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.

future funding

Trump’s education budget could be bad news for New York City’s ‘community schools’ expansion

PHOTO: RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post

The Trump administration has proposed eliminating the sole source of funding for New York City’s dramatic expansion of its community schools program, according to budget documents released Tuesday.

Less than two weeks ago, city officials announced its community schools program would expand to 69 new schools this fall, financed entirely by $25.5 million per year of funding earmarked for 21st Century Community Learning Centers — a $1.2 billion federal program which Trump is again proposing to eliminate.

The community schools program is a central feature of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s strategy for high-need schools — a model he called a “game-changer” earlier this month. It is designed to help schools address the physical health and emotional issues that can impede student learning, in part by pairing them with nonprofit organizations that offer a range of services, such as mental health counseling, vision screenings, or dental checkups.

City officials downplayed the threat of the cuts, noting the Republican-controlled congress increased funding for the program in a recent spending agreement and that similar funding cuts have been threatened in the past.

“This program has bipartisan support and has fought back the threat of cuts for over a decade,” a city education official wrote in an email.

Still, some nonprofit providers are nervous this time will be different.

“I’m not confident that the funding will continue given the federal political climate,” said Jeremy Kaplan, director of community education at Phipps Neighborhoods, an organization that will offer services in three of the city’s new community schools this fall. Even though the first year of funding is guaranteed, he said, the future of the program is unclear.

“It’s not clear to [community-based] providers what the outlook would be after year one.”

City officials did not respond to a question about whether they have contingency plans to ensure the 69 new community schools would not lose the additional support, equivalent to roughly $350,000 per school each year.

“Community schools are an essential part of Equity and Excellence and we will do everything on our power to ensure continuation of funding,” education department spokeswoman Toya Holness wrote in an email.

New York state receives over $88 million in 21st Century funding, which it distributes to local school districts. State education officials did not immediately respond to questions about how they would react if the funding is ultimately cut.

“President Trump’s proposed budget includes a sweeping and irresponsible slashing of the U.S. Department of Education’s budget,” state officials wrote in a press release. “If these proposed cuts become reality, gaps and inequity in education will grow.”

vying for vouchers

On Betsy DeVos’s budget wish list: $250M to ‘build the evidence base’ for vouchers

PHOTO: Department of Education
U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

Recent research about private-school voucher programs has been grim: In Washington D.C., Indianapolis, Louisiana, and Ohio, students did worse on tests after they received the vouchers.

Now, the Trump administration is looking for new test cases.

Their budget proposal, released Tuesday, asks for $250 million to fund a competition for school districts looking to expand school voucher programs. Those districts could apply for funding to pay private school tuition for students from poor families, then evaluate those programs “to build the evidence base around private school choice,” according to the budget documents.

It’s very unlikely that the budget will make it through Congress in its current form. But the funding boost aimed at justifying private-school choice programs is one way U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is delivering on years of advocacy for those programs. On Monday, she promised the Trump administration would soon lay out the “most ambitious expansion of school choice in our nation’s history.”

DeVos and other say vouchers are critical for helping low-income students succeed and also help students in public schools, whose schools improve thanks to competitive pressure. Private school choice programs have also come under criticism for requiring students with disabilities to waive their rights under IDEA and for allowing private schools to discriminate against LGBT students.

Bill Cordes, the education department’s K-12 budget director, told leaders of education groups Tuesday that the “sensitive” issues around the divide between church and state and civil rights protections for participating students would be addressed as the program is rolled out.