First Person

What I learned from cobbling together my own community school

PHOTO: The Children's Aid Society
Summer camp at the community school at Mirabal Sisters Campus in Washington Heights includes a field trip to a local farm.
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I wish my school had been a community school.

In 2002, I was appointed principal of P.S. 230 in the South Bronx. It was failing because of many of the ills that plague other struggling schools: leadership turnover, demoralized teachers, the debilitating consequences of extreme poverty.

With a great deal of focus and relentless effort, we began to turn things around. But I had to seek out individual partners to provide engaging after-school programs and mentors for our students. I had to organize a group of parents to lead and involve other parents. I did not have any kind of truly comprehensive support for students.

Ultimately, our test scores climbed from single digits to well past citywide averages. And with our collective efforts, we were freed from the State Education Department’s “failing school” list.

I left the school, and in the years following my departure, P.S. 230’s test scores rose and fell. But left without the long-term, systemic support those kids and their community needed, those academic gains were essentially impossible to sustain. The school was eventually shuttered.

I later joined The Children’s Aid Society, where I now oversee 18 community school partnerships, because I saw how powerful collaboration could be between schools and youth development organizations. I supervise dedicated staff who partner with school staff, parents and caregivers, and a slew of other community-based partners in these New York City public schools, four of which are “Renewal” schools and one a public charter school.

Too often, the loudest voices in the public discourse suggest a false distinction between teaching and the barriers to learning our students face. It’s clear to me that for schools serving children from low-income neighborhoods to succeed — and sustain that academic success — we need to address both.

As partners, we do work that helps children fully access the benefits of high-quality teaching. Like other Renewal School partner organizations, we provide academic support and critical programs that strengthen well-being: medical, dental, and mental health services; family stabilization; and parent engagement activities.

I see this clearly at I.S. 219 in the Bronx, one of the Renewal schools that Children’s Aid began partnering with less than two years ago.

While the school still has much improving to do, things are improving dramatically. A school that struggled with chronic absenteeism now has five hard-working Success Mentors, each staying in close contact with 10 to 12 students to ensure they get to school every day and are in the classes throughout the day. These mentors have built relationships with some of the hardest to reach students and their families, re-engaging their sense of hope and possibility for their own futures. Those are chances my students at P.S. 230 didn’t have.

On top of that, we set up a new family resource center. I.S. 219’s parents and caregivers attend workshops on healthy living and on positive communication, among other topics. Most importantly, though, they are in the building, participating in the education and lives of their children. Their kids see that.

These changes are showing real results. Last year an alarming 75 percent of the school’s students scored in the lowest proficiency band of our state’s English tests; only 1 percent scored at proficient and above. In 2016, 55 percent (or 20 percent fewer) students scored in that lowest band, while 10 percent scored at proficient and above.

That is real, demonstrable progress. We’re not satisfied, but we are hopeful that we’re building a foundation for sustainable academic success.

Make no mistake, improving one school — never mind 130 schools — is an intensive process that requires time, focus and tough decisions. There are no quick fixes. Both excellent academics and student support services are necessary in this battle. We couldn’t do our part without full support from parents, teachers and the principal.

Schools implementing the community school strategy also need something else: our sustained commitment. We must continue to support this strategy with urgency, while not being restricted by political deadlines that have no relationship to the time span that true reform demands.

These schools, working to solve these difficult problems, need to be released from the politics of shaming and finger pointing to remain focused on the important work in front of them. Our kids deserve no less, and the future of our city depends on it.

First Person

I mentor students demoralized about not having a vote. Here’s their plan for getting civically involved before turning 18

Students in the Minds Matter program.

Every Monday night during the school year, I spend time with two wonderful young women. They’re high-achieving high school sophomores from low-income families whose success would be certain if they grew up in a more affluent ZIP code.

Along with a team of other mentors, I help the students improve their writing and communication skills to help them prepare for a successful college career. That’s what I’m prepared to do.

I was less prepared for what they brought to our meeting last week, the first time we met under the tenure of a new president. They talked about feeling the consequences of the national political shift, though at 15, they knew it would be years before they could cast a ballot of their own. “We feel left out of a system that affects us too,” they said.

So our task that night became to expand our ideas about what participation in the American political system really means.

Here are five ideas we came up with, designed to help high schoolers do just that.

1. Meet elected officials. Meeting state senators and representatives during their campaigns is often the easiest way to make contact. Attend a coffee event, a party meeting, or a fundraiser where students can introduce themselves and talk about their concerns. Encourage them to be more than just another face in the crowd.

There are plenty of young, local elected officials to learn from. Dominick Moreno, a prominent Senate Democrat on the state of Colorado’s powerful Joint Budget Committee, got his start running for class president as a high school sophomore. Still only 32, he has already served in the House of Representatives and as mayor pro tem of a Denver suburb.

