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Shepherding success

New York Teacher

The Single Shepherd program, which launched in September, was designed to boost high school graduation and college enrollment rates in two of the most challenging school districts in New York City [see “Good ‘Shepherds’”]. Mayor Bill de Blasio is to be commended for backing a program that helps the students who too often fall between the cracks. 

By assigning a “shepherd” — a social worker or guidance counselor — to every student in the middle and high schools in those two districts, the program helps these students stay on track for graduation. But it’s about more than after-school tutoring or helping students select the right high school and college when it’s time for those momentous decisions. The shepherds meet with parents and engage them in the child’s learning — and in the life of the school community. 

Shepherds also help students living in crisis: They may be crammed into temporary housing with other family members or caring for younger siblings; some may be dealing with the death of a parent or shaken by violence too close to home. These are the kinds of experiences that frequently derail students with few resources to manage the stress, uncertainty and grief they face, often on a daily basis. Dealing with the whole child — not just classroom behavior and homework assignments — gives the student a fighting chance to overcome obstacles that many of us cannot imagine. 

Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña put it best at the training in 2016 for the shepherds: “We can’t separate our students from their home lives. We can’t separate students from their neighborhoods. Your job is all encompassing.” 

The program is only in District 7 in the South Bronx and District 23 in central Brooklyn so far. Launching the $15 million program meant hiring 130 social workers and guidance counselors to serve 16,000 students in 52 schools across the two districts. Our hope is that the program is expanded to the many other districts that can benefit from its focus on the success of at-risk students.