First Person

What Mayor de Blasio’s school-improvement plan is missing: a goal

After Mayor Bill de Blasio rolled out a proposal to convert more than 90 struggling schools to community schools, fans of community schools — and they are legion — were ecstatic. Community schools speak to a broad array of progressive values, from the development of the whole child to the reclaiming of schools as centerpieces of neighborhoods.

But not all progressives were wowed, and the reaction to the proposal has been muted. The reason, in my view, is that the mayor failed to deliver a clear message about his goals for the school system — and that ambiguity may leave us with the same, traditional ways of measuring success by test scores and graduation rates.

Our politicians must walk a fine line in articulating what the purpose of a public K-12 education is and what outcomes we seek to achieve. As David Labaree has argued, three goals have long been in tension: preparing young people to be actively engaged citizens; sorting them into the varied positions necessary for our economy to be competitive; and enabling young people to advance beyond the achievements of previous generations.

Remarkably, the mayor’s address sidestepped any articulation of what the goals of his administration are for our schools. We can glean a bit from the text of his speech about what he and First Lady Chirlane McCray sought for Chiara and Dante, their two children educated in New York City public schools, but the goals are impossibly vague. The Mayor and his wife worried about how they would educate their children “for adulthood,” and he wishes to ensure that every child receives “the education he or she needs to succeed in life.” Students must be prepared “for the jobs of today—which increasingly require skills previous generations could not have dreamt of,” and our renewed schools should “make a real difference in student achievement.”

None of this provides real guidance on how we would know if the system is working as intended. In the absence of a clear statement of what students should know or be able to do, how are we to judge if any one school is struggling — and therefore a candidate for special help — or if a struggling school is on the road to recovery? Minus an alternative framework for what counts as success, stakeholders are likely to rely on the same things we’ve been using, and complaining about, for years: standardized test scores and graduation rates.

To be sure, the mayor’s intent to dial down the use of these measures is commendable. High-stakes accountability systems can distort the meaning of test scores and graduation statistics, as we’ve seen across the state and in New York City over the past decade. But those statistics are likely to remain the default measures of school success, crowding out the many other goals and outcomes that we can collectively imagine, if we don’t offer clear ideas about how else schools should be judged.

The mayor’s ambiguity about the goals of the system extends to his proposed solutions.

The hallmark of community schools is their effort to dismantle boundaries between the school and the community, locating a variety of social services designed to promote the healthy development of children — health care, counseling and mental health, and nutrition, to name a few — within the school. The problem that community schools address is children’s physical and psychological well-being, both of which are prerequisites to readiness to learn.

But schools can struggle for other reasons as well. They may have a dysfunctional culture in which the principal and teachers don’t rally around a core mission and are unable to work together productively on curriculum development and instructional practices. If this is the problem, community schools aren’t the appropriate solution. And if a school is already struggling to organize effectively to manage basic instruction, it may be unwise to saddle it with the additional responsibilities associated with a well-run community school.

A better way to assess a school’s functioning would be by using the capacity framework released by the Department of Education last month: measuring for rigorous instruction, collaborative teachers, a supportive environment, strong family-community ties, effective school leadership, and trust. These concepts have been successful in predicting which schools make progress in student test scores and attendance. As the city develops indicators for those concepts, a struggling school’s profile may result in targeted support in the areas where the school has fallen behind.

But a school’s capacity is still just a means to an end, and doesn’t help identify what we want students to learn. That remains a matter of values — values that the mayor has yet to communicate clearly.

First Person

I mentor students demoralized about not having a vote. Here’s their plan for getting civically involved before turning 18

Students in the Minds Matter program.

Every Monday night during the school year, I spend time with two wonderful young women. They’re high-achieving high school sophomores from low-income families whose success would be certain if they grew up in a more affluent ZIP code.

Along with a team of other mentors, I help the students improve their writing and communication skills to help them prepare for a successful college career. That’s what I’m prepared to do.

I was less prepared for what they brought to our meeting last week, the first time we met under the tenure of a new president. They talked about feeling the consequences of the national political shift, though at 15, they knew it would be years before they could cast a ballot of their own. “We feel left out of a system that affects us too,” they said.

So our task that night became to expand our ideas about what participation in the American political system really means.

Here are five ideas we came up with, designed to help high schoolers do just that.

1. Meet elected officials. Meeting state senators and representatives during their campaigns is often the easiest way to make contact. Attend a coffee event, a party meeting, or a fundraiser where students can introduce themselves and talk about their concerns. Encourage them to be more than just another face in the crowd.

There are plenty of young, local elected officials to learn from. Dominick Moreno, a prominent Senate Democrat on the state of Colorado’s powerful Joint Budget Committee, got his start running for class president as a high school sophomore. Still only 32, he has already served in the House of Representatives and as mayor pro tem of a Denver suburb.

