The Gutting of Guidance, Psychological and Social Services: What is NYC Doing to Avert a School Tragedy?

(I wrote the following in 2006 – the tragedy in Connecticut forces us to ask
whether NYC provides critical social services to kids and families in light of
years of drastic budget cuts.)

The Death of SPYFSS: Tweed Abandons At Risk Children

August 11, 2006

Teachers do the best job they can in schools that are shrouded in the mists of poverty and social anarchy. My wife was driving to a school meeting early one morning in the late seventies with Ed Muir, the first UFT Safety Director, he looked out the window and announced, “There’s nothing like the smell of burning buildings on a fall morning.”

The Bronx was burning. You could see across blocks of burned and abandoned building, and the only viable buildings were schools.

The crack epidemic unraveled social structure and destroyed a generation: and the greatest impact was on most defenseless, the children.

Whether it be crack or AIDs or gangs, or alcoholism: we teach the youngest victims, the children who enter their havens, the schools, and return to chaos that surrounds school buildings. In spite of all the obstacles teachers do heroic jobs and many kids survive and prosper.

One of the encouraging aspects of the Children First Bloomberg initiative was the creation of an office in each region that dealt with issues apart from teaching and learning. The Student Placement, Youth and Family Support Services (SPYFSS) Office shared space with each regional office and reported directly to a Deputy Chancellor at Tweed. They focused on Attendance, Guidance, Children in Homeless Shelters, Student Suspension, Home Schooling, Drug Prevention, Parent Support, Community Based Organizations, Health Issues, i.e., the range of crucial issues beyond the scope of the classroom but impacting mightily on classroom performance.

Although the Tweed leadership changed, Lester Young, an experienced Community Superintendent left after a year and some SYPFSS offices were unwelcoming others became a beacon for schools.

Organizing Health Fairs in housing projects with high incidences of diabetes and obesity, creating collaborative “solutions” for schools with attendance issues, high quality school driven professional development for guidance counselors, and most importantly, working together with schools to resolve problems of individual kids and their families.

As these pages have so astutely noted critics of public schools, usually with no teaching experience, shunt aside the realities of poverty.

The NY Sun reports on a Blomberg commissioned study on how to “tackle” poverty, a commission member described a “Starbuck’s one-stop” approach to help New Yorkers to access city services. David Jones, the CEO of the Community Service Society says he “pressed for youth programs to reach 16-to 24 year olds who are not working or in schools.”

However, the Tweed consultants, have decided the answer is to downsize student support services. Half the SPYFSS offices are being closed, that’s right closed, and the remaining five offices are having their name changed to Office of Youth Development, with over two hundred schools per office. A range of services previously provided by the offices will be shifted to regional offices. The same offices that Klein has dismissed in his efforts to promote the new Empowerment Schools.

The consulting firm making these decisions is also redesigning the New Orleans School System and basically creating a new Charter school system along with a British company that redesigned school in the United Kingdom.

Lets see if I have this right: the Mayor’s Commission wants to target at risk 16 to 24 years olds while the Mayor’s Department of Education wants to abandon them.

Consultants are paid millions of dollars and the opinion of classroom teachers, parents and kids are ignored. I’m sure the flow charts, the new designs, the power points are really impressive and I’m sure all the authors of these secret reports have fancy degrees from MBA programs. Tomorrow or next week they will submit their report and move on their next job.

Kids, parents and teachers will still be here, having to clean up the Augean stables they have left behind.

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4 responses to “The Gutting of Guidance, Psychological and Social Services: What is NYC Doing to Avert a School Tragedy?

  1. Children’s mental health issues are apparent to teachers in the very early grades. Schools are the logical place for physiologists, social workers and health professionals. Unfortunately these are the first services to be cut. We are paying too high a price for our lack of lobbying for these professionals to be assigned to our school systems. All of the mass killings in recent years have been carried out by young people with mental problems. That they all had easy access to guns is another area that needs to be addressed. The nation is in mourning, this is the time for the conversation to begin on these two important issues, mental health and guns.

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  2. I am a licensed teacher of Emotionally Disturbed students who learned to teach working with a population of students sent to a self-contained class ina special school (SIE 8, D75). These were the students whose mental health needs were recognized and addressed but only after a serious incident such as the young man who left school, walked home, got a kitchen knife and returned to school and attacked his teacher. It is hard to imagine a red hot rage that can sustain itself that way for the hour it took him to go home and return to school.

    A colleague from that school who, like me, later worked in the general education environment wrote me that “In my 38 yrs in NYC public schools i found many teachers were screaming for mental health help for students. The process was filled with delay or outright sabotage. Principals told me they were reprimanded for making referrals. Teachers did not have our l training but they knew when a child’s needs were beyond the guidance counselor or the teachers. The other kids knew!”

    What Ed describes in this historical artifact is the hypocrisy of claiming to put “Children First.” The first and foremost concern of the Bloomberg educational policy is test scores and the second concern is budget. He wants the opportunity to hold press conferences to spout statistics to show how effective he is, even when the statistics are mere spin and meaningless.

    Putting real mental health services in schools and training teachers to recognize the signs of serious disturbance and requiring them to report them (not unlike the mandatory child abuse training and reporting) would cost money. It would require cutting back on gifts to testing companies and the huge payments to computer giants to create data management systems that do not track these kind of issues.

    If they could go back in time and provide real help to Adam Lanza and his family, what would the parents in Newtown now be willing to spend on school based or community mental health services?

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  3. Carole Silverstein.

    In my thirty nine years of teaching only one guidance counselor had the ability to get mental help for two of my students. The others were always stopped by the system that pretends to care for the mentally ill. Maybe now someone will listen and provide the services needed.

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  4. Thanks for this article. However, since 2006 we have seen not only psychological and social work services decrease they have also been, where mandated, privatized. This is not only happening in education but our criminal justice system as well.

    Fortunately the Adam Lanza’s of the world are few and far between. While psychological services might have helped him and his family (we don’t know what was offered or provided yet) it is clear that the dysfunction and psychopathology that is rampant in our society is not being properly addressed.

    Psychological services must be provided where needed, whether in school or elsewhere. As long as our politicians think they can save money on utilizing unqualified private sourced providers we will be mired in this issue for many years.

    Who’s going to stop this violence? The reaction to the Adam Lanza’s or the concerted effort by our public sector unions to stand up for our professional mental health professionals and stop this out sourcing farce.

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