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A Bold Shift to Make Public Schools Serve Poor Students

Schools in poor neighborhoods turned into community schools – combining rigorous instruction with a broad social support system.

It’s 11:45 a.m. in East Harlem, and Samir Zaimi starts his lesson on life in Colonial America. A social-studies teacher at a public middle school called Renaissance School of the Arts, Zaimi urges the seventh-graders to imagine themselves as colonial settlers, and to complete the writing prompt on the board: “How can I convince people to come to my colony?” Then he notices a student who has been absent for weeks and crosses the room to welcome her.

“Been out a while.”

“Yeah, 27 days,” she says.

“We’ll catch you up.”

For the rest of the period, Zaimi barely takes a breath as he darts around the room, addressing questions. There’s Nunova Williams, who is usually first to raise her hand and wonders what good can be said about 18th-century New Hampshire, which had slaves and high income-inequality. But there are also students who come to class late after meeting with social workers, and others struggling to take an interest in school. Last year, only 13 percent of Renaissance’s students demonstrated proficiency in language arts and only 7 percent did so in math.

The conservative New York Post blames the problem at schools like Renaissance on “ineffective teachers and staff.” But the city’s Department of Education, while recognizing that some teachers should skill up, points to students’ difficult circumstances and social problems such as poverty as the root source.

The department isn’t just pointing fingers. It’s actively working to address those problems at Renaissance and 127 other schools. Last year, the city began providing extra funds and support to these institutions to transform them into “community schools” – places of learning that strive not only for academic excellence, but for the holistic development of youth and the strengthening of families and neighborhoods.

“You never know what’s going on with a person at home,” says seventh-grader Jhanel McWhite, who found her passion in Renaissance’s dance classes. She says the school takes an interest in students’ well-being, and that was one of the reasons she chose Renaissance over the other middle schools in her district.

When McWhite’s brother died last year, the school gave her support through a nonprofit called Partnership with Children. “They helped me feel better about myself,” she said. The Partnership has hired five social workers to help students work through personal matters.

The idea that students’ adverse circumstances – not bad teachers – could be the real problem in poorly performing schools is not new. Studies show that income is an important predictor of success, with students from families in the highest-income 10 percent of the population scoring more than three grade levels above students in the lowest 10 percent on standardized reading tests, according to The New York Times.

And despite decades of politicians’ handwringing, the disparity is only getting worse: The testing gap has widened about 40 percent since the 1960s. This has led to questions about where education reform should focus.

“We would be well served to broaden the scope of who we hold accountable,” says Elaine Weiss, national coordinator for the advocacy group Broader, Bolder Approach to Education. Rather than just blaming teachers, she says, why not turn to the politicians who fail to fund schools at adequate levels? Or the officials who fail to ensure parents have living-wage jobs?

Over the past two decades, this simple understanding has taken root in the community-school movement – a nationwide alliance of teachers, administrators, and parents who reject the logic that reformers can save students simply by replacing teachers and schools. They want schools to transition into community hubs, adopting a strategy that combines rigorous instruction and extracurricular enrichment with a vast social support system. Any kind of school – public, private, or charter – can adopt the model.

While the term “community school” has been in use for more than a century, the current movement dates to the 1990s and gained strength from widespread frustration with President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act, adopted in 2002. The legislation required schools to collect data on student performance and made federal funding contingent on improved test scores and graduation rates. Critics say the act penalized the very children it sought to help by depriving failing schools of funding and forcing them to focus on test scores.

“No Child Left Behind is clearly a failed policy because it’s narrow and it’s not based on what we know about children’s learning and development,” says Jane Quinn, director of the National Center for Community Schools. “People around the country have figured this out and are implementing community schools kind of on their own without much support from the federal government.”

There are at least 90 cities and districts in the United States with community-school initiatives, according to Quinn, and more than 5,000 community schools.

