Growth Model

Now aiming for 200 community schools, city unveils a plan to get there

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña

As a mayoral candidate, Bill de Blasio promised to fill 100 schools with extra social services and wellness programs by the end of his first term.

Before the end of his first year in office, Mayor de Blasio was already set to outdo that goal, committing to transform 128 schools that have struggled with low attendance, poor academics, or both, into service hubs.

Now, the administration is looking to expand that “community school” model even further, according to a strategic plan the city released Monday, by spreading it to new schools and letting other interested schools apply for help getting started. The hope is that more than 200 schools could meet the city’s definition of a community school by 2017, the plan says, partly by expanding the program to include schools that have tried the approach for years with limited assistance from the city.

“We think there’s an opportunity to grow this work” even beyond the 128 new community schools, Deputy Mayor Richard Buery said Monday at a Bronx high school that is part of the initiative.

The community-schools program will grow in a few ways, according to the plan. At the end of the next academic year, schools will be able to apply to join — including the roughly 60 schools that already work with groups like the Children’s Aid Society and the United Federation of Teachers to bring extra services into their buildings, officials said. Schools that are interested in the model but have not started to adopt it could apply too, they added.

The city will review the applicants to see if they have adopted extra learning time, medical and mental health services for students, or workshops and other supports for their families, among other factors the plan describes as “core elements” of a community school. Selected schools would then have access to “mini-grants” and other funding, as well resources like staff training and data-sharing tools.

Meanwhile, the education department will consider applying the community-school model to new schools, including some of the nine new elementary and middle schools set to open next year, according to the plan. The agency responsible for new school buildings is also studying how to incorporate the model into its school designs by, for example, setting aside school office space for service providers and rooms for parent workshops.

Fariña visited a classroom with Deputy Mayor Richard Buery (left) and Chris Caruso (center), who heads the education department's new community schools office.
PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Fariña visited a classroom with Deputy Mayor Richard Buery (left) and Chris Caruso (center), who heads the education department’s new community schools office.

The plan begins to address a complaint that bubbled up last year after de Blasio announced plans to use $52 million in state funds to turn 45 schools with poor attendance into service hubs, and another $150 million to transform 94 academically low-performing schools into community schools. (Because of overlap among the programs, the total number of new community schools is 128.) Some staffers and service providers at community schools that predated those programs grumbled that they were already carrying out the model, but because they were not struggling with attendance or academics, they did not qualify for the new funding and support.

The plan offers a way for such schools to benefit from the new attention and resources being devoted to the community-school model, which has long been endorsed by groups like the Children’s Aid Society and the teachers union but was not a focus of the Bloomberg administration.

“We’ve had good community schools in New York. What we have not had is a system to support them,” said Jane Quinn, director of the Children’s Aid Society’s National Center for Community Schools, who gave feedback on the plan as a member of the city’s community-schools advisory board. “Now, we’re really trying to wrap a system around all of these community schools.”

The plan also confronts a reality of those existing community schools: They vary greatly in their approach and the types of services they offer, the amount of funding they have secured, and their overall quality. “[M]any of these schools would not be considered fully developed Community Schools and may not currently fulfill all of the Core Elements,” the plan says, adding that the idea now is to “establish a high degree of alignment, equity, and collaboration” among the new and existing community schools.

The city faces several challenges as it tries to create high-quality community schools across the system, including data tracking and academics.

Experts agree that school staffers and outside service providers must plan and work together to pull off the community-school model, and that requires sharing data about individual students’ needs and their performance in class and after-school programs. The city piloted a data-sharing system in some of the new community schools this year, but officials said they must now evaluate how well the system worked and consider student privacy concerns before rolling it out to more schools.

Meanwhile, the question of whether more services will lead to better academic outcomes for students hangs over the plan. The plan lists “strong instruction” as a key ingredient for successful community schools and “improved academic performance” as an expected result, but says little about how the city will make sure that happens.

survey says

How accessible are New York City’s high schools? Students with physical disabilities are about to find out

PHOTO: Cassi Feldman
Midwood High School is considered inaccessible to students with physical disabilities.

