Turnaround Tactics

‘Turning a kid’s lights back on doesn’t make their test scores go up’: one principal on social services in schools

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Mark House

Two years ago, Mark House had a problem. The mother of one of his strongest students showed up to his office in tears after the power had been shut off at their apartment, and she hadn’t been able to buy groceries for weeks.

“She’d been subletting — the person she was paying money to wasn’t paying the landlord,” said House, principal at Community Health Academy of the Heights. But almost instantly, the school’s resource coordinator sprang into action, finding money to get the power back on, connecting the family to a food pantry, and helping to find them affordable housing.

To House, these are the moments that demonstrate the power of community schools — and their pitfalls. Though the Washington Heights principal firmly believes in the idea that students can only learn if their basic needs outside the building are met — a key element of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s approach to struggling schools — he is also wary of the argument that infusing schools with social services will immediately lead to academic payoffs.

“Turning a kid’s lights back on on doesn’t make their test scores go up,” House said. “It’s the precondition for learning.”

House knows that firsthand. His community school, serving grades 6-12, was built a decade ago, but changes in key metrics like graduation rates and test scores haven’t come quickly. CHAH, which is 92 percent Hispanic and roughly 90 percent poor, has only recently come off the state’s “priority” list of low-performing schools. (The school is also part of the UFT’s community schools program, which helps pay for certain staff and offers extra training and support.)

House recently sat down with Chalkbeat to talk about the challenges associated with running a community school and what is reasonable to expect of them. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The conversation around community schools often treats them as monolithic — what’s different about your school?

I think the first thing to bear in mind is that we’ve been thinking about doing this work a lot longer than a lot of folks have. Our model is to serve the students, the parents and the broader community. And I think that “and the broader community” doesn’t exist in a lot of places. We do a lot of adult education, a lot of ESL programming for adults, we do two different exercise classes. And the building is open until 9:30 with a lot of people in it and again on Saturdays; it is really servicing folks that don’t have an immediate tie to the school.

The students and their families have major medical needs, they’ve neglected things. We’re discovering kids in eleventh grade that need glasses, we’re discovering kids in tenth grade who haven’t seen a dentist in four years. If a kid has a crazy toothache, I mean, I can’t study with a toothache. I can’t do anything if I can’t see the board.

So opening a school-based clinic has been fairly remarkable because normally the state indicates you have to have over a thousand students to open one. We found a workaround to do it with only 640 students that works for all the entities, but it’s taken a while.

I think most people probably don’t need to be convinced that access to health care or eyeglasses or mental health supports is a good thing for kids who might otherwise struggle to have access to those things—

I would argue with that though. I think people see that as a common-sense solution, [but] they’re not interested in paying for it. To use our vision screening as an example, we’re on our fourth different program, trying to make that a reality. We’ve done it with one program; the program folded [because] the company couldn’t do it anymore. We coupled with a university; that professor moved on. We’ve worked with Warby Parker, which has donated glasses, and that has been amazing, but they’ve got a question on whether that’s sustainable for them in a long haul as a corporate policy.

That’s what we’re struggling with, and doing it again and again. So while it makes sense that everybody should see the board and have glasses on their face, the actual accomplishment of that takes endless numbers of hours and is a really frustrating process.

Your school is being held up as this model – test scores seem to be going up. Does it make you nervous that we’re talking about the success of the community school model in that context?

The thing I’m nervous about is the speed at which they’re going to expect to see results. We’ve been doing this work for a decade, and are now starting to see the fruits of our labor. As far as educational initiatives go, that’s ancient. At a school level, everything else has shifted — different superintendents, different chancellors. We’ve held fast to this idea for long enough to actually watch it grow and bloom. And it looks like it’s finally paying off, but these are students we got as sixth-graders that we’re now watching, seven years later, walk across a stage.

"The thing I’m nervous about is the speed at which they’re going to expect to see results."

People would come and visit our school — we were on the priority list — they came from the state, they came from the city. We had quality reviews, folks coming in and really picking it apart. And we kept having the same conversation over and over. People from the Department of Education would come in concerned about our results and they would say, “We don’t think that what we see here matches your results.” And each time I’ve had to argue, it will come. It will come, and it’s going to take time. That’s been the work, and my fear is that they’ll expect a faster change than what’s real.

