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Testimony regarding the fiscal year 2020 preliminary budget and best practices in addressing the impact of social-emotional health initiatives


Testimony submitted to the New York City Council Committee on Mental Health, Disabilities and Addiction

The United Federation of Teachers (UFT) wishes to thank Chair Diana Ayala and the Committee on Mental Health, Disabilities and Addiction for the opportunity to share our views on the Fiscal Year 2020 preliminary budget and best practices inaddressing the impact of social-emotional health initiatives on school climate and school discipline.

We also want to thank Speaker Corey Johnson, Finance Committee Chair Daniel Dromm and the entire City Council for its support for public education and its advocacy on behalf of our members and students.

Too many of our children — from our earliest learners to those on the precipice of adulthood — grow and learn battling the challenges of poverty. As reported last fall by the Research Alliance, the statistics on students living in shelters or temporary housing are staggering and rising — and now stand at approximately 1 in 10 students. These challenges, including food insecurity, homelessness and lack of basic needs pose obstacles to learning and exacerbate any underlying mental health issues for our students and their families.

Further, when students are facing crisis, or in instances where a tragedy hits a school community, access to skilled professionals can keep a difficult situation from intensifying or creating chaos. Whether it’s our members or the students we serve, we know the value of equipping school communities with the ability to diagnose, treat, refer and de-escalate conditions that otherwise can upend mental and emotional stability.

Our testimony narrowly focuses on the UFT’s programs and initiatives that support mental health, social-emotional development and crisis intervention.  In lieu of an analysis of the broad scope of the ThriveNYC budget and programs, our discussion and recommendations center on what the UFT has shown can make a real difference to our students, their families and our members and how the City Council, ThriveNYC and the Department of Education, through the upcoming city budget, can support the union’s work.

How the City Council can best support the UFT’s mental health and wellness work

The UFT offered testimony earlier this month seeking the City Council’s support for the Positive Learning Collaborative, the Community Learning Schools (now United Community Schools), the BRAVE anti-bullying campaign and for restoring funding for social workers, among other initiatives. While it’s unnecessary to repeat our full funding request, we’d like to state upfront, these are the specific areas where the support of the Committee on Mental Health, Disabilities and Addiction will have a significant impact on expanding our union’s mental health services.  

  • Positive Learning Collaborative — This joint venture of the UFT and the DOE is designed to change the behavior of children and adults through restorative practices.
  • United Community Schools (formerly CLS) — This UFT community schools initiativeaddresses barriers to learning so our students, many of whom are highest-needs, achieve academic and socio-emotional success. We educate the whole child. The UFT provides six schools with social workers to deliver clinical support to at-risk students, including crisis intervention, de-escalation and support to their families. Our social workers also run staff trainings on behavioral management strategies.
  • BRAVE — The UFT's BRAVE anti-bullying campaign aims to combat bullying in our schools. Short for Building Respect, Acceptance and Voice through Education, this initiative provides educators, parents and students with the tools, knowledge and support to be pro-active in confronting and stopping bullying.

How ThriveNYC can best augment the ongoing work in schools

Among the vast array of ThriveNYC-funded programs and initiatives across many of the city’s agencies, the UFT believes that its Thrive in the Workplace, through the Office of Labor Relations, and Single Shepherd, through the DOE, can best augment our endeavors.

  • Member Assistance Program (MAP) — In 2009, the UFT introduced MAP, which has trained professional counselors who guide our members through the problems that can put their health and job in jeopardy.

Our MAP employs three full-time and one part-time licensed mental health professionals to serve more than 150,000 union members in our 1,800 New York City public schools; these staff members are fully paid by the union.  Over the past nine years we have served thousands of members, including the more than 6,000 new teachers who have joined the union in the last few years, so they can be successful educators and stay in the profession longer.

In comparison to other city unionized employees, the UFT has fewer licensed clinical mental health professionals. District Council 37 has 20 mental health professionals for its 125,000 members, while the New York Police Department has six for its 30,000 members and the New York Employee Assistance Program has 12 covering 150,000 members. The city pays for the mental health professionals for these other unionized employees, while the UFT foots the bill on its own.

