blurred lines

In some ‘community schools,’ nonprofit staffers emerge as key school leaders

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Katie Hahn, who works for the nonprofit Grand St. Settlement, is Campos' new service coordinator. The city made a point of giving the coordinators access to the new data tools.

At some of the city’s 130 new “community schools,” new assistant principals seemed to have magically appeared and started sitting in on meetings, popping into classrooms, and hastening down hallways.

At the Green School in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, there is Toby Levine, who led a meeting this month where staffers discussed why certain students were missing class — an injured foot, a late shift at work — and how they should intervene.

Nearby at the Juan Morel Campos Secondary School, Katie Hahn and her staff have helped mediate disputes between students and their families and trained teachers on how to work with traumatized youth.

And at M.S. 50 in Brooklyn, Fiorella Guevara has launched a program that replaces traditional parent-teacher conferences with workshops for parents who are still learning English, while also overseeing the school’s mentorship and after-school programs.

Yet these seeming administrators are not assistant principals at all, but former teachers, nurses, social workers, and others who have assumed a remarkable level of authority at some schools — despite the fact that they work for nonprofits, not the city. Known as community school directors, they are on the frontlines of a paradigm shift at these schools.

As certain principals offer them significant leadership roles, the directors are helping blur the line between nonprofit and school, putting a central theory of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s school-improvement initiative to the test: That schools must fully integrate outside groups in order to meet students’ academic and personal needs. It’s a novel arrangement for schools and community-based organizations alike, which have often collaborated on programs or projects, but have rarely joined forces as full partners.

“They’ve been in these silos for so long,” said Megan Hester, an organizer at the Annenberg Institute for School Reform who works closely with many community schools, “and now it’s like, Go get married!”

Fiorella Guevara, the community school director at M.S. 50 in Williamsburg, worked with a student during an art class.
PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Fiorella Guevara, the community school director at M.S. 50 in Williamsburg, worked with a student during an art class.

The community school program started in 2014 with 45 schools that struggled with low attendance, then expanded to include 85 low-performing schools. Each school (or, in some cases, multiple schools in the same building) chose a community-based organization, which worked with the principal to hire a full-time community school director.

The director’s job is to help the school identify its greatest needs — counseling services for students with turbulent home lives? Arts classes to inspire hard-to-reach teenagers? — then hire staffers or bring in other nonprofits to meet those needs. But when paired with receptive principals, ambitious directors have managed to push the boundaries of their role, using their six-figure budgets to plug school funding gaps, helping direct school employees in addition to their own, and serving as key advisors to their principals.

M.S. 50 Principal Benjamin Honoroff relies on Guevara, a former teacher and community organizer, to manage initiatives around attendance, arts education, and family outreach. But he also seeks her input on school policy: He heeded her advice to consult the parent-association president when setting the school’s cell phone policy, and he asked her to take a final look at the school’s high-stakes self-assessment.

“I view her as a co-leader of my school,” he said. “We’re texting each other at all hours of the night and sending emails — it’s that kind of relationship.”

Many directors have been notably successful at getting schools to dig deeper into student data.

The city provided the schools with a new online tool that allows them to quickly review students’ academic and attendance records. After signing confidentiality agreements, the directors were given access to that database. Now, many are helping their schools use the system to flag struggling students and coordinate tutoring, counseling, or home visits.

“It’s not something that, frankly, I would use a lot if I didn’t have Paul showing up for this [attendance] meeting every week,” said Patrick Kelly, principal of Urban Science Academy in the Bronx, about his community school director, Paul Neenos.

Other directors have shifted how school staffers interact with students.

Toby Levine, the community school director at the Green School in Brooklyn, helped lead an attendance meeting where staffers used a new student-data system.
Toby Levine, the community school director at the Green School in Brooklyn, helped lead an attendance meeting where staffers used a new student-data system.

Many are spearheading mentorship programs that pair teachers, guidance counselors, and even secretaries with students who are floundering. In many cases, the directors train the school employees on effective ways to check in with students, set goals, and motivate them.

“In its best form,” said Hahn, the director at Campos Secondary School, the community school approach is “a way to build capacity in a school, so it’s not about an outside agency just coming in and plugging in its services.”

In schools where the initiative has taken hold, principals have come to rely on the directors to do much more than run an after-school program or hire counselors.

For instance, Neenos and the nonprofit he works for, Center for Supportive Schools, are helping Urban Science Academy and two other schools in its building develop better ways for teachers to plan lessons together. Neenos also helps the principals prepare the presentations they must give to education department officials showing how they have used data to tackle school challenges.