If schools are only going to see incremental progress, what were the signs to you that things were working even if the numbers didn’t bear that out?

It helps to have somebody like [school founder] Yvonne Stennett that you meet with on a regular basis, an incredibly patient woman, encouraging you and saying, “No, you’re doing the right thing. Stick with it.”

We do the learning environment surveys that New York City puts out each year where parents and teachers and students get to respond to the quality of the education that they think they’re receiving and the environment. And those numbers for the past five years have been stellar.

So we were getting the feedback from the parents saying keep doing it, keep doing it. Our PTA meetings grew out to fill the cafeteria when we were having those. So I think a lot of it was saying, we’re going to go with these qualitative results and not ignore the quantitative, in fact the opposite. We work really carefully with New Visions for Public Schools and they have a lot of really incredible tools for tracking different metrics and for trying to find those incremental progress signs.

Where do you have the most ground to make up?

I think we may actually be looking within four or five years at a 92 percent graduation rate working with the same population. It’s that [remaining] 8 percent that’s almost entirely made up of students that entered this country without a strong grounding in their native language, frequently illiterate, and we’re trying to add a second language on top of it when they show up. We can do it when they arrive in middle school. It’s a tremendous lift and very, very challenging, but there’s enough time to do it there. We have not figured out how to do that in four years for the high school.

If you said: Plunk a school down in one of the poorest congressional districts in the United States, take anybody who walks in the door after all of the top performing students in the neighborhood have been siphoned off by specialized schools or selective schools, so you’re working with the most at-risk population in one of the most at-risk neighborhoods — and achieve close to an 80 percent graduation rate, that’s statistically not possible. And yet we’re doing it.

But we’re not doing it by making the teachers work longer hours, not doing it by just chasing test prep, not doing it in any of the models that I’ve seen where you start trying to push away your low-performing students. That’s the exciting part.

men of color

New York state charges forward with its ‘My Brother’s Keeper’ initiative

When young men of color enter high school, they often do so with the deck stacked against them. That’s what a panel of young men from Ithaca and Albany told a room of education policy officials and lawmakers on Friday.

“There’s a mold for us that they want us to fit in,” one student said.

“No one realizes how much potential, not only white students have, but every student has,” another added.

New York state’s top education leaders convened in Albany Friday to tackle the problem posed by these young men: How can the state raise educational achievement for boys and young men of color?

Only about 68 percent of black and Hispanic students graduate on time, while 88 percent of their white counterparts do, according to state graduation rates released last week. Male students fare worse than female students, with a 76 percent graduation rate compared to 83 percent for female students.

The conference is part of the state’s My Brother’s Keeper Initiative, modeled on President Barack Obama’s national program geared toward boosting opportunities for young men of color. Policymakers spearheading New York’s initiative scored a big victory last year, securing $20 million from the legislature and officially becoming the first state to accept Obama’s challenge.

Though the political winds in Washington have changed since then, Friday’s conference sent a clear message that, if the state’s top education officials have anything to do with it, this strand of Obama’s legacy will live on in New York.

Attendees included State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia, Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa and assorted lawmakers and superintendents.

“For me, this is the end of the beginning,” said Stanley Hansen, the State Education Department assistant commissioner who runs the program. “We will start today: Staff will be contacting your schools and communities, and we will be out there in force.”

So far, the state has split the $20 million into grants that encourage the recruitment of a diverse pool of high-quality teachers, along with family and community engagement, and programs focused on college and career success. The department is pushing for another $20 million in this year’s budget.

But Regent Lester Young, who is leading the effort on New York’s education policymaking board, reminded the crowd that it will take more than funding to radically change outcomes for young men of color.

“This is not about $20 million because this problem, this challenge, is not going to be solved with $20 million,” Young said. “This will be solved when we decide to change the narrative.”

turnaround time

This Harlem school has one of the highest dropout rates in New York City. Meet the principal working to turn it around.

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Geralda Valcin, principal at Harlem's Coalition School for Social Change

Just two months after becoming principal, Geralda Valcin’s plan to reduce her school’s dropout rate landed her in a parking lot at Rikers Island.

