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.”