A Big Bet

City’s community schools plan stirs doubt among supporters

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

When Mayor Bill de Blasio revealed his plan last month to rescue 94 of the city’s lowest performing schools by converting them into service-rich hubs known as “community schools,” groups that had spent years lobbying the city for such schools lauded the idea.

But behind the scenes, some of those same supporters expressed doubts.

They bubbled up Wednesday when members of a community schools advisory board met with Chancellor Carmen Fariña and other top city officials. Some of the City Hall-appointed members peppered the officials with questions about how the turnaround plan will work, and several walked out after officials stopped taking feedback, attendees said.

Unlike a smaller program de Blasio launched earlier this year that asked eager principals to apply for money to create community schools, the turnaround plan compels leaders of struggling schools to adopt that approach regardless of whether they appear willing or able. And the schools will be required to boost students’ academic performance within a few years, even though community schools’ record on that front is mixed and the city has offered few details about how it will help them improve instruction.

Those points are nagging at people who want the mayor’s plan to work, but worry what will happen to the community schools movement if it falls short. Megan Hester, an advisory board member who works for the Annenberg Institute for School Reform, said her concerns crept in just hours after the mayor’s speech last month.

“When I was laying in bed that night I thought, ‘This is going to be amazing, or it’s going to be the death of community schools,’” said Hester, who provides support to the Coalition for Educational Justice, an alliance of advocacy groups that has been an outspoken champion of community schools. “Because if they don’t pull off the academic piece, it’s going to be blamed on the community school model.”

An ambitious “gamble”

Deputy Mayor Richard Buery said the city's effort to launch 128 new community schools is akin to “building the track while you drive the train.”
PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Deputy Mayor Richard Buery said the city’s effort to launch 128 new community schools is akin to “building the track while you drive the train.”

The turnaround plan, dubbed “school renewal,” will connect the schools with agencies that will bring in physical and mental health services for students, after-school programs, tutoring, and perhaps job training or housing assistance for parents. The city will also provide teacher training and principal mentoring, a curriculum review, data-tracking systems, and an extra hour of learning time each day, officials said. In return, the schools must show that students have made academic gains within three years or they could face leadership changes or even closure.

The idea of saturating schools with services that attend to students’ personal needs goes back decades, and has been embraced by political leaders from President Obama and Gov. Cuomo down to the City Council. And it has been tried in districts across the country, including Cincinnati, where the city teachers union has taken de Blasio and other officials to visit.

Still, de Blasio’s plan stands out for its ambition: When the schools that applied are added to the struggling ones, the administration is now working to launch 128 new community schools — by some counts, quadrupling the number of such schools in the city.

It is also rare for a district to make the community schools model the centerpiece of its school-turnaround strategy. Trying to convert many low-performing schools into community schools all at once could prove especially challenging, and that has worried some of the very people who most want the plan to succeed, according to interviews with more than 20 advocates, educators, and experts.

Nicole Mader, a researcher who advised education department officials this summer as they crafted their plan for the 45 voluntary community schools, said it was “a total surprise” to see the city extend that model to the 94 struggling schools. (Eleven schools are in both groups.)

“We had conversations with them about how hard it would be to establish a community school at schools that are failing on many fronts,” said Mader, an education policy analyst at the Center for New York City Affairs at the New School. “It was a crazy gamble to put so much reliance on this model before the model as whole has been proven to work” at this scale in New York, she said.

The academic component

The biggest question looming over the community-schools-as-turnaround plan is whether it will improve the schools’ academics. Advocates and city officials both agree that flooding schools with social workers and healthcare providers can remove obstacles that keep students from learning and teachers from focusing on instruction, but unless the schools’ academic programs improve too, students are unlikely to make big gains.

In fact, several city schools that have used the community-school model for years still grapple with low test scores and graduation rates, such as P.S. 50 in East Harlem, which has been a Children’s Aid Society-partnered community school for 14 years but still landed on the renewal-schools list. The principal of Boys and Girls High School in Bedford-Stuyvesant, who recently resigned, brought in mentors from Good Shepherd Services last fall and a health clinic as part of a years-long effort to create a community school by partnering with outside groups and bringing in services. But the school’s curriculum and instruction still had flaws, evaluators concluded last year, and it remains on the state’s lowest-ranked list.

City officials argue that the new community schools will get more funding and support than those created in the past, along with academic interventions like longer days and teacher training. Jane Quinn, director of the Children’s Aid Society’s National Center for Community Schools, said she “totally supports” the city’s community schools push, but is awaiting more specifics about the academic components.

“What is the plan for helping these 94 schools with the instructional side?” she said. “I think it needs to be forthcoming pretty soon.”

Promising but mixed results

Fariña visited P.S. 5, a longtime community school in Upper Manhattan, with Principal Wanda Soto and Deputy Mayor Richard Buery earlier this year.
PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Fariña visited P.S. 5, a longtime community school in Upper Manhattan, with Principal Wanda Soto and Deputy Mayor Richard Buery earlier this year.

City officials point to other districts that have achieved impressive academic gains through a community schools approach, such as Boston and Tulsa, to make the case for their plan. However, those models differ from New York’s in important ways.

Boston had its community schools program in place for nearly a decade before it spread the model to a handful of state-designated struggling schools, whose principals were also replaced. And in Tulsa, principals take multiple years to study the model and plan before becoming a community school — a much longer timeline than the one planned for New York.

In general, research on whether community schools improve student academic performance is promising but mixed, said Kristin Anderson Moore, a senior scholar at the research center Child Trends who has analyzed the model.

“There are studies that find positive impacts,” she said. “But when you look at a lot of them, you also find others that don’t.”

Driving the train

Another unknown is whether principals of the low-performing schools — who may want more support, but didn’t opt into the program or know the city’s plans until its announcement — will embrace the community schools model or be able to pull it off.

Experts note that running a community school involves much more than choosing from a menu of support programs. The city will pay for site coordinators at each school, but principals still must help identify the school’s needs and find the right providers. Experienced principals then weave those extra services seamlessly into the school by, for example, inviting after-school workers to teacher trainings and parents to high-level meetings.

Mark House, principal of the Community Health Academy of the Heights, a Washington Heights community school, said that even with a full-time site coordinator he spends at least one-fifth of every week dealing with the program’s logistics. To run a single after-school yoga class for parents and students, for instance, he had to raise money, handle liability matters, coordinate with the school custodian, and make sure yoga mats were available.

“It’s that kind of stuff over and over again,” he said. “It’s a very significant amount of time.”

Deputy Mayor Richard Buery, who is overseeing the community schools efforts, said he is confident that educators at the 94 schools will welcome the model and the extra resources it offers, and he emphasized that the full turnaround plan pairs academic interventions with support services. Still, he said that launching the plan has been akin to “building the track while you drive the train.”

“Our job is to keep pushing it,” he said, “so that teachers can come to school with the skills and readiness to teach and students come with a readiness to learn.”

Update: This article has been updated to better describe the community-school efforts at Boys and Girls High School and its academic struggles.

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.