Perhaps nowhere is the shift in thinking better dramatized than in New York City. From 2002 through 2013, former mayor Michael Bloomberg led the nation in spearheading sweeping education reform, with the goal of giving families new choices. By the time he left office, he had closed 132 “failing” schools and opened 680 new ones (including 180 charters). His strategy was founded on business logic: Schools that failed to attract students – and thus, per pupil funding – would perish like poorly performing companies.

Mayor Bill De Blasio, who campaigned on a vow to address the city’s inequality, took office in January 2014 and immediately rejected the former administration’s strategy. Instead, he pledged to turn at least 100 public schools into community schools. He is already on track to establish 128.

Because transitioning into a community school means expanding services, that will cost hundreds of millions of dollars. De Blasio is leveraging a $52 million grant from the state’s Attendance Improvement and Drop-Out Prevention (AIDP) program to turn 45 schools, selected based on high absentee rates, into community schools. According to the Independent Budget Office, he is also using $380 million of city, state, and federal funds over three years to turn 94 schools (including 11 that are also receiving AIDP funding) into community schools through an initiative dubbed the “Renewal School” program. The city selected participating institutions based on low test scores, poor graduation rates, and other factors.

Funds are distributed to partnering organizations that provide services and learning support to multiple schools, and each Renewal School also receives a budget allocation averaging around $100,000.

The schools have some flexibility in how they use that extra funding. But certain things are required of all community schools: an hour-long extension of the learning day, mental-health counselors for students, and a partnership with a community-based organization. In addition, the city hopes to improve the quality of instruction in Renewal Schools by offering teachers more training and, for top teachers, salary increases ranging from $7,500 to $20,000.

At Renaissance School of the Arts, the new funding has allowed significant changes. It brought five new social workers, who offer students emotional support so that teachers can focus on teaching. Art classes went from once or twice a week to every day. The school started a partnership with Creative Art Works, which brought professional artists to the school during the summer to teach students to paint murals and is now helping students prepare their portfolios for high school applications. Citizen Schools, which provides after-school classes at Renaissance, expanded its programs from sixth-graders to all grades, and offers apprenticeships in coding, poetry-writing, and other subjects.

“We wouldn’t be able to do that if we didn’t have the support from the community schools program,” says Principal Brian Bradley.

Renaissance, which started its new programs in September 2015, is just beginning its work as a community school. One of the city’s first such schools, launched in 1992 by the nonprofit Children’s Aid Society, provides an even broader range of support. Washington Heights’ Salomé Ureña de Henríquez Campus stays open on Saturdays and late at night, and offers a multitude of services, including the first school-based orthodontic clinic in the United States, a mental-health clinic that treats both students and parents, and vocational-education classes for adults.

If De Blasio can make every school more like that one, the city could reap benefits that go far beyond improved test scores: healthier, more economically empowered low-income communities of color. While the broader impacts of the Renewal Program remain to be seen, there are already measurable signs of success, with some schools reporting growth in attendance rates and test scores. And the program offers a way for public schools to demonstrate that their students can make tangible gains if offered the same partnerships and funds available to some charters.

But building a community-school movement takes more than dropping a few hundred thousand dollars on a school. To get all of the people involved working together requires an unprecedented level of collaboration between community-based organizations, school administration, and staff. And to counter the movement’s naysayers and ensure additional resources are actually helping students requires a devotion to evaluation, including a major rethinking of how schools should be assessed.

If De Blasio’s renewal schools can navigate these challenges, their work may spark the transformation of the entire city’s education system – and serve as a model for troubled schools everywhere.

Don’t Compete, Collaborate

On Friday morning at I.S. 313, three men and three women glide into Brenda Dixon’s eighth-grade writing class and mill around the desks. They scribble in notebooks, sit alongside students, and scan through the charts on the walls. Dixon asks her students to pick a subject that interests them and develop a related journalistic investigation, but no one raises a hand.

“Everybody’s scared now?” Dixon asks, glancing at the administrators in the room.