Funding support for additional clinical staff through Thrive in the Workplace would enable us to better serve our members.

  • ThriveNYC Single Shepherd program — The UFT supports the guiding premise of the Single Shepherd program, as it is designed for school counselors and social workers to have a small caseload of 100:1. In principle, this initiative enables our members to give more individualized attention to their students, follow up with families, and create schedules that address the needs of their caseload and the school. Further, Single Shepherd should allow for more interventions to be in place to support students and set up preventative programs that assist with social and emotional concerns.

Outside of the Single Shepherd program, school counselor caseloads are burdensome. The union reviewed the 20 schools with the highest caseload ratios per the high school and middle school divisions; the numbers are disturbing. The worst caseloads in the middle school division ranged from 580 students per counselor to more than 1,300.  In the high school division the caseloads ranged from more than 425 to nearly 1,200.

While we have some concerns with respect to the DOE’s supervision of Single Shepherd, which we will outline below, how much more effectively could our members serve their students if their caseload dropped to 100?

Funding support for additional clinical staff through ThriveNYC’s Single Shepherd program could greatly reduce counselor workloads. 

The UFT supports mental health initiatives

The UFT has a long track record of prioritizing safety and health more broadly and mental health in particular. It is why decades ago we established a safety and health department, where our staff includes licensed clinical social workers. Our safety and health department has launched several initiatives over the years that support mental health, including the Member Assistance Program (MAP), the BRAVE anti-bullying campaign and the partnership with the union’s United Community Schools (UCS, formerly the Community Learning Schools Initiative), which embeds dedicated social workers in some of its schools.

In addition, the union’s Welfare Fund staffs its Health and Cancer Hotline with social workers and caseworkers to help members and their families with the stress brought on by critical illness and navigating the complex healthcare process.

Further, the union’s special education division has partnered with the DOE on an initiative to bring therapeutic crisis intervention into our schools — the Positive Learning Collaborative (PLC); it oversees our school psychologists and social workers, school counselors and clinical therapist chapters, providing valuable professional learning and Continuing Teacher and Leader Education (CTLE) hours. These members, whose expertise is routinely called upon, remain connected to the pulse of what students and their teachers face daily and grasp the depth of the need for mental health services and support.

We’d like to dive more deeply into our approach to mental health support via our PLC, MAP and UCS initiatives.

Positive Learning Collaborative (PLC)

Through the joint UFT-DOE Positive Learning Collaborative, a research-based, data driven model whereall adults in a school building are trained by staff members skilled in therapeutic crisis intervention (including social workers and other mental health clinicians)to cultivate strong relationships with students, to recognize when students are facing crises that could lead to behavioral problems, and in techniques that help them defuse student conflicts. This is particularly important for children who face extraordinary challenges such as homelessness or disability, and who are much more likely than their peers to be disciplined or suspended.

In New York City, the six public schools with a total of 3,400 children in the first cohort of the Positive Learning Collaborative have seen an 82 percent drop in suspensions, and a drop of more than half in the kind of violent incidents that usually lead to suspensions.

At the same time, academic gains have either kept pace with or exceeded the citywide gains in standardized test results, while both staff and parents have reported increased levels of trust among all parties and a calmer and more nurturing school environment.

One such example is PS 42 in the Bronx, a school where large numbers of children grapple with traumas such as homelessness, and where discipline had been a problem. To try to turn the school around, new Principal Lucia Orduz brought in new resources and PLC, which introduced programs to train teachers in a variety of restorative justice practices.

United Community Schools (formerly CLS)

The UFT spearheaded our community schools model, now under the banner of United Community Schools, to address barriers to learning so our students, many of whom are highest-needs, achieve academic and socio-emotional success. We educate and provide supports for the whole child. This integration of classroom instruction, health and wellness services, academic interventions and enrichment programs, together with family and community engagement — all operating seamlessly— has proven to be both challenging and successful.  Each of our 31 schools provide additional mental health programming to handle the high cases of trauma-related mental health issues such as difficulties in self-regulation, problems relating to others, anxiety, depression and attention issues, to both support what mental health services already exist in the schools and provide necessary clinical and one-on-one counseling that schools desperately need but are lacking.  Additional mental health programming may be available through a school-based health or mental health clinic, a nonprofit organization focused on mental health or by hiring additional social workers focused on children’s at-risk and crisis cases.

