The future of 'community schools'

‘Zero student achievement’: Fate of Newark’s $10M ‘community schools’ program is in doubt

PHOTO: Chalkbeat/Patrick Wall
Belmont Runyon is one of five South Ward schools in a program designed to infuse high-poverty schools with extra resources.

Three years ago, Newark unveiled a high-profile experiment: Rather than close low-performing schools in the city’s impoverished South Ward, the district would try to revive them with an infusion of extra services and staffers.

It was a major victory for Mayor Ras Baraka, who convinced the district’s state-appointed superintendent to devote $10 million in private funds to the effort, and for local activists and teachers unions who had long endorsed this “community-school” approach — transforming schools into service-rich hubs able to treat the many ailments, from hunger to asthma to mental-health crises, that can impede some students’ learning.

Now, with the program still in its infancy, Newark’s new superintendent — a homegrown educator who is close to the mayor, the union, and those same activists — is declaring it a failure.

“I have zero student achievement. I have poor attendance. And I have a lot of people who are getting money in their wallets,” Superintendent Roger León said at last month’s board meeting, before promising big changes. “I assure you the city will see what a true community school is when we move forward in actually bringing one about.”

Beyond those remarks, León has not spoken publicly about the South Ward community schools effort or his plans for an alternative approach. He declined to be interviewed for this story.

But people who have spoken with the superintendent, including Baraka, say León is dismayed by the program’s uneven implementation and disappointing early results for students, which even some community-school supporters acknowledge. Those familiar with León’s thinking say he envisions a broader, citywide effort that draws from an earlier community-school program called the “Newark Global Village School Zone,” which a previous superintendent abruptly ended.

It could be a risky move to try to create community schools throughout the city when the district has yet to sustain them on a small scale. To be successful, the district will need parents and educators to embrace the model and partner organizations to lend financial and technical assistance.

Baraka, the former principal of the high school that was the centerpiece of the “Global Village,” said he believes that León can garner the support of those groups — but first he must share his vision with the public.

“He needs to articulate that, tell people — and I told him that,” Baraka said, adding that local philanthropies, nonprofits, and universities are eager to aid León’s efforts. “What they need now is instruction. That’s where you get a lot of anxiety from people.”

Yet even if León reveals his plan and secures public support for it, he will still likely face the same challenges that have imperiled community-schools efforts in other districts, including high costs, the difficulty of improving schools’ academic programs while simultaneously rolling out new social services, and the pressure to show positive results quickly. And, as León himself may demonstrate, new district leaders have a tendency to overhaul or scrap their predecessors’ programs before they have had time to bear fruit.

“Roger’s got to learn from the past,” said Pedro Noguera, an education professor who previously helped run the Global Village. “There’s a lot of frustration with promises that have been made and not fulfilled.”

“Here’s some money. Run with it.”

The “South Ward Community Schools Initiative” kicked off in Dec. 2015 to great fanfare. It promised to strengthen the teaching at five low-achieving, high-poverty schools while also bringing in medical and mental-health services for students and involving their parents in decision making.

PHOTO: Newark Public Schools
Mayor Ras Baraka announced the South Ward Community Schools Initiative in Dec. 2015 alongside then-Superintendent Christopher Cerf and one of the program’s architects, Lauren Wells.

A three-year pilot program, it was billed as an alternative to closing troubled schools and opening charter schools — controversial policies that Baraka and local activists had railed against. In a coup for those critics, Superintendent Christopher Cerf agreed to fund the program with leftover money that Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and other private donors had supplied to bankroll the earlier reforms.

The effort was hobbled, however, by a chaotic launch, according to experts and current and former officials.

The program’s planning phase in early 2016 was rushed, and its leadership was muddled. An outside group hired to help oversee the effort, Strong Healthy Communities Initiative, left just as classes started that fall and was not replaced for several months. And the district and mayor’s office, which had joint control of the program, did not agree to a governance structure until 2017.

Most controversially, more than $6 million of the $10 million allocated to the program over three years was spent in year one, according to Ronald Chaluisán Batlle, executive director of the Newark Trust for Education, a nonprofit brought in to help manage the program beginning in 2017. Chaluisán Batlle said records he found after arriving indicated that about 30 teachers and other school workers had been hired in the first year. Experts strongly discourage schools from using grants to pay employees because the positions may prove unsustainable after the seed money runs out.

“That first year, schools were essentially told, ‘Here’s some money. Run with it,” said Mateus Baptista, a former education policy advisor to the mayor, who blamed the district for the lax oversight. “There was no strategy, no intentionality.”

To some: “It’s working.” To others: It “has not been implemented.”

Despite the bumpy rollout, resources eventually began flowing to schools.

