-grader in November.

“He was tearing up paper, not listening, and he could be rude at times,” said Angove, who works at PS/MS 31 in the Concourse Village section of the Bronx. “He appeared not to be paying attention.” Angove also observed something else: When the teacher called on him, he answered the question correctly.

By February, “he was a different child,” said Angove. “He was ready to focus on his work.”

Angove was well-positioned to help the student thanks to the Single Shepherd program introduced at PS/MS 31 at the beginning of this school year. The program pairs every middle and high school student at a participating school with a guidance counselor or social worker for support through graduation and college enrollment.

Mayor Bill de Blasio and Chancellor Carmen Fariña launched the initiative in September in District 7 in the South Bronx and District 23 in central Brooklyn to raise high school graduation rates and college enrollment and to boost math and English language arts proficiency rates that are below the citywide average. The program serves 16,000 students in both districts.

The participating guidance counselors and social workers attend monthly training in therapeutic crisis intervention, LGBTQ issues, career counseling and other topics. As part of their work, they meet with students one-on-one and in groups and make sure parents are engaged with their children as well. They get to know the student in and out of the classroom, in after-school programs and even on home visits. They stay with their grade cohort until its members graduate from the school.

When Angove met with the 7th-grader’s family, she learned his mother doesn’t speak English, so she used a translator app on her mobile phone during the meeting. “We spoke about his potential,” she said. “He was bright, but not engaged.” Boosting his confidence and bringing his mother into the conversation brought change within months. “He started doing homework and got 100 percent on a math test,” Angove said.

Angove and her Single Shepherd colleagues, social worker Caryn Giaimo and guidance counselor Veronica Mentar, are all new to PS/MS 31, where they help ease the caseload of the guidance counselor and social worker already on staff. They say the program is helping them connect with students who might otherwise fall through the cracks. And the students are responding in a big way to the emotional support they receive. The Single Shepherd team also praised the teachers, who have welcomed them and shared information.

“It’s amazing how quickly these three women have become a thread in the fabric of our school community,” said Chapter Leader Miviam Sciarrino. “They can’t walk down the hall without students calling out their names, like an SOS signal.”

For the Single Shepherd social workers and guidance counselors, it means gaining the confidence of a student who might be grieving the death of a family member, living in temporary housing or facing other challenges that make it difficult to focus in class.

Giaimo said the program enables her to “really see the whole child — academically, socially and emotionally.” Parents are invited to the school, and not just for official meetings.

One day Giaimo saw a parent lingering outside the school. “I told him, ‘Your son is having an amazing day today, come inside,’” she said. It was a good visit for the son, too, once he got over his surprise.

The Single Shepherd program also bridges the gap between home and school by offering family workshops on how students’ brains develop and how to help them with homework. After-school programs teach students how to study.

Mentar works with the 8th-graders, helping them determine which high schools best fit their interests. This is the first year 8th-graders were placed in high schools they selected themselves.

“Eighth-graders are nervous,” Mentar said. “It’s sinking in that they’ll be leaving this safe haven. I’ve discussed with them what it means to change and move on. And that it’s OK to feel sadness, longing and excitement.” If they attend a District 7 high school, she’ll connect graduates with a new Single Shepherd social worker or counselor.

Angove said it’s been gratifying to see the change in that once-troublesome student.

“He’s sitting in the front of the class and telling other students to pay attention,” Angove said. “He wants to be the first in his family on the school honor roll and the first to go to college.”

Related Topics: Struggling Schools
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