chartering territory

Venerable social services group wades into school management

As a Bronx elementary school principal, Drema Brown routinely encountered students who were struggling to complete schoolwork without adequate health care, a stable address, or even electricity.

Challenges like those held Brown back from boosting academic achievement. Even worse, she said, she couldn’t solve the problems wrought by poverty, either.

“I might take it for granted that I can just take my daughter to an eye doctor’s appointment and I have insurance that is going to get her that $300, $400 pair of glasses. But sometimes in a school something as simple as that could languish for an entire school year,” said Brown, who headed P.S. 230 in the South Bronx’s District 9 from 2003 to 2007.

Now a top official at the Children’s Aid Society, the 158-year-old social services provider, Brown is leading an experiment in integrating health and social services into a school setting. Children’s Aid is set to open its charter school in the Morrisania section of the Bronx next fall. The Board of Regents formally approved the school’s charter earlier today.

Plans for the school have been in the works since 2009, when Richard Buery became Children’s Aid’s president and CEO. Buery, who has a background in law and education non-profit management, asked CAS staff who worked with community schools to think about how a community school operated by CAS could have a longer-term impact than the agency’s usual school partnerships.

The group already works with city schools to deliver social services and connect after-school programs. And since 2000 the group has run a full clinic in Morrisania, offering preventive services and a meeting place for families whose children are in foster care. But the new project marks Children’s Aid’s first venture into school management.

The clinic “is a visible presence in the community with lots of welcoming faces,” Brown said. “Our mission now is to a establish a school that feels the same way for kids and their families so that education becomes more attractive and a welcoming experience.”

That’s a sentiment that hasn’t always been present in the South Bronx, which has a longstanding reputation for poverty, crime and lackluster public schools.

The new school will also join a small coterie of charter schools such as Mott Haven Academy seeking to enroll a demographic that other charters have had a hard time reaching: children in the foster care system, who are learning English, or living with just one parent, according to Gregory Morris, Buery’s assistant.

“It is no secret that charter schools are having to deal with the idea that there is a selection process which would seem to prevent the kids who need it most from getting into the schools,” he said. “We’re going to use the foundations we’ve already laid to be certain that we’re going to increase the odds of kids who would be least likely to normally get into a school like this.”

Attracting families in need may be one of the Children’s Aid school’s toughest tasks, according to Jessica Nauiokas, principal of Mott Haven Academy, a charter school with 223 students, mostly from the surrounding neighborhood, which opened its kindergarten and first-grade in 2008.

“Charters are based on a lottery and schools that are really looking to specialize in and serve underserved communities have to be very thoughtful about advocating for families that might not typically apply to a lottery,” she said. “For example, when you’re working with a welfare-involved population you have to think through the points of contact for case workers and agencies that go through the family.”

She added that this type of school mission also requires more instructional time through a longer school day, and outreach to parents who are not already actively involved in their childrens’ education.

Exactly how to structure the school day and involve parents and guardians remain open questions for the Children’s Aid Society as it prepares to move forward with preparations for the school. In the coming months, the group will have to hire a principal, find a space, and recruit families, all while trying to stay true to the mission of providing wraparound services to students and their families.

“There are these questions at the core of the idea of the school that have to be constantly laid against very technical stuff,” Brown said. “For example, if we’re not going to have enough space or resources to have a full clinic in the school, then how do we make sure we’re close enough?”

Morris said charter school experts have cautioned Children’s Aid that its school might fall short academically if it draws students from a community with chronically low attendance and graduation rates and a high population of English language learners and students in special education.

“They cant just have great health outcomes — they have to have great academic outcomes,” Morris said. “There aren’t a lot of models you can look to of people that have really taken that on.”

father knows best

How a brush with death convinced one dad to get his diploma, with a boost from the Fatherhood Academy

PHOTO: Courtesy of Steven Robles
Steven Robles with his family

Steven Robles thought he might not live to see his daughter’s birth.

In May 2016, the 20-year-old was in the hospital after being shot during what he described as an argument in his neighborhood.

A year later, Robles just graduated from City University of New York’s Fatherhood Academy. He passed his high school equivalency exam and is happily celebrating his daughter Avare’s 8-month birthday.

“That conflict is what got me into the program, and what happened to me before she was born motivated me to stay in the program,” Robles said. “It motivated me to manage to pass my GED.”

Robles grew up in Brownsville, Brooklyn and attended Franklin K. Lane High School. Though he liked his teachers, Robles said other students at the school were not “mature enough,” and the disorderly school environment made it hard for him to concentrate.

A quiet student, Robles said teachers would often overlook his presence in the classroom. Between that and friction with other classmates, Robles lost interest in school.