PHOTO: Chalkbeat/Patrick Wall
Antoinette Baskerville Richardson, the mayor’s chief education officer, spoke during a community-school forum in the South Ward in Dec. 2018.

Students got free dental exams and after-school tutoring. Teachers were trained on how to help students cope with trauma. Parents attended weekend workshops and, at Belmont Runyon School, picked up fresh fruit and vegetables from a community food pantry.

Attendance workers were hired to closely monitor chronically absent students — a widespread problem at the pilot schools — and Rutgers University partnered with Malcolm X Shabazz High School to provide additional support. The district also successfully applied for more than $23 million in federal school-improvement grants, which paid for extra staffers and training to improve the culture at the five schools.

Charity Haygood, principal of Avon Avenue School, said she has been able to hire a full-time social worker, who has counseled students dealing with the loss of a parent or thoughts of suicide. The attendance counselors, who live in the neighborhood, have worked with parents to make sure their children had uniforms and a way to get to school, she said. As a result, fewer students are regularly absent.

“It’s working,” Haygood said. “There’s an impact.”

However, it’s hard to discern an impact at all the schools. Apart from Avon, they continue to suffer from above-average absenteeism rates for the district, according to November attendance figures. And only Avon and Shabazz saw modest gains in their English and math test scores last year; the other three schools saw declines in one or both subjects.

Experts warn that it’s too soon to expect significant results, and that a more sophisticated data analysis is needed to isolate the program’s effects. An outside evaluator, Metis Associates, has been hired to conduct such an analysis this school year — though Superintendent León does not appear to be waiting for that assessment to come to his own conclusions.

In August, Metis completed an initial evaluation based on interviews and site visits, which contained both good and bad news for the program. The evaluators said it had made “significant progress” since launching. But they also catalogued a number of remaining obstacles, including the lack of a data system to track the services provided and outcomes achieved; a need for more training and resources, according to school staffers; and “tensions and a lack of clarity” about the role of the district, the mayor’s office, and the program’s nonprofit partners.

Even some community-school proponents believe the South Ward effort has not lived up to its potential.

Viva White, a social worker whose son is in the fifth grade at Belmont Runyon, said the school has offered some new services such as free haircuts, vision screenings, and the family food pantry. But she has not seen the sort of systematic changes — revamped classroom materials that better reflect students’ experiences, discipline policies centered on conflict resolution and peer mediation, parental input in key school decisions — that researchers say are hallmarks of successful community schools.

“I believe it can work and turn around academic achievement, behavior problems, morale,” White said. However, so far, she added, “The model has not been implemented the way it needs to be.”

The district declined to authorize Belmont Runyon’s principal to be interviewed for this story.

“A 10-year effort, not a two or three-year project”

The question that close observers are asking now is whether Superintendent León will try to shore up and build on the South Ward community schools program or scrap it and start his own effort from scratch.

PHOTO: Chalkbeat/Patrick Wall
Supt. Roger León spoke at a South Ward back-to-school event in Aug. 2018 at Shabazz High School.

Experts, who note the enormous health and academic challenges faced by many students at the five schools, say that community-school programs typically require an extended period to take root. It would be a waste, these experts say, to abandon the initiative — a fate that has befallen similar initiatives in Newark before.

“They need to see this as a 10-year effort, not a two or three-year project,” said Jane Quinn, the former director of the Children’s Aid National Center for Community Schools, which has provided technical support to the South Ward program.

León has already provided signs that he is skeptical of extending the program.

The top district officials who were overseeing it — including the program director, Brooke Tippens, the chief academic officer, and two assistant superintendents — have all been ousted, reassigned, or quit. León or his deputies did not meet with them before their departure to be briefed on the program, according to three former officials. And their replacements have often been absent from leadership meetings with the mayor’s office and the Newark Trust for Education.

“We haven’t had regular representation from the district,” said Chaluisán Batlle of the Trust. “We’ve been working to get that.”

Last month, representatives of city agencies, nonprofits, and universities that support the South Ward program met with the mayor and superintendent to discuss its progress. But León stunned some listeners when he described his vision for the district but did not mention the program, according to attendees.

“People in the room were like, ‘Oh, my God, he didn’t say anything about community schools,’” one person recalled.

Antoinette Baskerville Richardson, the mayor’s chief education officer, said she has no doubt that León will incorporate community-school tenets into his yet-to-be-revealed plans for the district. However, it is unclear whether the South Ward program will continue in its current form.

“Whether there will be community schools is not the question,” she said. “What this means for the South Ward Community Schools Initiative is the question.”

“We want a seat at the table.”

As León crafts a long-term strategy for the district, he has been looking back at the “Global Village” — an effort spearheaded by researchers from New York University in 2009 that focused on seven Central Ward schools, including Central High School, where Ras Baraka was principal.