Toby Levine meets individually with Green School Principal Cara Tait for two hours each week, where they troubleshoot school trends (for example, sagging attendance on field trip days) and plan for the future, like how to welcome next year’s ninth-graders. Levine even dipped into her budget to pay for an instructional coach that the school couldn’t afford.

“These are things I had as ideas,” Tait said, “but I didn’t always have the capacity to bring to fruition.”

Still, some marriages work better than others.

Some of the most effective directors had previously worked in both schools and nonprofits, but others without that background have had to learn more on the job. And while some of the 46 partner organizations that supervise the directors had prior experience managing schools, others had not.

(The groups also vary widely in how much they pay directors. Because the nonprofits have different pay scales, directors’ salaries range from about $40,000 to $90,000 or more even though their responsibilities are largely the same.)

Meanwhile, some principals are more eager than others to delegate duties and make joint decisions with their directors and community-based organizations.

“There are some schools where the principals do seem to have bought into the CBO partnership” and view their directors as a “chief of staff or a right-hand person,” said Emma Hulse, lead organizer for the New Settlement Parent Action Committee, which works with many community schools in the South Bronx. “There are other schools where the principals are like, I didn’t want this person here, and they’re going to push back on everything the CBO says.”

Chris Caruso, executive director of the education department’s community schools office, said that schools had not had a problem finding highly qualified directors, and that all but four of the director positions are currently filled. The nonprofits have enough funding in their contracts to pay the directors’ competitive salaries, he added, which is considered $84,000 on average for a director with a master’s degree.

The city provides monthly trainings to the directors, and Caruso and his 17-person team regularly visit the schools to offer coaching and support. In cases where the partnerships are not running smoothly, his office will intervene and can replace the nonprofit or director — which Caruso said has already happened in a couple cases.

“This is a change in mindset on everyone’s front,” he said. “We’re asking a lot of school leaders, and CBOs, and communities to think differently about these schools.”

“But,” he added, “the vast majority of these relationships have been overwhelmingly positive.”

Building Better Schools

A neighborhood-led school will make its pitch to the Indianapolis Public Schools board

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
School 15 has long struggled with low test scores, but community leaders say they have a plan to help turn the school around.

Staff and community leaders at School 15 have a vision: A neighborhood-led elementary school that will offer families social services and draw in kids from across the diverse surrounding community.

They’ve concluded that the best way to make that happen is to have the school managed by a new nonprofit, not the local district.

This week, they will present their proposal to the Indianapolis Public Schools board for the first time since planning began more than a year ago. We covered the school last month in a story about how the neighborhood says they can save their struggling school by taking control.

Superintendent Lewis Ferebee said the plan is a unique grassroots effort.

“It’s a great example of the way that we’ve envisioned this model of not being in the situation were one size fits all,” he said. “They understand that it takes more than just the people at the schoolhouse to improve student outcomes.”

If the board approves the plan, the school would join a growing group of “innovation schools” that are still part of IPS but have the freedom of charter schools. Their staff members are also not employed by the district. The board is not expected to vote on the proposal until a later meeting.

Principal Ross Pippin, who would continue as school leader, told Chalkbeat last month that he’s interested in having the flexibility to make decisions on everything from spending to curriculum.“You get ultra-local control of your school, and so you can really be responsive to every detail of your school,” Pippin said. “That’s really to me the biggest excitement about innovation schools.”

“You get ultra-local control of your school, and so you can really be responsive to every detail of your school,” Pippin said. “That’s really to me the biggest excitement about innovation schools.”

How I Teach

Prayers, precision and push-ups: A special ed teacher puts his unusual background to work in the classroom

Caleb Asomugha embraces his students while on a field trip.

Caleb Asomugha’s professional life has taken many turns. He spent time exploring his faith in seminary, is a member of the Army Reserve and ran his own fitness business as a personal trainer.

Asomugha’s latest venture: Teaching special education at Academy for Young Writers in East New York, where he is halfway through his first year. Now, he uses prayerful patience and military precision to execute classroom lessons — and he isn’t afraid to hit the floor for push-ups with students who need to get their energy out.

“That just helps them refocus,” Asomugha said. “Kids like to move. They get bored sitting in one place.”

Asomugha made his way to the classroom through New York City Teaching Fellows, an alternative certification pathway for new graduates and career-changers, and has been mentored through NYC Men Teach, Mayor Bill de Blasio’s initiative to draw more men of color into the education profession. Asomugha and a fellow teacher recently landed a grant through NYC Men Teach to create an honors program that will expose students to different career options and link them with young professionals for mentoring.