Michelle Noris began her son’s high school search the way many parents of children with physical disabilities do: by throwing out most of the high school directory.

She knew her son Abraham would only have access to a few dozen of the city’s 400-plus high schools because of significant health needs, despite being a bright student with a knack for writing.

“I tore out every page that didn’t work in advance of showing [the directory] to him,” Noris recalls.

Even once they narrowed the list of potential schools, they still couldn’t be sure which schools Abraham — who has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair — would be physically able to enter. The directory lists whether a school is considered partially or fully accessible, which, in theory, means that students should have access to “all relevant programs and services.”

In practice, however, the situation is much more complicated. “We had schools that are listed as partially accessible, but there’s no accessible bathroom,” said Noris, who is a member of the Citywide Council on Special Education. Some “accessible” schools might not have water fountains or cafeteria tables that accommodate students with mobility needs. A school’s auditorium could have a ramp, but no way for a wheelchair-bound student to get up on the stage.

Most of that information is not publicly available without calling a school or showing up for a visit — a process that can be time-consuming and demoralizing. But now, thanks in part by lobbying from Noris and other advocates, the city has pledged to begin filling the information gap. The education department will soon release more detailed information about exactly how accessible its high schools are.

Based on a 58-question survey, the city is collecting more granular data: if music rooms or computer labs are accessible, for instance, or whether there’s a slight step in a library that could act as a barrier. The survey also tracks whether a student in a wheelchair would have to use a side or back entrance to make it into the building.

“Sometimes, [parents] actually have to visit four or five of our schools to see if their child could get to every area of the school that’s important to them,” said Tom Taratko, who heads the education department’s space management division. “We didn’t think that was right.”

Virtually every physical amenity will be documented, Taratko said, down to whether a school has braille signage or technology for students with hearing impairments.

Education department officials are still fine-tuning exactly how to translate the city’s new accessibility inventory into a user-friendly dataset families can use. Some of the new information will be made available in the high school directory, and the results of each school’s survey will be available online.

Officials said the new data would be provided in “the coming weeks” for all high schools in Manhattan and Staten Island. The rest of the city’s high schools should be included before the next admissions cycle.

The survey will help identify which schools could be made accessible with relatively few changes, Taratko explained. “Everything — our shortcomings, our strengths — everything will be out there.”

The decision to release more high school accessibility data comes less than two years after a scathing U.S. Department of Justice investigation revealed “inexcusable” accommodations in elementary schools.

Many of the city’s school buildings were built before the Americans with Disabilities Act became law, and despite committing $100 million in its current five-year capital budget to upgrades, many schools are still not accessible. According to 2016 data, the most recent available, just 13 percent of district and charter schools that serve high school grades are fully accessible. About 62 percent are partially accessible, and 25 percent are considered inaccessible.

Making accessibility data public could help change those numbers, said Maggie Moroff, a disability policy expert at Advocates for Children who has pushed for greater transparency and praised the initiative.

“Once it’s out there, there’s so much more self-advocacy a parent can do,” Moroff said. “Then they can make requests about specific accommodations.”

Greater transparency is just one step in the process. Moroff hopes the city will consider taking students’ physical disabilities into account during the admissions process so that academically qualified students get preference for accessible schools. Once students arrive, she added, they must be welcomed by the school community.

“There needs to be much more work to hold the schools accountable to actually welcoming those students,” Moroff said. “It has to go hand in hand with making renovations and making accommodations.”

Even though the data comes too late for Noris, whose son submitted applications to just two high schools out of a possible twelve due to accessibility constraints, she is optimistic future families will have an easier time navigating the process.

“They didn’t say, ‘We’re going to do this over the next ten years.’ They said, ‘We’re going to do this in two years,’” Noris said, noting that she hopes more funding is allocated to upgrade buildings. “I think it’s a real example of the Department of Education hearing the needs and being willing to act on it.”