In fact, it’s not primarily the students – or Dixon – who are under examination. Five of the visitors are administrators who are themselves undergoing professional development. The sixth, Jasmin Varela, is director of school renewal for District 9 in the western Bronx. She is looking not only at the students’ writing and Dixon’s lesson plan, but also at the administrators’ scribbles. She wants to make sure they are prepared to use the Danielson Rubric, an instructional framework mandated throughout the New York City school system, to provide teachers with constructive feedback.

After leaving the classroom, the administrators huddle in the library like a group of oversized eighth-graders in a study session. Varela asks them to review their notes.

Professional development and teacher evaluations are not new, but the mix of administrators that morning certainly was. They included not only the school’s principal and assistant principals, but also two new partners: a community-school coordinator from a nonprofit called Phipps Neighborhoods, and an instructional specialist from the United Federation of Teachers who aims to improve teachers’ technique.

“For the principal, this is a new partnership that he has to foster and that he’s accountable to,” explained Varela.

She and her boss, Leticia Rodriguez-Rosario, superintendent of Bronx District 9, are handling eight Renewal Schools. That’s more than any other district in the city, and getting all the teachers, principals, and other workers on board is a big job. Renewal teachers must agree – as they did in negotiations this June – to work for an extended hour after school. Security guards must stay later into the evenings, and parents are encouraged to take part in school leadership teams. Rodriguez-Rosario has hosted professional development workshops for parent coordinators, teachers, guidance counselors, school aides – even custodians. Such a collaborative approach is not always easy or efficient.

Rodriguez-Rosario tries to foster collaboration both within and between schools – a fundamentally different approach than when Bloomberg was mayor, when the city encouraged schools to compete. She hosts meetings for principals to give each other feedback and criticism.

“In the past, it was like, if I had a formula that was working, I’m not sharing,” said Rodriguez-Rivera. “There wasn’t a sense of, we’re going to pool together to serve the community.”

All of this collaboration gets more challenging as the movement scales up. In the 1990s, individual schools that wanted to become community schools partnered with nonprofits like the Children’s Aid Society to start the process. Now entire cities are adopting the model system-wide, which means that principals and teachers do not always come to the mission themselves. A three-part series published last spring by Chalkbeat on the Brooklyn Generation School revealed an administration interested in the concept, but fearful of the stigma of the Renewal School designation. At some schools, the stress of implementing the Renewal School initiative has led to high turnover among staff.

Yet Quinn of the National Center for Community Schools believes De Blasio has put in place the right infrastructure to facilitate the city’s transition. The administration has created the NYC Community Schools Advisory Board, with a variety of members, including community organizations and representatives from higher education and philanthropy. It has also empowered the Children’s Cabinet, a new bureau of City Hall, to coordinate the work of the many city agencies involved in the initiative.

Prove Your Progress

Rodriguez-Rosario, superintendent of Bronx District 9, is widely recognized for her enthusiasm for the Renewal School initiative. But there’s one thing that almost deflated her: an announcement in the spring of 2015 that 62 of New York City’s lowest-performing schools, including 50 Renewal Schools, had been placed on the state’s receivership list. That meant they had two years, and in some cases a single year, to prove they were getting better.

If they failed to make progress, they would be transferred to an independent entity – an individual, nonprofit, or other school district – to make major changes. The list included seven of Bronx District 9’s eight Renewal Schools.

“There was a little sense of hopelessness at that point and I was scared,” admits Rodriguez-Rosario. “When I listened to that call, I had to pull myself up by the bootstraps.”

Interestingly, one of the goals of the receivership program is to turn low-performing institutions into community schools with “wraparound services” and an expanded school day. In other words, the state shares some of the movement’s goals but wants to hold New York and other cities accountable for making swift progress. Officials will evaluate the schools using a diverse set of metrics – graduation rates and test scores, but also metrics chosen by the schools, such as levels of attendance and whether the school is implementing a community school model. The evaluation system, officials argue, ensures “a process that requires real but realistic gains.”