2. Volunteer on a campaign. This is the best opportunity for students to get an inside look at the political process and can help them establish lasting relationships with real people working in politics.

Some legislators face tough races and are out knocking on doors for months. Others spend their time differently, and in either case, candidates need help reaching out to voters, managing social media accounts, answering emails or organizing events. Plus, this work looks great on student résumés.

I tell students about my own experience. It started small: When I was 10, I passed out stickers for local elected officials at holiday parades. When I was 16, I got the chance to intern at the South Dakota state capitol. At 21, I got my first job in Washington, and at 23 I started lobbying in Colorado, affecting policy that now touches all citizens of the state.

3. Think locally. There are so many small things that students can do that will help their community become a better place on their own timeline. Help students organize a neighborhood clean-up day or tutor at an elementary school. These might feel inadequate to students when they look at the big picture, but it’s important to remind them that these actions help weave a fabric of compassion — and helps them become local leaders in the community.

4. Pre-register to vote. Voting matters, too. It sounds simple, but pre-registering addresses a root cause of low voter turnout — missing deadlines. In Colorado, one must be a U.S. citizen, be at least 16 years old, and reside in the state 22 days prior to the date of the election.

5. Affiliate with a party.
This assures full involvement in the process. Before turning 18, students can still attend party meetings or even start a “Young Democrats/Republicans” group at school. If they don’t feel like they fit with either the Republican or the Democratic parties, that’s OK — unaffiliated voters can now take part in the primary elections and help name either Republican or Democratic leaders.

Talking through these ideas helped the students I work with realize voting isn’t the only way to make a difference. One of my students has started a group that helps other young women know about birth control options, after seeing girls in her high school struggle and drop out after getting pregnant. Other students in the group have asked to learn more about the legislative process and want to testify on legislation.

They’re proving that democracy doesn’t begin and end with casting a ballot — but it does depend on taking interest and taking action.

Zoey DeWolf is a lobbyist with Colorado Legislative Services, based in Denver. She also works with Minds Matter of Denver, a not-for-profit organization whose mission is to help prepare accomplished high school students from low-income families for successful college careers.

First Person

It’s time to retire the myth that any counselor can do the job alone — even at a tiny school

A few of the author's students who graduated last year.

I waited five years to get my dream job as a counselor in a New York City public school. After all of that waiting, I was full of ideas about how I would be able to use my experience to help students navigate what can be an overwhelming few years.

I wanted to make our school counseling more individualized and full of innovative support mechanisms. I wanted our guidance department to be a place that anyone could leave with a grand plan.

A few months into that first year, in fall 2015, it was clear that my vision would be, to put it bluntly, impossible to achieve.

When I received my position at a Harlem high school in District 5, I was assigned to not only take on the responsibilities of a school counselor, but also to act as the college advisor, assign (and then frequently re-shuffle) class schedules for every student, and several other tasks. My school had just under 200 students — enrollment low enough that it was assumed this could all be managed.

This proved to be a very inaccurate assumption. I was working with a group of students with low attendance rates, and many were English language learners or students with disabilities. Many students were overage and under-credited, others were in foster care or homeless, some had returned from incarceration, and a couple were teen parents or pregnant.

The American School Counselor Association recommends a maximum school counselor-to-student ratio of one to 250. I know from experience that extremely high student need makes that ratio meaningless. Almost all of these students needed help in order to be ready to learn. Their needs tripled the feel of our enrollment.

This frequent mismatch between need and numbers puts school counselors like me in the position to do a great disservice to so many students. As the only counselor available, a seemingly small mishap with a task as crucial as graduation certification or credit monitoring could have spelled disaster for a student. I know some seniors missed certain financial aid opportunities and application deadlines, and some ninth, 10th, and 11th graders could have used more academic intervention to help them transition to the next grade level successfully.

My success at keeping our promotion and college admissions rates on the upswing was largely due to my outreach and partnership with community-based organizations that helped support several of our students. Had it not been for their assistance, I wouldn’t have achieved anything near what I did.

I’m still a counselor at my small school, and some aspects of the job have gotten easier with time. I love my job, which I think of as the most rewarding yet intense position in the building. But I still believe that there is almost no case in which only one counselor should be available for students.

Principals and school leaders directly involved with the budget must make sure to effectively analyze the needs of their student population, and advocate for an appropriately sized counseling staff. Small schools face real funding constraints. But ones serving students like mine need more than they’ve gotten.

Students’ social and emotional development and their academic success go hand in hand. Let’s not make the mistake of conflating enrollment numbers with need.

Danisha Baughan is a high school counselor and college advisor. She received her masters in school counseling in May 2010 and has held elementary, middle, and high school counseling positions since then.