2. Volunteer on a campaign. This is the best opportunity for students to get an inside look at the political process and can help them establish lasting relationships with real people working in politics.

Some legislators face tough races and are out knocking on doors for months. Others spend their time differently, and in either case, candidates need help reaching out to voters, managing social media accounts, answering emails or organizing events. Plus, this work looks great on student résumés.

I tell students about my own experience. It started small: When I was 10, I passed out stickers for local elected officials at holiday parades. When I was 16, I got the chance to intern at the South Dakota state capitol. At 21, I got my first job in Washington, and at 23 I started lobbying in Colorado, affecting policy that now touches all citizens of the state.

3. Think locally. There are so many small things that students can do that will help their community become a better place on their own timeline. Help students organize a neighborhood clean-up day or tutor at an elementary school. These might feel inadequate to students when they look at the big picture, but it’s important to remind them that these actions help weave a fabric of compassion — and helps them become local leaders in the community.

4. Pre-register to vote. Voting matters, too. It sounds simple, but pre-registering addresses a root cause of low voter turnout — missing deadlines. In Colorado, one must be a U.S. citizen, be at least 16 years old, and reside in the state 22 days prior to the date of the election.

5. Affiliate with a party.
This assures full involvement in the process. Before turning 18, students can still attend party meetings or even start a “Young Democrats/Republicans” group at school. If they don’t feel like they fit with either the Republican or the Democratic parties, that’s OK — unaffiliated voters can now take part in the primary elections and help name either Republican or Democratic leaders.

Talking through these ideas helped the students I work with realize voting isn’t the only way to make a difference. One of my students has started a group that helps other young women know about birth control options, after seeing girls in her high school struggle and drop out after getting pregnant. Other students in the group have asked to learn more about the legislative process and want to testify on legislation.

They’re proving that democracy doesn’t begin and end with casting a ballot — but it does depend on taking interest and taking action.

Zoey DeWolf is a lobbyist with Colorado Legislative Services, based in Denver. She also works with Minds Matter of Denver, a not-for-profit organization whose mission is to help prepare accomplished high school students from low-income families for successful college careers.

First Person

It’s time to retire the myth that any counselor can do the job alone — even at a tiny school

A few of the author's students who graduated last year.

I waited five years to get my dream job as a counselor in a New York City public school. After all of that waiting, I was full of ideas about how I would be able to use my experience to help students navigate what can be an overwhelming few years.

I wanted to make our school counseling more individualized and full of innovative support mechanisms. I wanted our guidance department to be a place that anyone could leave with a grand plan.

A few months into that first year, in fall 2015, it was clear that my vision would be, to put it bluntly, impossible to achieve.

When I received my position at a Harlem high school in District 5, I was assigned to not only take on the responsibilities of a school counselor, but also to act as the college advisor, assign (and then frequently re-shuffle) class schedules for every student, and several other tasks. My school had just under 200 students — enrollment low enough that it was assumed this could all be managed.

This proved to be a very inaccurate assumption. I was working with a group of students with low attendance rates, and many were English language learners or students with disabilities. Many students were overage and under-credited, others were in foster care or homeless, some had returned from incarceration, and a couple were teen parents or pregnant.

The American School Counselor Association recommends a maximum school counselor-to-student ratio of one to 250. I know from experience that extremely high student need makes that ratio meaningless. Almost all of these students needed help in order to be ready to learn. Their needs tripled the feel of our enrollment.

This frequent mismatch between need and numbers puts school counselors like me in the position to do a great disservice to so many students. As the only counselor available, a seemingly small mishap with a task as crucial as graduation certification or credit monitoring could have spelled disaster for a student. I know some seniors missed certain financial aid opportunities and application deadlines, and some ninth, 10th, and 11th graders could have used more academic intervention to help them transition to the next grade level successfully.

My success at keeping our promotion and college admissions rates on the upswing was largely due to my outreach and partnership with community-based organizations that helped support several of our students. Had it not been for their assistance, I wouldn’t have achieved anything near what I did.

I’m still a counselor at my small school, and some aspects of the job have gotten easier with time. I love my job, which I think of as the most rewarding yet intense position in the building. But I still believe that there is almost no case in which only one counselor should be available for students.

Principals and school leaders directly involved with the budget must make sure to effectively analyze the needs of their student population, and advocate for an appropriately sized counseling staff. Small schools face real funding constraints. But ones serving students like mine need more than they’ve gotten.

Students’ social and emotional development and their academic success go hand in hand. Let’s not make the mistake of conflating enrollment numbers with need.

Danisha Baughan is a high school counselor and college advisor. She received her masters in school counseling in May 2010 and has held elementary, middle, and high school counseling positions since then.