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.

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. 

poster campaign

How one Memphis student is elevating the conversation about school discipline

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Posters created by junior Janiya Douglas have amplified student voices about the culture of White Station High School in Memphis.

Now in her third year of attending a premier public high school in Memphis, Janiya Douglas says she’s observed discipline being handed out unevenly to her classmates, depending on whether they are on the college preparatory track.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
From left: Janiya Douglas and Michal Mckay are student leaders in Bridge Builders CHANGE program.

“We’re heavily divided in an academic hierarchy,” said Janiya, a junior in the optional program for high-achieving students at White Station High School. “It’s obvious students are treated differently if they are in traditional classes.”

Janiya also has observed racial disparities in how students are disciplined, and the state’s data backs that up. White Station students who are black or Hispanic are suspended at significantly higher rates than students who are white.

Frustrated by what she’s seen, Janiya took her concerns last Friday to the hallways of White Station and hung 14 posters to declare that “our school doesn’t treat everybody equally.”

By Monday morning, the posters were gone — removed by school administrators because Janiya did not get prior approval — but not before other students shared images of some of the messages on social media.

Now, Janiya is seeing some fruits of her activism, spawned by her participation in Bridge Builders CHANGE, a student leadership program offered by a local nonprofit organization.

In the last week, she’s met with Principal David Mansfield, a school counselor and a district discipline specialist to discuss her concerns. She’s encouraged that someone is listening, and hopes wider conversations will follow.

The discussions also are bringing attention to an online petition by the education justice arm of Bridge Builders calling for suspension alternatives across schools in Memphis.

White Station often is cited as one of the jewels of Shelby County Schools, a district wrought with academic challenges. The East Memphis school is partially optional, meaning some students test into the college prep program from across the county.

But Janiya and some of her classmates say they also see an academically and racially segregated school where students zoned to the traditional program are looked down upon by teachers. Those students often get harsher punishments, they say, than their optional program counterparts for the same actions.

“Our school doesn’t treat everybody equally. A lot of groups aren’t treated equally in our school system,” junior Tyra Akoto said in a quote featured on one poster.

“If we get wrong with a teacher, they’ll probably write us up. But if a white student was to do it, they’ll just play it off or something like that,” said Kelsey Brown, another junior, also quoted in the poster campaign.

A district spokeswoman did not respond to questions about disciplinary issues raised by the posters, but offered a statement about their removal from the school’s walls.

White Station is known for “enabling student voice and allowing students to express their opinions in various ways,” the statement reads. “However, there are protocols in place that must be followed before placing signs, posters, or other messages on school property. Schools administrators will always work with students to ensure they feel their voices are heard.”

PHOTO: @edj.youth/Instagram
Members of the education justice arm of the Bridge Builders CHANGE program

To create the posters, Janiya interviewed about two dozen students and had been learning about about school discipline disparities as part of the Bridge Builders CHANGE program.

State discipline data does not differentiate academic subgroups in optional schools. But white students in Shelby County Schools are more likely to be in an optional school program and less likely to be suspended. And statewide in 2014-15, black students were more than five times as likely as white students to be suspended.

White Station reflects those same disparities. About 28 percent of black boys and 19 percent of black girls were suspended that same year — significantly higher than the school’s overall suspension rate of 14 percent. About 17 percent of Hispanic boys and 7 percent of Hispanic girls were suspended. By comparison, 9 percent of white boys and 2 percent of white girls were suspended.

Shelby County Schools has been working to overhaul its disciplinary practices to move from punitive practices to a “restorative justice” approach — a transition that is not as widespread as officials would like, according to Gina True, one of four specialists implementing a behavior system called Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports, or PBIS.

“The whole goal is to not get them suspended, because we want to educate them,” said True, who met this week with Janiya and several other students from Bridge Builders. “When students are cared for emotionally, they perform better academically. As counselors, that’s what we’ve been saying for years.”

Janiya acknowledges that she didn’t follow her school’s policy last week when hanging posters without permission at White Station. But she thinks her action has been a catalyst for hard conversations that need to happen. And she hopes the discussions will include more student input from her school — and across the district.

“Those most affected by the issues should always be a part of the solution,” she said.

Correction: April 10, 2017: A previous version of this story said Janiya put up 50 posters at her school. She designed 50 but actually posted only 14.