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.

New role

Principal Donna Taylor retiring from Brooklyn School of Inquiry, moving to DOE

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Kindergarten students at Brooklyn School of Inquiry

Brooklyn School of Inquiry Principal Donna Taylor announced this week she is stepping down from her position next month.

Taylor, who has been with the Bensonhurst school since it opened in 2009, will take a position with the Department of Education, where she will support principals implementing progressive education and gifted and talented programs — two focuses of BSI. The school, which runs from kindergarten to eighth grade, is one of five gifted and talented schools open to children citywide.

“BSI was created by a team who believes that students need an inquiry-based, arts-infused curriculum, steeped in technology, where everyone is encouraged to think critically,” Taylor said in a statement. “We came together down here in Bensonhurst to grow our practice and build capacity. I am proud of the work I’ve done together with the school’s community to build and grow BSI.”

Her announcement comes the same week that BSI graduated its first cohort of eighth-graders. Moving forward, Taylor is working with other school staff and her superintendent, Karina Constantino, to ensure a smooth transition. A new principal has not yet been named.

BSI is the only citywide gifted school that participates in the city’s Diversity in Admissions program. The admissions pilot allows principals to set aside a percentage of seats for students who are low-income, English learners or meet other criteria. In the case of BSI, the school set aside 40 percent of its available kindergarten seats for low-income students.

While it met that target in its admissions offers this year, it had few open seats because siblings of current BSI students get priority. That meant that only 20 slots were reserved for low-income students.

It will be up to Taylor’s successor, alongside city officials, to decide where to take the pilot program next.

“We have no way of knowing what the new leadership will do or who they will be or what their position will be on the program,” said Sara Mogulescu, the parent of two children currently studying at BSI. “But I know there is a very strong core of commitment to that pilot and to continue to strengthen our community in all kinds of ways, regardless of whether Donna is the principal.”

Despite her many accomplishments, Taylor’s eight years at the helm of BSI were not without controversy. In 2014, Taylor made headlines for a comment she made at an open-house meeting at BSI. She remarked to prospective parents, “If you don’t speak Spanish, you’re going to clean your own house.” Taylor subsequently apologized.

Mogulescu said Taylor had built a solid foundation at BSI, and she and other parents were confident about the school’s future — and Taylor’s.

“As much as we are all sad to see her go,” she said, “I think the parents take solace in the fact that she is going to be spreading her wisdom and experience to other schools.”

planning ahead

Big assignment for group of Colorado education leaders: rethink the state’s education priorities

File photo of student at Marrama Elementary School in northeast Denver. (The Denver Post)

A newly constituted group of educators, lawmakers and state officials led by Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne will be charged with creating a sweeping new strategic plan for education in Colorado.

Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper signed an executive order this week giving that task to a reconstituted Education Leadership Council, which formed in 2011 but has become inactive.

The new-look council will identify statewide priorities for how to better educate the state’s children so they can contribute to Colorado’s workforce, according to the order.

In an interview Thursday with Chalkbeat, Lynne said she expects the plan to include recommendations for how the governor’s office, relevant state departments, the legislature or others can work toward the state’s goals.

The group will begin meeting in August and will spend its first year setting priorities. It is supposed to give recommendations for possible legislation by 2018 or 2019.

Lynne said various state departments and groups already work on initiatives tied to education, but “we don’t have a place where we weave it all together.”

For example, Lynne said, the group could examine whether certain districts still need help getting access to the internet, whether students are being introduced to STEM careers early enough and whether graduates are prepared for the workforce.

Having a strategic plan and clear goals for what schools should be accomplishing could also give officials a better chance of changing school finance, Lynne said, if the group determines that is needed. Reports routinely rank Colorado near the bottom in per pupil funding among states.

“I think it’s hard when people want to talk about changing school finance or they want to address things like compensation for teachers, if you don’t have the core foundation of what do we want to achieve and how do we get there,” Lynne said.

Bipartisan legislation introduced this spring would have created a group with similar goals, but Republicans killed the so-called “vision” bill. Critics said the bill would have created more state bureaucracy and potentially conflicted with school districts’ strategic plans, and called it a ploy to ultimately ask taxpayers for more money.

Lynne said the group commissioned by the governor — which will have as many as 25 members — will include a diverse group of people representing different interests across the state to ensure local districts have a say in the statewide work. It will include directors from five state departments, a superintendent, a school board member, a teacher and a principal.

The original Education Leadership Council was commissioned in 2011 by a Hickenlooper executive order. Recently the group stopped meeting. Members’ terms had expired, and excitement had decreased after the 2013 defeat of Amendment 66, which would have raised taxes for schools. The council helped push for the measure.

When Lynne succeeded Joe Garcia as lieutenant governor, she said she knew she wanted to revive the group.

Her office started planning to regroup the Education Leadership Council in late 2016 before the legislature considered the same work, but she said she paused while legislators considered their bill. When that effort failed, Lynne said her office got back to organizing the council.

The group, Lynne said, will work under a shorter timeline than the one outlined in the failed bill.

Rep. Bob Rankin, a Carbondale Republican who sponsored the “vision” bill, said the council is the right avenue for this kind of work.

“The legislature is not suited for long-term strategic thinking,” Rankin said. “It’s more about shorter-term action. This is a better way to do it — with our involvement.”

Sponsors of the vision bill, including Rankin, will be part of the leadership council.

Here is a copy of the executive order:



EO Education (Text)