“My parents didn’t try to help me, either,” Robles said. “Nobody really tried to help me with that school, so I just stopped going.”

It was a whole different experience for him once he arrived at the Fatherhood Academy at LaGuardia Community College, a program run by CUNY for unemployed and underemployed fathers ages 18 through 28. The Academy, now partnering with the New York City Housing Authority at its LaGuardia location, was launched in 2012 and also has programs at Hostos and Kingsborough Community Colleges.

“I have interviewed many of the men who come into the program and I often ask the question, ‘What brought you here?'” said Raheem Brooks, program manager of the Fatherhood Academy at LaGuardia Community College. “Mostly every young man says, ‘I’m here because I want to create a better life for my child than I had.’ So, I think the main theme of the program is that we help promote intergenerational change.”

At the LaGuardia branch, 30 students attend classes three times a week over the course of 16 weeks. Subjects include mathematics, social studies, and writing for students seeking to get their high school equivalency diplomas. Students also attend workshops run by counselors who guide them in professional development and parenting.

Robles found out about the program after seeing a flier for it in his social worker’s office at Graham Windham, a family support services organization. Curious to see what the Academy offered, he called to find out more and officially enrolled after passing a test to prove he could read above seventh-grade level.

“Before the Academy, I was not really into school at all,” Robles said. “But when I got there, it just changed my life. In this program, I didn’t know anybody there, there were no distractions. It made me more focused, and I just really wanted to get my GED and education.”

What helped Robles the most was getting to learn from the other fathers in the class, who were going through similar experiences as him.

“Little things I didn’t know, I learned from them because they were also fathers,” Robles said. “I just liked the way they were teaching us.”

In fact, he liked the Academy so much, he doesn’t plan to leave. He is applying to study criminal justice at LaGuardia Community College and to become a mentor for the Academy next year.

Currently, Robles lives with his grandparents, his daughter and the mother of his child. Getting a place for his family is next on his to-do list, he said.

“Avare always has a smile on her face and always puts a smile on my face,” Robles said. “She motivates me to get up and do what I have to do. Anything I could do for her, I will.”

Though school did not play a huge role in his life growing up, that is not what Robles wants for his daughter. He said after participating in the Academy, he wants to make sure Avare stays motivated and in school.

“I hear a lot from people about how they think they can’t do it,” Robles said. “I almost lost my life before my daughter was born and that motivated me. If I could do it, you could do it.”

Behind the brawl

Three things to know about the Tennessee school behind this week’s graduation brawl

PHOTO: Arlington Community Schools
Arlington High School is a 2,000-plus-student school in suburban Shelby County in southwest Tennessee.

Arlington High School is considered the crown jewel of a 3-year-old district in suburban Shelby County, even as its school community deals with the unwelcome attention of several viral videos showing a fight that broke out among adults attending its graduation ceremony.

The brawl, which reportedly began with a dispute over saved seats, detracted from Tuesday’s pomp and circumstance and the more than $30 million in scholarships earned by the school’s Class of 2017. No students were involved.

“It was unfortunate that a couple of adults in the audience exhibited the behavior they did prior to the ceremony beginning and thus has caused a distraction from the celebration of our students’ accomplishments,” Arlington Community Schools Superintendent Tammy Mason said in a statement.

Here are three things to know about the 13-year-old school in northwest Shelby County.

With more than 2,000 students, Arlington is one of the largest high schools in Shelby County and is part of a relatively new district.

It’s the pride of a suburban municipality that is one of six that seceded from Shelby County Schools in 2014 following the merger of the city and county districts the year before. (School district secessions are a national trend, usually of predominantly white communities leaving predominantly black urban school systems.) More than 70 percent of Arlington’s students are white, and 6 percent are considered economically disadvantaged — in stark contrast to the Memphis district where less than 8 percent are white, and almost 60 percent are considered economically disadvantaged.

The school’s graduation rate is high … and climbing.

Last year, after adding interventions for struggling students, the school’s graduation rate jumped a full point to more than 96 percent. Its students taking the ACT college entrance exam scored an average composite of 22.5 out of a possible 36, higher than the state average of 19.9. But only a fifth scored proficient or advanced in math and a third in English language arts during 2015-16, the last school year for which scores are available and a transition year for Tennessee under a new test.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visits with students at Arlington High School during a 2016 tour.

The school was in the news last August when Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visited its campus.

The commissioner spoke with students there to kick off her statewide listening tour that’s focused on ways to get students ready for college and career. McQueen highlighted the school’s extracurricular activities and students’  opportunities to intern for or shadow local professionals. She also complimented Arlington for having an engaged education community.