added support

At a struggling Brooklyn school, having more hands on deck is helping boost student literacy

Students work on their reading and writing skills at East Flatbush Community Research School.
PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder
Students work on their reading and writing skills at East Flatbush Community Research School.

Every afternoon at a struggling middle school in East Flatbush, Brooklyn, sixth- and seventh-graders spend an extra hour at school improving their reading skills. But they can’t hide in the back of a classroom.

Instead, the students at East Flatbush Community Research School are sitting face-to-face with their peers and instructors. In one classroom this week, tutors worked with the school’s lowest-level readers in groups of four. In another room, eight students pulled out key words from a book (which on Tuesday happened to be about about a vampire bunny). Down the hall, the highest-performing students took an elective class focused on critical thinking skills.

The school is able to offer that intensive help because the adults working with the students aren’t all teachers. Many are tutors and social workers hired by University Settlement, the nonprofit partnered with the school through the city’s “Renewal” turnaround program.

That program is designed to address students’ out of school problems, which often go hand in hand with academic struggles. At Community Research, where just 8 percent of students passed last year’s state English exam, the school is using the partnership to focus on key academic skills themselves — and provide extra help for teachers, which Chancellor Carmen Fariña has said is another key to improving the schools.

“I want to see that teachers have a higher retention rate in our Renewal schools, and teachers are much more likely to have that if they feel supported,” Fariña told a group of school and community leaders during a visit to the school Tuesday afternoon.

University Settlement Executive Director Melissa Aase (left) and Chancellor Carmen Fariña visit a literacy class at East Flatbush Community Research School.
PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder
University Settlement Executive Director Melissa Aase (left) and Chancellor Carmen Fariña visit a literacy class at East Flatbush Community Research School.

“If you have a second or even a third person, like a social worker or guidance counselor, in a classroom, you’re going to be like, ‘Gee, this school is giving me a lot of help, and therefore I want to stay here,’” she added.

The partnership between the school and University Settlement isn’t new. But the Renewal program has allowed the community-based organization to work more closely with the school, improving the work it has been doing over the last three years, said Tameeka Ford, University Settlement’s director of youth and community programs.

Now, Ford said, the group’s community school director will work with Principal Daveida Daniel to strategize about which staffers should work with which students based on their reading scores, and to decide what kinds of training the tutors themselves need. As the city’s 94 Renewal schools work their way through the three-year turnaround program, those community school directors play a key role managing those partnerships and often in improving attendance and even instruction.

Chancellor Carmen Fariña speaks with East Flatbush Community Research School Principal Daveida Daniel during a visit of the Renewal middle school.
PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder
Chancellor Carmen Fariña speaks with East Flatbush Community Research School Principal Daveida Daniel during a visit of the Renewal middle school.

Critics, and even some community schools advocates have raised questions about whether de Blasio’s Renewal program has enough focus on improving students’ academic skills or by improving what happens inside the classroom.

At Community Research, Ford said the Renewal program has allowed the nonprofit to focus on multiple approaches. The organization now has more resources to devote to helping the school engage with parents, provide meals and child care for families, plan weekend events, and find grants to subsidize field trips for students.

Principal Daniel said the school’s attendance rates have gone up since last year, and state test scores saw modest improvements from 2014 to 2015. Now, she’s thinking about how to make the nonprofit’s contributions, like the expanded literacy program, sustainable.

“We never want them to leave, but the reality is one day they might,” she said. “How could we do it if we don’t have funding? That’s our challenge.”

crime and punishment

New York City plans to expand programs to keep students away from the criminal justice system

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Advocates protest school suspension policy.

Two programs meant to limit student involvement with the criminal justice system will be expanded, city officials announced Monday.

This spring, 71 total schools will be allowed to issue warning cards instead of a criminal summons to students 16 and older for disorderly conduct or possessing small amounts of marijuana — expanding on a 37-school pilot program in the Bronx that currently operates under that policy.

