It has been a particularly painful few months for the Bronx Academy of Letters, a 6-12 school that enrolls students from neighborhoods devastated by the coronavirus. 

Four students’ parents died; others had grandparents, aunts, and uncles who got sick or died as well. Many parents lost their jobs, making some students the main wage earners for their families. Then the school principal died suddenly earlier this month.  

After months of loss, the school is now poised to lose five of its eight mental-health counselors due to budget cuts to a program called Single Shepherd. It’s the last thing school leaders think should happen. 

“To take them out of the school right now, that’s going to be traumatic,” said David Garcia-Rosen, director of school culture at Bronx Academy of Letters. 

Senior Queen Nyra Neter said her counselor, Gabrina Pearson, got her through the year to graduation. 

“I was ready to just give up,” she said, adding that Pearson helped her with schedules, spreadsheets, and calls, ultimately getting her back on track. “I’m really thankful for her.” 

Facing a massive revenue shortfall, Mayor Bill de Blasio has proposed cutting $641 million from the Department of Education for the next fiscal year, including for the Single Shepherd initiative. 

“That’s a program I initiated and really had high hopes for, and [with] great great people, they’ve put their heart and soul into doing this work,” he said during his Thursday press conference. “We’ve seen mixed results, is the honest truth, and we’re keeping a piece of it in place.” 

According to the city’s Independent Budget Office, the Single Shepherd program is facing $12 million in cuts, which the DOE says would affect 130 counselor positions. Officials said the savings are coming from “non-personnel” costs and deploying counselors to fill other vacancies. There’s also an $8 million proposed reduction in funds for other social workers in the school system, not connected to Single Shepherd. 

The mayor and the City Council are expected to negotiate the budget, due June 30th, over the weekend. City Councilmember Mark Treyger, who oversees the education committee, said he’s determined to save the Single Shepherd program in its current form. Students, families and staff are also circulating petitions to keep their counselors in place, instead of being reassigned.

Nathaniel Styer, a spokesperson for the Department of Education, said the Single Shepherd counselors at Bronx Academy of Letters would be transferred back into the teacher reserve, and the the five empty positions would not be filled. Instead, Styer said, the school would receive support through the ThriveNY program, a school-crisis team, and from the borough DOE office. 

“Caring for the students most impacted by this pandemic is absolutely critical,” Styer said.

Kenyatte Reid, executive director of the Office of Safety and Youth Development, said the DOE has made mental health a top priority during the pandemic, re-training school-crisis teams on trauma, and holding hundreds of weekly sessions to offer educators emotional support. 

“You know when you’re on an airplane and they tell you to put on your oxygen mask first before assisting others?” he said. “It’s based on [that] premise.” 

But students and advocates said there remains a wide gap between their mental-health needs and the support they’re receiving. The citywide ratio of counselors and social workers to students is 217 to 1. According to Chalkbeat, this summer there will be over one thousand students per counselor. 

Students and their advocates have said for years that the number of counselors and social workers is insufficient, and in recent weeks, student activists have renewed their calls that schools reduce or eliminate the number of school safety agents and invest in counselors instead. 

As for Queen Nyra Neter, June 26th is her graduation from the Bronx Academy of Letters, as well as the last day of the 2019-20 school year. She doesn’t have a cap and gown. Her diploma hasn’t come in the mail yet. The ceremony will be online. But she’s thinking about her counselor Gabrina Pearson.

“Without her I don’t think I would have been able to do it,” she said, adding she hopes Pearson will be placed in another school where students will need her as much as she did.