One of her students at the Coalition School for Social Change had been incarcerated, so she made the trip — with a care package of clean t-shirts and socks in tow — to convince the jail’s staff to enroll him in a U.S. history class, one of the only courses he needed to earn a diploma.

“The principal at Rikers was like, ‘You really came up here to do this?’” Valcin recalls. “It fell on deaf ears.”

The jail wouldn’t let her visit the student or place him in the class Valcin requested, but that was only part of the reason for the trip. “He totally appreciated us for it,” she said. After his release about six months later, the senior returned to school and is on track to graduate this year.

Valcin chalks this up as a success story, but acknowledges she has many other students who need that type of support. At her Harlem school, more than a quarter of the ninth-graders who started in 2012 dropped out at some point during their high school careers, meaning they left without enrolling in another school. Only a handful of other traditional high schools in New York City had higher dropout rates, according to new statistics.

Valcin, who became principal last March after more than five years as assistant principal at Bronx High School for Law and Community Service, says she’s ready for the challenge.

She has spent much of the past year reinforcing systems to identify students early who are at risk of dropping out, and working with her school’s nonprofit partner to intervene. And the stakes are high: Coalition is one of 86 schools in the city’s “Renewal” program for low-performers, which offers schools extra social services and academic support, but which must show signs of progress in return.

Though her previous school wasn’t in the program, it also struggled with low graduation rates. It was “pretty much in the same predicament,” she said. That school boosted graduation rates by almost 20 points during her tenure, eventually besting the current citywide average of 72 percent.

Though graduation rates at her new school have started to climb, Valcin isn’t sanguine about the work ahead of her. For one thing, her students — roughly 92 percent of whom are black or Hispanic — often arrive far behind grade-level. Three-quarters come from poor families; 35 percent have disabilities.

Valcin isn’t willing to speculate about why Coalition’s dropout rate is higher than other schools with similarly high-need populations, and is careful not to assign blame. “The numbers spoke for themselves,” she said. “Coalition hasn’t graduated 50 percent of its students in six years or more. A lot of the work probably wasn’t happening.”

Soon after arriving, she launched a “Saturday academy” to help students stay on track and prepare for the state’s exit exams, and began carefully watching students who had attendance or disciplinary problems early on. “If that pattern begins, you’re almost doomed,” Valcin said.

That’s why, before students start classes in the fall, school staff review their middle school records and conduct home visits, so they can talk about previous problems before they crop up again.

“From the beginning of the year, we have highlighted a cohort of kids that without significant additional support wouldn’t cross the finish line,” said Derek Anello, a program director at Partnership with Children, the school’s nonprofit community partner. “We’re starting with ninth-graders before they’re even in the building.”

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Coalition School for Social Change

The school zooms in on students who don’t earn passing grades during the first few months of school, and offers extra academic help. (Valcin keeps a color-coded spreadsheet on her desk that tracks student progress toward graduation.)

If a student is showing up late — or not at all — they’ll likely get a knock on their door, sometimes from Valcin herself, or from a staff member at Partnership with Children. And if they’re routinely showing up late to class due to an extra-long commute, school officials might help the family find a school that’s closer to home.

City officials are expecting those efforts to produce significant results this year. Under the benchmarks assigned to the school through the Renewal program, its graduation rate should increase to 63 percent this school year, up from 46 percent. The education department considers graduation rates in decisions about whether to close or merge schools in the program.

Partnership with Children’s Anello is optimistic about meeting that goal partly because of Valcin’s embrace of his community organization. “Not every principal allows the [nonprofit partner] to be their right hand,” he added. “That’s not consistent across Renewal schools.”

But the school faces strong headwinds that make it hard to attract students who are more likely to graduate, including intense academic segregation. Among last year’s ninth-graders, for instance, fewer than five students had passed either their eighth-grade math or reading tests.

The school’s inclusion in the Renewal program, historically low graduation rate, and sagging enrollment have also signaled to prospective families that the school doesn’t have a strong track record.

In fact, Valcin has been reluctant to aggressively market the school. “I don’t want to go on the street and say, ‘Hey send your kids to this school’ given the condition we’re in currently.”

But she’s banking on this year’s graduation rate changing that calculation.

“The day after graduation, I’ll be on the corners passing out fliers,” she said.