At PS/IS 184 in Brooklyn’s Brownsville neighborhood, our dedicated social worker Tamika Abdullah brings her clinical care acumen to at-risk students and innovative social-emotional approaches to their teachers. She introduced the school’s anti-bullying initiative, which committed both students and their teachers to an anti-bullying pledge, with accompanying poster boards designed and displayed by each class. Abdullah introduced restorative circles to the 3rd-grade Integrated Co-Teaching class. The students check in on a color-coded board to indicate their moods. She’s fulfilling her goal and laying the mental health groundwork for PS/IS 184 to become, in her words, “a trauma-informed school.” Our city’s children would greatly benefit from a social worker in every school.

Member Assistance Program (MAP)

Our services are confidential, professional and supportive. Any UFT member may receive short term individual counseling through MAP. This is a therapeutic process through which members work one-on-one with a trained licensed mental health professional — in a safe, caring and confidential environment — to explore feelings, beliefs or behaviors, and to work through challenges toward desired change. MAP services are free and confidential.

Equally critical, our MAP counselors team up with our central Victim Support clinical counselors, school safety staff and borough safety coordinators to guide them through the process in cases where children and members experience violence, trauma or a sudden loss of a member of the school community. Our counselors also conduct group grief counseling for members, with sessions in the fall and spring.

At a recent UFT Delegate Assembly, James Cochran, the UFT chapter leader at the High School for Youth and Community Development at Erasmus Campus in Brooklyn, delivered a compelling plea for more MAP counselors after a student was shot and killed in the lobby of the teen’s own apartment building. Our members and school administrators struggled with their own grief and how to best support the students. Without DOE clinical staff on the borough crisis teams to support schools, our members and the students relied on the Union Crisis Intervention psychologist and clinical social worker to guide them through the painful process.

The UFT supports greater transparency

The UFT champions transparency and data gathering to best inform policy decisions —to expand what’s working and improve what’s falling short of the mark.  We are not in a position to analyze the budget requests before the City Council on ThriveNYC, but overall we see the possibilities for enhanced transparency and checks and balances. It is our understanding, for instance, that many ThriveNYC Mental Health Consultants are not, in fact, mental health professionals. We believe the DOE should survey the schools in the program to assess the nature of services provided and whether the school communities found the services useful.

As it relates specifically to how the DOE supports mental health initiatives,the Single Shepherd program was to provide close supervision for members so they could implement best practices.  Our counselors were also to follow their students from grade to grade. Our members deeply believe in this initiative and want it to work, but the communication has been lacking and our members are frustrated. Our counselors’ directives change capriciously and constantly with little support from supervisors. Often Single Shepherd school counselors are assigned inappropriate tasks by their principals, resulting in longer working hours without additional compensation. Yet according to how the process is designed, these counselors should only receive their assignments from their Single Shepherd supervisors. Essentially, the DOE has failed in implementation.

The DOE does have crisis intervention teams in every borough.  These teams of typically three or four individuals are administrators — they’re not clinical social workers or psychologists.  Without clinical staff on their crisis teams, the DOE cannot provide the appropriate input, based on clinical best practice, to the school in crisis. This is particularly problematic in cases like student suicide. In a recent case in the Bronx, members were told not to discuss a widely publicized tragedy — in effect, not to let the children talk. This goes against recommendations by the American Psychological Association, the National Association of Social Workers and the New York State Office of Mental Health. More checks and balances would enable the department to try to get ahead of some of these prevailing issues and secure proper staffing and supervision.

Our children, especially those at the highest risk for social and emotional problems, need and deserve counselors, therapists and clinicians. Our members also need support so they can best serve their students. We look to the City Council to support the union’s initiatives, as outlined in our recommendations, so we are creating schools where our members want to teach and where parents want to send their children.

Related Topics: Education Funding