When students at York Early College Academy needed to talk with their school counselors, it was difficult to have a conversation without others listening in.
Two counselors and the dean at the Jamaica, Queens, middle and high school shared one corner of an open classroom, with their desks facing each other. On the opposite side of the room sat the after-school coordinator. Classroom aides walked in and out freely to access their lockers lining one of the walls.
The 1960s building was constructed for just one school, but currently houses three. Across the city, there are more than 1,000 co-located programs, and many are squeezed in ways similar to York Early College.
“In a co-located school, you have to scramble for space,” said Naresh Jacob, one of the school’s counselors. “Often the school counseling program gets pushed to the back, ‘We need the classrooms for math, English, social studies. But here’s your little space.’”
Co-located schools sprang up largely during former Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s push to break up large, struggling high schools, and replace them with smaller ones. The shift may have improved graduation rates, but it also created a new set of problems. Additional offices were needed for principals and office staff, while services like therapies for students with special needs often got pushed into hallways or converted janitor’s closets.
York Early College found a community partner to help resolve their space issue. A local real estate company donated the labor and materials needed to divide an open space into three windowed offices, and counselors began moving into the new space earlier this month. For the first time, the school’s guidance team have their own offices to meet one-on-one with students.
“The best part is the closing door,” said Sophia Evripiotis, a counselor at the school.
Counselors have always needed space for confidential conversations, but their need for private space is only growing. State regulations took effect this year requiring counselors to meet annually with every student to monitor their academic progress and develop career plans.
Additionally, the city has been moving away from punishing students with suspensions, in favor of practices that encourage schools to get at root causes of discipline issues. That work often falls to counselors bringing students together to work out their differences. The new private offices empty into an area with a large conference table that Principal Noah Angeles took from his own office, along with a pair of black couches — providing a space for small groups or where mediation can happen when students get into fights or have other issues.
Before the new set-up, counselors often tried to stagger student visits, and sometimes resorted to asking their colleagues to leave when students wanted privacy. It could create an uncomfortable environment for students in moments when it’s important to make them feel at ease.
“It wasn’t conducive to any counseling, or even welcoming to the students,” Jacob said.
The new space provides room for all of the various ways the school works with students to deal with issues stemming from social media or the pervasive use of technology, such as the support group that Jacob runs for boys. They recently tackled strategies for better sleeping habits after many noted they had trouble putting down their cell phones and going to bed.
“Students are feeling more and more isolated and lonely, and a lot of time is spent on technology seeking that connection,” Angeles said. “We’re trying to figure out how to support kids in this world of technology and social media, and that’s why this space is important: They have to have more conversations with those kids one-on-one.”
The counseling team is still moving into their new offices, freshly painted in a calming blue. There’s also central air conditioning, which is much quieter than the window-unit that cooled their old classroom — another touch that makes the room more inviting.
Counselors hope the space will be a benefit not just for students, but also their parents. The school works closely with families, who largely come from immigrant and low-income backgrounds, to help them understand the labyrinth that leads to high school graduation and college enrollment. The new space could provide a more intimate setting for information sessions, which have typically taken place in the auditorium or some other large space.
York Early College was only able to build out the new offices thanks to donations from Zara Realty, a local company that recently came under scrutiny from the state attorney’s office.
The campus is far from alone in feeling squeezed for space for vital services, and Angeles believes the city should rethink how it determines school budgets to help pay for creating similar spaces.
A spokesperson for the education department said the city has made “important strides” when it comes to issues facing co-located schools — including by helping create building councils, which include representatives from each school who work together to navigate shared spaces.
Beyond the space issue, many schools will also likely need more funding to meet the new requirements for counselors to meet with all students annually. Education leaders have pushed for student-to-counselor ratios to levels that are similar to York Early College, where each counselor works with about 200 students.
To ensure these meetings are happening, Angeles skimps on outside coaching for his teachers, instead tapping the experts within his own building so the school can afford a team who focus on meeting students’ emotional needs.
“What we have to figure out as a system is how can we make it so schools can hire counselors, to make it affordable,” Angeles said.