Officials are also expanding the School Justice Project, a program that offers free legal help for students who have become tangled in the criminal justice system, along with “know your rights” trainings. Eleven total school campuses will join that program, up from just one, according to the city.

The programs are in keeping with Mayor Bill de Blasio’s push for less punitive approaches to school discipline, including “restorative” justice, and a plan to significantly reduce suspensions for the city’s youngest students.

But some advocates said the new measures are too incremental and unlikely to make a significant dent in the number of students — disproportionately black or Hispanic — who are slapped with criminal offenses at school.

“What the city is proposing to do is really minimal,” said Dawn Yuster, a student justice expert at Advocates for Children. She pointed out that school safety agents — who are posted in schools but employed by the NYPD — still have discretion to issue criminal summonses for what amount to schoolyard fights or minor drug violations, even in schools with the warning card program.

Even doubling the number of schools covered by the policy would only cover a fraction of the city’s high school students, Yuster added. “If they wanted to make a big change, there’s no reason why they couldn’t expand the program to all schools.”

But Dana Kaplan, executive director of youth and strategic initiatives for the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice, defended the city’s approach.

She said expanding the warning card and School Justice Project programs is part of the city’s effort at “improving school climate while reducing unnecessary exclusionary measures.”

The warning card approach has had an effect: In the program’s first year, there was a 14 percent decline in summonses for small marijuana possession and disorderly conduct in the pilot schools, Kaplan said.

The city is implementing the program in schools that issue a larger share of summonses, she added, and expanding the program requires training school safety agents and other staff in the building. “We’ll be evaluating the warning card program and looking to how we can continue to increase its impact and scale.”

Other advocates cheered the expansion of those programs. “We are really happy with anything that reduces criminal court contacts for minor misbehavior,” said Johanna Miller, advocacy director for the New York Civil Liberties Union. Though “we would like to see the city dispense with using summonses in schools altogether.”

Also on Monday, the NYPD released new quarterly school safety data for the end of 2016 that show school-based arrests and summonses generally decreased last year. The City Council did not start requiring the NYPD to release these statistics before last year, making historical comparisons difficult. (Quarter three shows large declines because it covers much of the summer break.)

Still, the first six months of data collected last year show 91 percent of school-based arrests, and nearly 93 percent of summonses, were issued to black or Hispanic students (a population that represents nearly 70 percent of the school population). Black and Hispanic students are also much more likely to be handcuffed.

“The decrease in arrests and summonses is an indication the administration is trying to go in the right direction,” wrote Kesi Foster, a coordinator at Urban Youth Collaborative, an organization that promotes student voices in conversations about school discipline. But, he said, the numbers show hundreds of students each quarter are still coming into contact with the criminal justice system for minor violations.

“City Hall can and must do more to keep young people in the classrooms and out of courtrooms.”

red carpet

#PublicSchoolProud has its Oscar moment as ‘La La Land’ songwriter shouts out his schools

Songwriter Justin Paul at the 2017 Academy Awards, where he credited his public school education in his acceptance speech for best song.

The recent movement to praise public schools made it all the way to the Academy Awards stage Sunday night.

Justin Paul, one of the songwriters for the movie “La La Land,” credited his public school education during his acceptance speech.

“I was educated in public schools, where arts and culture were valued and recognized and resourced,” Paul said after winning the Oscar for best song. “And I’m so grateful for all my teachers, who taught so much and gave so much to us.”

Paul attended public schools in Westport, Connecticut, where he graduated from Staples High School. The school was also recognized in a recent documentary about its history as a rock venue in the late 1960s. Students recruited The Doors, the Yardbirds, and several other bands to play in the school’s auditorium.

The Oscars stage shoutout comes as people across the country have begun praising their own public schools on social media. The #PublicSchoolProud movement is a response to new U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who has advocated for policies that let students leave public schools for private and charter schools.