One-Stop-Shops

City launches $52 million plan to turn 40 schools into service hubs

PHOTO: Facebook/New Settlement Community Center, Photo by Charles Chessler
M.S. 327 and P.S. 555 in the Bronx are housed in a state-of-the-art building where they provide support services and extra-curricular programs for students and their families. The city is planning to help 128 more schools offer similar services.

The city will spend $52 million in state funds over several years to convert 40 schools into community hubs with medical and dental services, nutrition and fitness programs, tutoring, job training, and other assistance for students and their families, officials announced Tuesday, roughly doubling the current number of such school-based hubs.

That first wave of schools will grow to 100 by 2018, Mayor Bill de Blasio has promised, as he joins policymakers around the country in seeking to boost student learning partly by attending to their needs beyond the classroom. The concept — which has been embraced by teachers unions, parent advocates, Governor Cuomo and President Obama — holds that when schools expand into service hubs, students become better prepared to learn, parents grow more invested in schools, and teachers can focus on teaching.

But even the plan’s proponents say it could pose some challenges for the city due to its ambitious scale and the fact that some schools can draw on limited space to host new services or nearby providers to offer them. Also, advocates insist that schools must pair these supports with excellent classroom instruction if they are to help students with the most needs catch up to their better-off peers.

“It’s a step forward to leveling the playing field,” said Emma Hulse, an organizer with the New Settlement Parent Action Committee, a Bronx parent group that has called for extra services as one way to lift the borough’s lowest-performing schools. “But long term, they’re going to have to invest really seriously in teaching and learning to be able to close the achievement gap.”

Any school can apply to the program, though to be eligible schools must be struggling with student attendance, Deputy Mayor Richard Buery said after a press conference Tuesday. The city will use a state education grant to supply each school with at least $300,000 annually for four years, depending on its size and needs, Buery said. Officials did not say how they will pay for 60 additional schools to become service hubs by 2018, as the mayor has pledged.

The United Way of New York City will help run the program, which will pay for a full-time coordinator at each school to determine what services are needed and which agencies can provide them on campus or nearby. Chancellor Carmen Fariña emphasized that parents will help choose the services, something that advocates have demanded. She noted that some community schools, as the hubs are known, stay open in the evening and on weekends, though she did not say if these schools will.

Some 40 schools currently act as community hubs, according to Buery, though some advocates count many more schools. Organizations such as the Harlem Children’s Zone and the Children’s Aid Society, which Buery previously headed, coordinate services at several of the schools, as does the city teachers union.

Governor Cuomo has set aside $15 million in competitive grants for schools to adopt community services, and the Obama administration has funded “Promise Neighborhoods” across the country where young people can access an array of services in and around their schools.

At the invitation of the United Federation of Teachers, de Blasio has visited a community school in Cincinnati, whose school district has embraced that model more completely than others. While the district has seen higher graduation and attendance rates since adopting the model, students that received support services last year made only modest test-score gains of between 1 and 3 percentage points.

De Blasio on Tuesday said he would gauge the impact of New York’s community schools by improvements in student health and attendance and parent engagement, not “a single set of test scores.”

“I think everyone knows I do not pray at the altar of high-stakes testing,” he said.

M.S. 327 Principal Manuel Ramirez said that extra supports have led to better student attendance and attitudes.
PHOTO: Patrick Wall
M.S. 327 Principal Manuel Ramirez said that extra supports have led to better student attendance and attitudes.

The city’s community schools plan features some elements that advocates requested, such as the service coordinators and a role for parents. But it falls short of the $500,000 per school that the advocates had sought and leaves out some academic supports they recommended, such as extra special-education resources and master teachers.

The goal of launching the program in 40 schools by this fall is an ambitious one, said Martin Blank, director of the Coalition for Community Schools, a national advocacy group that has advised the city on its plan. By contrast, Cincinnati has created 34 community schools after nearly a decade.

Some of the schools will have to search beyond their immediate surroundings to find service providers, Blank added.

“As New York’s demographics have shifted, the agencies aren’t always located where the need is,” he said.

What’s more, some of the schools with the most students who could benefit from extra supports have the least spare space to house on-site healthcare providers, counselors, and other specialists, experts said. Such schools may have to reconfigure their space to make room for the service providers.

M.S. 327 in the Bronx, the community school where Tuesday’s press conference was held, has not faced that challenge.

That school and an elementary, P.S. 555, are housed in a new $100 million complex that features a health clinic, dance studio, rooftop garden, and 75-foot swimming pool. The schools offer dance and swimming lessons, wellness workshops, college prep classes and more through the support of New Settlement Apartments, a nonprofit affordable-housing provider that helped pay for the complex and a service coordinator for the schools.

M.S. 327 Principal Manuel Ramirez said it is too soon to trace academic gains to the services, since the school has only been in the new building for two years, but student attendance and attitudes have already improved.

“And that makes it easier for us to teach the kids,” he said.

a 'meaningful' education?

How a Colorado court case could change how public schools everywhere serve students with special needs

Dougco headquarters in Castle Rock (John Leyba/The Denver Post).

The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday grappled with the question of what kind of education public schools must provide students with disabilities, hearing arguments in a case that originated with a complaint against a suburban Denver school district and that could have profound implications nationwide.