This pressure from the state comes as critics of De Blasio, like the pro-charter advocacy groups StudentsFirstNY and Families For Excellent Schools, have argued that wraparound services are not enough to transform low-performing schools. These critics favor solutions that take control away from current school-system staff, such as closing schools and expanding the charter system. They point to a New York Times investigation into the Cincinnati school district, which showed that, despite the hype over the decade-old community school system there, participating institutions had not made significant gains in test scores. Another study showing that Renewal Schools are more likely to have less effective teachers backed up critics’ view that bad teaching is the problem.

Advocates of the New York City Renewal Program, for their part, citenumerous studies that show the community-school strategy improves student performance. And New York City education officials say they’re working hard to raise the number of highly qualified teachers who work in Renewal Schools.

Meanwhile, some advocates are concerned about the state’s short timeline for change. Last February, Mayor De Blasio lambasted the state’s receivership program as a “formula for disaster” because it did not give Renewal Schools enough time to improve.

The city’s plan doesn’t give them much more time – three years instead of two – and measures schools with metrics including increased attention, better social and emotional skills, and stronger partnerships, though critics say the goals are still too lax.

De Blasio has warned that schools that do not make progress could face closure. In December, less than a year into the initiative, he announced he was closing three schools, including two Renewal Schools.

“If the city and the state would only give us time, I think they’re going to see great gains,” says Rodriguez-Rivera.

Growing the Movement

Since 2013, an anti-poverty nonprofit in Queens called Zone 126 has helped organize partnerships between 10 schools in Long Island City and organizations like City Harvest, Socrates Sculpture Park, and Mental Health Providers of Western Queens. In 2015, Zone 126 received a $3.8 million, three-year contract from the city to deepen their work in two of these schools. The contract amounts to a 60 percent increase in the organization’s funding and will allow it to collaborate with new partners, hire community school coordinators, and work with an additional 300 students.

Chelsea Freemon, former vice president of development and communications at Zone 126, praised De Blasio for a flexible approach that lets schools and nonprofit providers take the lead – and hoped that the contract would be renewed.

“It’s a terrific investment, but the kind of transformation we’re talking about is long term and it definitely goes beyond three years.”

What’s in store for the Renewal Schools program after its first three years, the end of De Blasio’s first term? And will the rest of the city’s struggling schools ever receive comparable resources?

Assuming the mayor is re-elected, the administration says it will examine the impact of the program and, if the strategy is proving successful, set aside sufficient resources for its continuation. The Independent Budget Office predicts that the program will cost about $188 million annually in 2018 and 2019.

“These are not cosmetic changes, and we are committed to ensuring that the transformations happening in these schools are sustainable for years to come,” said Harry Hartfield, a spokesperson for the Department of Education, in an email. “We will continue to review the progress going forward to make sure we are doing what it takes for these schools to succeed.”

The city also plans to expand the community school initiative to at least 200 schools by 2017. This could happen in several ways: by applying the strategy at new schools set to open in years to come, by assisting the dozens of schools that already work with groups like Zone 126 but aren’t community schools yet, and by acquiring new grants to introduce the model at other existing schools.

With an increasing number of youth advocates calling for every school to become a community school, New Yorkers will likely welcome that expansion.

As the movement progresses in New York City, it is also beginning to gain steam on a national level. In recent years, cities and educational institutions have figured out how to use existing federal grant programs to support the community-school model. The U.S. Department of Education has also initiated a small grant program for community schools, which has awarded about $2.5 million in grants to each of 32 community-school initiatives over the past seven years.

The Obama administration has taken notice of the movement, with U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan calling for community schools to become “the norm for every single student” and acknowledging that federal policies have allowed schools to become too focused on test-taking. And in a monumental step forward, the newly reauthorized Education and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) approved by Congress in December contains provisions that will help to advance the community-school model.

According to Weiss at Broader, Bolder Approach to Education, policymakers need to understand that low-income schools require vastly greater resources because they must provide for expenses – extracurricular activities, field trips, doctors’ visits – that wealthier parents usually pay for out of pocket. And yet, legislators must also ensure that states are spending their money effectively.

“It depends not only how much,” Weiss says. “We need to spend it well, and equitably, and then we get really good results.”

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