Asomugha co-teaches math, science and band, along with an “enrichment” class designed to help students work on reading and math skills — all in an integrated sixth-grade classroom.

Here’s how he works with his teaching partners to meet the needs of his students with disabilities, and how Asomugha draws on his varied life experiences while in the classroom.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a teacher?

I was a personal trainer doing pretty well, and I just felt that I was not doing enough in life to give back and to leave an impact. So I decided to get into teaching in order to fulfill those inner desires to inspire kids, specifically from low-income communities, to be able to achieve greater in life.

What is one of your favorite lessons to teach? How did you come up with the idea?

We put a stack of 50 note cards on different students’ desks. We told them they had 10 minutes to build a structure that reaches 16 inches high, and they were only able to use a certain amount of tape. [The structure had to] support the weight of a teddy bear for 10 seconds.

The students, they quickly were doing their thing. And a lot of their structures, when we went around and tested it, were not able to maintain the weight. So after that, we had the students investigate. We had websites pre-loaded for them to research different structures and what contributes to their strength.

After their investigations, they had an opportunity to refine their design. We retested it and I would say about 90 percent of their structures supported the object for the time limit. Afterwards, we had the students reflect on what they did and we reviewed vocabulary.

I got that idea from a professional development seminar from Urban Advantage, a program that helps teachers strengthen their science instruction.

You have to collaborate with four different teachers to plan your lessons. What’s that like?

I have the opportunity to share a trusted relationship with each of these teachers that gives me the liberty to either offer insight on their teaching practice or have them offer suggestions to mine. However, this does not come without its challenges, [such as] making the time to meet with four different teachers throughout an already busy week.

My role specifically is to modify content for students with learning disabilities or who need information broken down a little more. In these instances, I sometimes prepare a breakout location within the classroom or in a separate classroom where students who need further assistance (not just students with specific learning disabilities) can come and receive a slower paced, more detailed lesson that may include visual cues, manipulatives [like blocks or other props] and activities. Also, because I am a traveling teacher, which means I travel to most classes with my students, I have a better sense of what lessons will engage the students best.

What’s your go-to trick to re-engage a student who has lost focus?

From my experience, students usually lose focus with the lesson when they are either fidgety, tired or bored. In these cases, my go-to trick to re-engage that student is to take them outside and give them an opportunity to get their blood flowing. Sometimes it’s a water break and other times I’ll do a light exercise with them if they choose — push-ups, jumping jacks.

However, if it is the rare case that the entire class is off, then I will give them a quick brain break. In this 3-5 minute period, I will have them either do a fun class activity, a breathing exercise or a quick game. This time is also really critical for me to take a mental assessment of why the students are disengaged. Sometimes, I will have to add quick tweaks to the lesson or modify the length of the student work. In most cases, each of these strategies work.

How do you get to know your students and build relationships with them? 

One way that I am able to build relationships with them is with my boxing club. A lot of my male students are in that boxing club. We have forged a great relationship and obviously that carries into the classroom.

In any after-school club, a lot of teachers and facilitators will find the students are a little more relaxed and a little more able to be open with their coaches … I have some of the richest conversations with kids after school, just because it’s their time to be competitive, their time to engage in teamwork — and they look to me for advice as a coach, and not just a teacher. It just opens up the levels of trust.

I also take advantage during lunch, as much as possible, to go down with the kids and talk about how they’re doing. I’ll ask a student, “What’s going on? How was school today? What’s on your mind?” A student will tell me either they’re good, or this-or-that is bothering them, and what should they do about it. That’s such a vital opportunity for me, because that can be a time where I can add an intervention right on the spot, before it escalates into something more serious.

Fill in the blank. I couldn’t teach without my __________. Why?

My cell phone, because I’m always in contact with parents. I have a lot of my parents’ cell phone numbers programmed in my phone — and vice versa, they have mine. Much of my success thus far has been because of parent engagement. I try as much as possible to stay in contact with my students’ parents.

Can you think of a time when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach?

I have tons of those, but there is one from recently. There was one student who we had been having a lot of trouble with. This student not only was being very disruptive in class, but the student would often come to class late. We tried a lot of times to get in touch with the parents, but it turned out that both parents worked a ton and they weren’t able to come up to the school for a parent conference.

Me and another teacher decided to go on a home visit, and that was a really great time because we were able to sit with the parents and the student, and get down to the root of why the student’s behavior is the way it is. We were able to, all together, set goals for the student — goals for which the student was able to add input.

After that meeting, that student’s behavior has become a ton better.

Most of the success I’ve experienced as a first-year teacher is because of parent engagement. That has been my go-to as a teacher.