The case involves a student diagnosed with autism and attention deficit/hyperactive disorder. His parents pulled him out of his Douglas County elementary school, saying he wasn’t making enough progress and the district’s response was lacking.

They enrolled the boy in a private school for children with autism and asked the district to reimburse them for the tuition, arguing their son was due a “free appropriate public education” as required by the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

The law spells out the requirements states must meet to receive federal money to educate special-needs students. The district declined, saying it had met the standard of the law.

The family eventually filed a lawsuit against the district. Lower courts all sided with the district, reasoning that it had provided the child “some” educational benefit — the standard cited in the federal statute at issue.

Lower courts across the nation have varied in their definition of the proper standard. The high court arguments Wednesday centered on whether “some” benefit was good enough, or whether special-needs students deserve a more “meaningful” benefit.

Jeffrey Fisher, an attorney for the boy’s family, told the justices that as a general rule, individualized education plans for special education students should include “a level of educational services designed to allow the child to progress from grade to grade in the general curriculum.”

Throughout the arguments, the justices expressed frustration with what Justice Samuel Alito described as “a blizzard of words” that the law and courts have used to define what’s appropriate for special needs students.

Chief Justice John Roberts said regardless of the term used, “the whole package has got to be helpful enough to allow the student to keep up with his peers.”

Neal Katyal, an attorney for the school district, argued that providing children “some benefit” is a reasonable standard.

“That’s the way court after court has interpreted it,” he said. “It’s worked well. This court shouldn’t renege on that.”

Ron Hager, senior staff attorney for special education at the National Disability Rights Network, attended the oral arguments Wednesday and said he was optimistic the lower court’s ruling would be overturned.

He said if the Supreme Court does overturn the federal Tenth Circuit Court’s ruling and requires a higher standard, it won’t necessarily come with major financial costs for school districts. Instead, he said, it will nudge them to be proactive and provide teacher training and intervention services early on instead of waiting until problems — and the expenses associated with them — snowball later.

Marijo Rymer, executive director of the Arc of Colorado, which advocates on behalf of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, said she was heartened to see the case advance to the Supreme Court. Establishing a clearer standard on what constitutes a fair and appropriate education for students with disabilities is a civil rights issue, she said.

“It’s critical that federal law, which is what this is based on, be reinforced and supported, and the court is in the position to deliver that message to the nation’s schools and the taxpayers that fund them,” Rymer said.

Both Hager and Rymer acknowledged that even if the Supreme Court establishes a new, higher standard, it could be open to interpretation. Still, they said it would send a strong message to school districts about their responsibilities to students with disabilities.

Summer remix

Ten stories you may have missed this summer (and should read now as the new school year kicks in)

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Gabrielle Colburn, 7, adds her artistic flair to a mural in downtown Memphis in conjunction with the XQ Super Schools bus tour in June.

Labor Day used to signal the end of summer break and the return to school. That’s no longer the case in Tennessee, but the long holiday is a good time to catch up on all that happened over the summer. Here are 10 stories to get you up to speed on K-12 education in Tennessee and its largest school district.

TNReady is back — with a new test maker.

Last school year ended on a cliffhanger, with the State Department of Education canceling its end-of-year tests for grades 3-8 in the spring and firing testmaker Measurement Inc. after a series of missteps. In July, Commissioner Candice McQueen announced that Minnesota-based Questar will pick up where Measurement Inc. left off. She also outlined the state’s game plan for standardized tests in the coming year.

But fallout over the state’s failed TNReady test in 2015-16 will be felt for years.

The one-year void in standardized test scores has hit Tennessee at the heart of its accountability system, leaving the state digging for other ways to assess whether all of its students are improving.

Speaking of accountability, Tennessee also is updating that plan under a new federal education law.

The state Department of Education has been working with educators, policymakers and community members on new ways to evaluate schools in answer to the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, which requires states to judge schools by non-academic measures as well as test scores.

Meanwhile, issues of race and policing have educators talking about how to foster conversations about social justice in school.

In the wake of police-related killings that rocked the nation, five Memphis teachers talked about how they tackle difficult conversations about race all year long.

School closures made headlines again in Memphis — with more closings likely.

Closing schools has become an annual event as Tennessee’s largest district loses students and funding, and this year was no exception. The shuttering of Carver and Northside high schools brought the total number of district-run school closures to at least 21 since 2012. And more are likely. This month, Shelby County Schools is scheduled to release a facilities analysis that should set the stage for future closures. Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has said the district needs to shed as many as two dozen schools — and 27,000 seats — over the next four years. A Chalkbeat analysis identifies 25 schools at risk.

Exacerbating the challenges of shifting enrollment, families in Foote Homes scrambled to register their children for school as Memphis’ last public housing project prepared to close this month amid a delay in delivering housing vouchers to move elsewhere.

The new school year has officially begun, with the budget approved not a moment too soon for Shelby County Schools.

District leaders that began the budget season facing an $86 million shortfall eventually convinced county commissioners to significantly increase local funding, while also pulling some money from the school system’s reserve funds. The result is a $959 million budget that gives most of the district’s teachers a 3 percent raise and restores funding for positions deemed critical for continued academic progress.

The district also unveiled its first annual report on its growing sector of charter schools.

With charter schools now firmly entrenched in Memphis’ educational landscape, a Shelby County Schools analysis shows a mixed bag of performance, while calling on traditional and charter schools to learn from each other and promising better ways to track quality.