risk management

Bronx school charts data-driven path to serving the whole child

Dolores Peterson listens as one of her students goes over a speech she delivers for an honors event later in the evening.

Two years ago, Omarina Cabrera’s academics were a distant concern. Her family had been evicted and Cabrera was uncertain where she’d be sleeping each night. And as her brothers descended deeper into the gangs they recently joined, Cabrera was not even sure if she felt safe moving back in with her family.

Months into her sixth-grade year, Cabrera was showing up late to school and teachers were noticing that her attitude seemed to be worsening.

But admission letters pinned to a bulletin board located in the main office of the New School for Leadership and Journalism, where Cabrera is now an eighth-grader, shows that she now has a bright future. Years after teachers intervened to help Cabrera, she received offers to attend top public and private schools in the city, including Brooklyn Technical High School, and boarding schools throughout New England.

Most students at the Kingsbridge school, also known as M.S. 244, don’t wind up at posh boarding schools. Ninety percent of the students come from families so poor that they qualify for free or reduced lunch, and 70 percent come from homes that speak a language other than English. Many struggle to pass state math and reading tests.

But the school’s ability to catch students such as Cabrera before they are lost has caught the Department of Education’s attention. As part of a high-profile initiative to solve entrenched troubles of the city’s middle schools, officials there are directing a group of schools to replicate M.S. 244’s successful implementation of an early warning system to identify and intervene with at-risk students.

The approach is in some ways at odds with the city’s at-times single-minded focus on academic achievement — which is exactly why it works, according to Principal Dolores Peterson.

“The reason we’re successful is that we’ve made it our mission to address the need of the whole child,” said Peterson. “You have to deal with adolescent social issues and emotional issues, not just the academic issues.”

Calvin Hastings, until last year M.S. 244’s network leader, is heading the department’s Middle School Quality Initiative. The $3.7 million program, part of the broader middle school reforms, seeks to reform — rather than close — 18 schools once identified as among the worst in the city. The city culled the schools from a list of 51 that were part of a 2008 City Council initiative — never fully supported by the city — that Chancellor Dennis Walcott has vowed to reinvigorate as part of his much-publicized middle school reforms.

Walcott didn’t mention Peterson’s school in a speech about the middle school reforms last month. But so far, it is the only “anchor school” selected to share best practices with the rest of the group.

At M.S. 244, a committee of deans, counselors, and teachers meets each week to pore over data linked to student progress, not all of which can be found on a bubble sheet. Using a Google Doc spreadsheet that is based on a color-coded “stoplight” system, the school looks at trends in attendance, behavior, and grades in English and math.

Those four categories are what John Hopkins University researcher Robert Balfanz found to be the most crucial indicators for sixth-grade students. If students begin to fall behind in any of the four categories, he found, they are dramatically more likely to drop out of high school.

As Balfanz himself admits, the system does’t actually fix what ails struggling schools. Instead, it is meant to key school leaders into students’ problems before they grow debilitating — or even obvious.

“It’s one thing to flag kids for attendance and behavior issues,” Balfanz said. “But now we have to actually do something about it.”

Peterson said she already had in place the necessary ingredients to effectively use Balfanz: A strong culture — exemplified by tight discipline, uniforms, and an extended day program — is nurtured by an experienced staff, including a core who came to the school with her when she founded it in 2006. The school also employs three counselors who worked with parents to intervene when students had trouble and gave support to teachers.

M.S. 244 is broken into science and arts divisions. Above, a dance troupe rehearses in class.

The staff, in turn, credits Peterson for the school’s success.

“So much of what makes this school successful begins with our culture, which begins with the leadership,” said Sharrone Usher, a counselor who helped found the school.

Peterson said the Balfanz model has helped make M.S. 244’s monitoring more organized, allowing her to see know precisely what’s going on behind the scenes when an indicator is flagged. Before, school officials didn’t know precisely how many students needed help, why they needed it, or how they did once they received assistance.

Now, they have a much better idea.

Since Peterson implemented the Balfanz model at her school three years ago, 100 students have been identified as “most at risk” and triggered aggressive intervention plans. Twelve of the 30 students in the first cohort tracked under the Balfanz model are no longer failing after being flagged as at risk in sixth grade. All six students who were flagged for chronic absenteeism have lifted their attendance rate above 90 percent. Eight students left and two joined gangs, including Cabrera’s twin brother.

Academically struggling students usually follows a prescribed intervention along the lines of lunchtime tutoring and enrollment in the school’s extended learning programs and Saturday school.

For more severe issues that the model turns up, teachers say they pursue more aggressive interventions.

When Marques Samuels stopped handing in work, his English teacher, Kathy Dahdal, showed up at his house and tersely explained to his grandmother that he would be held back if he didn’t start working.

Now Samuels proudly carries around a writing portfolio that chronicles his progress in Dahdal’s class, where he is no longer failing.

“Ms. Dahdal is very persistent,” said Samuels, who will attend the Bronx Engineering and Technology Academy next year.

The school doesn’t just target students with failing grades. The indicators often flag students before the problem gets so severe.

Cabrera was never one of the “most at risk” students, but her attendance issues showed up in the data early on in sixth grade. Teachers also began to notice that Cabrera’s demeanor change from cheerful to withdrawn.

Once they learned of her plight at home, they took an “all hands on deck” approach to helping her, Peterson said. That included rides home and gift baskets. Cabrera was challenged academically as well. Cabrera’s English teacher, Catherine Miller, pushed her to enroll in a more rigorous after-school program with older students. Miller also became a kind-of personal admissions consultant, helping her prep her for the city’s high school admissions exams and navigate the lengthy applications for top-notch private and public high schools.