Student activist

With Townsend Harris in turmoil over interim principal, one student quietly takes a leading role

PHOTO: The Classic
Alex Chen walks the hallway during a student sit-in he helped organize at Townsend Harris High School.

While students across the nation have taken to the streets to protest President Trump, some are fighting battles closer to home. Just ask Alex Chen, the student union president at Townsend Harris High School, who is helping to lead a high-profile fight against Interim Acting Principal Rosemarie Jahoda.

Chen spent much of his February break rallying fellow students, alumni and parents from the elite Queens school to demonstrate in front of City Hall on Friday, asking the city to remove Jahoda from consideration for the permanent post. The controversy has put the 17-year-old in the uncomfortable position of going against his school’s top official.

But Chen insists this isn’t a student vs. principal situation.

“It might have felt like that sometimes, but I don’t really see it that way. I see it more as a community that’s rising up,” he said.

Opposition has mounted against Jahoda since September, when she stepped in to lead the school. More than 3,500 people, including self-identified parents and alumni, have signed a petition against her, claiming that she has harassed faculty, changed course offerings without proper input and that she has been “aloof or even combative” toward students.

In a statement, Jahoda said: “While I am frustrated by many of these inaccurate allegations, I remain 100% focused on serving students and families at Townsend Harris and working to move the school community forward.”

Meanwhile, Chen has been thrust into the spotlight. In December, during a student sit-in he helped organize, he had a tense standoff with Deputy Superintendent Leticia Pineiro.

“How are your teachers being harassed? I’m curious,” the superintendent quipped to Chen in a livestream broadcast by the student newspaper. “You’re speaking and I believe people should speak from fact. I’m a factual person.”

Chen spoke slowly, his voice a near whisper. Even when the superintendent suggested Chen had invaded her personal space, Chen stayed quiet and calm.

“I really just wanted to be able to communicate with her,” he later told Chalkbeat.

He returned to class, replaying the scene in his head and wondering whether he had handled it right. When he walked in the door, his classmates burst into applause.

“He’s become this symbol for everyone involved. And I think he earned it,” said Brian Sweeney, an English teacher and newspaper advisor who has Chen in his journalism class. “When you’re in that video with everyone watching, and you’re willing to keep talking and keep saying what you think … there’s a lot of trust for everyone involved.”

Since the sit-in, the School Leadership Team at Townsend took the unusual step of making Chen a co-chair of the board, made up of teachers, parents and union reps.

“I believe it was a matter of trust and productivity. We needed co-chairs who could move forward with the issues at the table, rather than be stuck in tension,” Chen said.

Even while he fights to make sure Jahoda isn’t appointed permanently, Chen said he has maintained a “very professional relationship” with her. In SLT and student union meetings where Jahoda is present, Chen said he makes an effort to “stick to the agenda.”

“We still have to keep the school running,” he said. “In the hallways, I’ll say good morning. I’ll say hello. Because that’s what you’re supposed to do.”

The Department of Education opened applications for a permanent principal on Feb. 1 and said the process takes up to 90 days. The pushback against Jahoda means many are watching the department’s next moves. This week, Queens Borough President Melinda Katz wrote a letter to Chancellor Carmen Fariña about the matter.

“Accusations and troubling accounts are occurring on a daily basis,” she wrote. “The students of our system deserve to know that the DOE is providing the tools, atmosphere and attention needed to fulfill our responsibilities to them.”

Chen has responsibilities of his own. At home in Hollis Hills, he helps take care of his younger sister and is expected to finish his chores. He’s looking for a job to have a bit of his own money. And with senior year winding down, he spends a lot of time chasing scholarships. Chen hopes to study business at University of Pennsylvania, though lately many people have asked him whether he’ll go into politics.

“I don’t think I will for now, because there’s a lot that goes on in politics that kind of disturbs me,” he said. “After high school, after college, after your youth, it seems like people [tend] to be more self-interested than to help in the community.”