On a typical day, Maureen Eigenfeld, a mental-health counselor at Bronx Writing Academy, holds about 20 therapy sessions with her middle-school students. That’s about 400 sessions a month when school is in.
Since the pandemic, she tells her students she’s available whenever they need her, whether on the weekend or as late as 10 p.m.
Eigenfeld is one of many public-school counselors responding to increased student needs. But with New York City’s Community Schools program facing a $3 million cut in the 2021 budget, counselors and administrators fear children could be without help just when they needed it most.
“We are seeing a rise in what would appear to be depression in students,” said Rebecca Valenzuela, a Community Schools director at Lucero Elementary and the Walton Avenue School, which share the same building in the Mount Eden section of the Bronx.
“Kids have said, ‘I am depressed,’” Valenzuela said. “One girl told her teacher that she feels really sad, but she tries to put on a brave face. That was a fourth grader.”
The city proudly touted Community Schools’ successes this January: higher attendance levels, fewer disciplinary incidents and higher graduation rates. The 276 public schools in the program partner with nonprofit organizations to help fund and staff in-school counseling and social and emotional learning programs.
Community Schools also offer many “wraparound” services to address the needs of the most disadvantaged—students who live in temporary housing, are immigrants or experience extreme poverty. They can get additional meals, new clothes, dental care, even access to laundry rooms.
Bronx School District 9, where Valenzuela and Eigenfeld work, has the highest concentration of Community Schools in the city.
As a director, Valenzuela, 33, who was a community-health educator at the schools for more than three years before taking her new post in September, does more than simply manage services.
She frequently walks to students’ homes to check on those with low attendance, reaching them in a way that attendance teachers—who are mandated by the city Department of Education to work remotely—can’t. She’s tech support for parents, patiently walking them through the setup for school-provided iPads when they drop by to pick them up. When she learned one boy at her school said he didn’t want to live anymore, she and a social worker immediately set to work to ensure he didn’t have a plan to harm himself.
The stresses of the pandemic have only made things worse for students facing serious problems. Danielle Dore, a counselor at Bronx Collegiate Academy, said many of her high-school students who have experienced trauma from an early age are struggling.
“One student told me, ‘I forgot how to speak to people,’” she said.
Dore, 31, designed therapy sessions in which the student can act out social scenarios with her, practicing dialogues in a safe setting.
“A lot of it is just going back to basic foundations,” Dore said.
Eigenfeld, 34, who has been a social worker at Bronx Writing Academy for three years, said many students need to take care of younger siblings during the day when parents are working, on top of their classes and homework.
“They’ve had to grow up so fast,” she said.
That’s why she gives her middle-school students as many options to reach her as they need. Between her cell phone, email, Google Classroom and the school’s Instagram and Facebook pages, students have access to her all day.
One day, a few girls were “blowing up her phone,” Eigenfeld said, texting her about a crisis one of their friends was having in virtual class. Eigenfeld was able to hop in and pull them into a breakout room, where the student could calm down and open up.
Imposing the Cuts
According to communication between the Department of Education and Counseling in Schools—a nonprofit partnering with 17 schools, including Bronx Collegiate Academy— the city is reducing all Community School contracts by 4.7%.
Kevin Dahill-Fuchel, executive director of Counseling in Schools, said it will be up to each school and partner nonprofit to decide how to make the cuts. He noted his organization will do all it can to avoid reducing mental-health services.
City Councilman Mark Treyger (D-Brooklyn), chair of the education committee, tweeted that these cuts are still “unacceptable” and he will continue to fight to restore the funding.
In an email to the News Service, he said that other members of the budget negotiation team have promised to join him in putting the money back as part of the November budget adjustment.
Many community leaders, teachers and nonprofit advocates contend that any cut to Community Schools is devastating, taking to social media under #SaveCommunitySchools.
“If I couldn’t be here or social workers in general were cut, it would be detrimental. I mean, this is a pandemic, which is definitely a category for trauma,” Eigenfeld said. “Schools are such a good access point for kids and for families to obtain those services.”