Cabrera said she was at first ashamed to speak about her personal problems.

“But they had noticed me,” Cabrera said on a recent morning at a conference table located in Peterson’s office. “And that was something like, wow, they know me. I’m not just a student to them. They actually care for me and that’s something I didn’t know before.”

the end

A 60-year-old group that places volunteers in New York City schools is shutting down

PHOTO: August Young

Citing a lack of support from the city education department, a 60-year-old nonprofit that places volunteers in New York City schools is closing its doors next month.

Learning Leaders will cease operations on March 15, its executive director, Jane Heaphy, announced in a letter to volunteers and parents last week.

In the message, she said the group had slashed its budget by more than a third, started charging “partnership fees” to participating schools, and explored merging with another nonprofit. But the city pitched in with less and less every year, with no guarantee of consistency, she said.

“This funding volatility has created insurmountable challenges to the long-term viability of our organization,” Heaphy wrote. “We regret the vacuum that will be created by our closure.”

The group — which began as part of the city school system but became its own nonprofit in the 1970s — says its volunteers work with more than 100,000 students in more than 300 schools every year, many of them faithfully. When then-84-year-old Carolyn Breidenbach became the group’s 2013 volunteer of the year, she had been helping at P.S. 198 on the Upper East Side daily for 12 years.

Heaphy’s full message to volunteers is below:

Dear [volunteer],

It is with a heavy heart that I write to inform you Learning Leaders will cease operations on March 15 of this year. This organization has worked diligently over the last few years to sustain our work of engaging families as Learning Leaders, but the funding landscape has become too challenging to keep our programs going. While we have been able to increase our revenues from a generous community of funders, we have ultimately come to the conclusion that without a consistent and significant base of funding from the NYC Department of Education, we cannot leverage foundation grants, individual donors, or school fees sufficiently to cover program costs.

In the face of growing financial challenges, Learning Leaders reduced its costs as thoughtfully as possible — and in ways that did not affect our program quality. Rather, we sought to deepen and continually improve our service to schools and families while eliminating all but the most necessary costs. These efforts reduced our budget by more than 35 percent.

At the same time, we sought greater public support for our work with schools and families across the city. We are grateful to the foundations and individual donors that have believed in our work and provided financial support to keep it going. We were gratified when schools stepped up to support our efforts through partnership fees. While these fees only covered a portion of our costs, the willingness of principals to find these funds within their extremely tight school budgets was a testament to the value of our work.

Throughout an extended period of financial restructuring Learning Leaders advocated strongly with the Mayor’s Office and the DOE [Department of Education] for a return to historical levels of NYC DOE support for parent volunteer training and capacity building workshops. While we received some NYC DOE funding this year, it was less than what we needed and was not part of an ongoing budget initiative that would allow us to count on regular funding in the coming years. Several efforts to negotiate a merger with another nonprofit stalled due to the lack of firm financial commitment from the DOE. Over time, this funding volatility has created insurmountable challenges to the long-term viability of our organization.

We regret the vacuum that will be created by our closure. If you have questions or concerns about opportunities and support for family engagement and parent volunteer training, you can contact the NYC DOE’s Division of Family and Community Engagement at (212) 374-4118 or [email protected].

On behalf of the board of directors and all of us at Learning Leaders, I offer heartfelt thanks for your partnership. We are deeply grateful for your work to support public school students’ success. It is only with your dedication and commitment that we accomplished all that we did over the last 60 years. We take some solace in knowing that we’ve helped improve the chances of success for more than 100,000 students every year. The Learning Leaders board and staff have been honored to serve you and your school communities.

Jane Heaphy
Executive Director

Rise & Shine

While you were waking up, the U.S. Senate took a big step toward confirming Betsy DeVos as education secretary

Betsy DeVos’s confirmation as education secretary is all but assured after an unusual and contentious early-morning vote by the U.S. Senate.

The Senate convened at 6:30 a.m. Friday to “invoke cloture” on DeVos’s embattled nomination, a move meant to end a debate that has grown unusually pitched both within the lawmaking body and in the wider public.

They voted 52-48 to advance her nomination, teeing up a final confirmation vote by the end of the day Monday.

Two Republican senators who said earlier this week that they would not vote to confirm DeVos joined their colleagues in voting to allow a final vote on Monday. Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska cited DeVos’s lack of experience in public education and the knowledge gaps she displayed during her confirmation hearing last month when announcing their decisions and each said feedback from constituents had informed their decisions.

Americans across the country have been flooding their senators with phone calls, faxes, and in-person visits to share opposition to DeVos, a Michigan philanthropist who has been a leading advocate for school vouchers but who has never worked in public education.

They are likely to keep up the pressure over the weekend and through the final vote, which could be decided by a tie-breaking vote by Vice President Mike Pence.

Two senators commented on the debate after the vote. Republican Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, who has been a leading cheerleader for DeVos, said he “couldn’t understand” criticism of programs that let families choose their schools.

But Democrat Patty Murray of Washington repeated the many critiques of DeVos that she has heard from constituents. She also said she was “extremely disappointed” in the confirmation process, including the early-morning debate-ending vote.

“Right from the start it was very clear that Republicans intended to jam this nomination through … Corners were cut, precedents were ignored, debate was cut off, and reasonable requests and questions were blocked,” she said. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”