Modeled on the famed Harlem Children’s Zone in New York City, the program was designed to improve schools in a single high-poverty neighborhood while also connecting students and their families with healthcare, healthy food, and affordable housing. Using public and private funds, the schools extended their hours, brought together their teachers for joint trainings, and made sure their courses were aligned so students could progress seamlessly from the elementary schools to the high school.

But, as is common in urban school systems, the program fell victim to a change in district leadership. In 2012, the new superintendent, Cami Anderson, pulled the plug on the Global Village and replaced it with her own school-improvement program. Now, Leon may be pursuing the same strategy, but with a twist: out with the old and in with the older.

Since becoming superintendent, León has reached out to people who were connected with the Global Village, including former principals and the program’s architects — Noguera, now a professor at University of California, Los Angeles, and Lauren Wells, a former NYU research director who became Baraka’s chief education advisor. Wells is now helping León develop his district plan.

According to Baraka, León has said that he wants to “replicate” the Global Village, but on a wider scale. In response to emailed questions asking whether León planned to continue the South Ward program or bring back elements of the Global Village, a district spokeswoman replied “yes” to both.

Wells, while declining to go into detail about León’s plans, said in an interview that she does not believe it is an “either-or” choice between the South Ward program or the Global Village, as both adopt a community-school approach. The key, she added, is to make sure schools work together using similar strategies.

“The city,” she said, “needs coherence and collaboration.”

As León and his advisors privately determine their next steps, some Newark residents are calling for more “community” in community schools. At a recent forum in the South Ward, Maggie Freeman, a local activist and political leader, said families should be involved in designing community schools and shaping their future.

“We want a seat at the table to determine what’s on the menu,” she said. “We don’t just want to be spoon-fed.”

Time crunch

Specialized high schools lawsuit could delay admissions decisions, New York City says in court filings

PHOTO: Christina Veiga/Chalkbeat
Asian-American parents and community leaders gathered in Brooklyn to learn about a lawsuit against part of the city's plan to integrate specialized high schools.

New York City students may have to wait longer than usual to learn where they’ve been accepted to high school as the city prepares for a ruling in a lawsuit challenging integration efforts, according to court records filed Wednesday.

The city asked Judge Edgardo Ramos to rule by Feb. 25 on a preliminary injunction to block admissions changes aimed at enrolling more black and Hispanic students in the city’s prestigious but segregated specialized high schools.

A decision would be needed by then in order to meet the “latest feasible date to mail offer letters,” which the city says would be March 18 given the tight timeline around the admissions process.  The delay would apply to all students, not just those vying for a seat at a specialized high school. 

“DOE is mindful that a delay in the mailing of high school offers will increase anxiety for students and families, cause complications for those students considering private school offers, and require specialized high schools and non-specialized high schools to reschedule and restaff open houses,” the letter said.

A spokesman for the education department said the city will “communicate with families when a final offer date has been determined.” Letters were originally scheduled to be sent by March 4.

Filed in December, the lawsuit against the city seeks to halt an expansion of the Discovery program, which offers admission to students who scored just below the cutoff on the exam that is the sole entrance criteria for specialized high schools. The Discovery expansion, slated to begin this year, is one piece of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan to diversify the elite high schools.

Asian-American parents and community organizations say the expansion unfairly excludes their children. Asian students make up 62 percent of enrollment at specialized high schools, but comprise only 16 percent of the student body citywide.

The suit calls for a preliminary injunction, which would put the Discovery expansion on hold while the case winds its way through the courts — and would disrupt the admissions cycle already underway for eighth-graders enrolling in high school next year. The process of matching students to specialized high schools was scheduled to begin this week, the city’s letter states.

The plaintiffs wrote a letter supporting the city’s timeline for a decision on the preliminary injunction, saying their aim is to stop the proposed admissions changes “before they can have the anticipated discriminatory effect.”

Hitting pause on the Discovery program expansion would mean the education department has to recalculate the cutoff score for admission to specialized high schools, consult with principals, work with the test vendor to verify scores, and generate offer letters to send to students, city attorney Marilyn Richter wrote in a letter to the judge.

The education department “has never made such a significant course adjustment midstream in the process before,” she wrote.

Education Inequalities

Is Michigan ready for a ‘grand bargain’ to improve its struggling education system?

PHOTO: Lori Higgins/Chalkbeat
Teresa Weatherall Neal, superintendent of the Grand Rapids school district, speaks during a panel discussion that also featured, from left, Detroit Free Press columnist Rochelle Riley, Detroit Superintendent Nikolai Vitti and former U.S. Education Secretary John King.

A new political dynamic in Lansing has put Michigan in a position to potentially see the kind of education transformation that helped catapult Massachusetts to its status as the top-performing state in the nation, says a former U.S. Secretary of Education.

That bit of optimism from John King, who served as education secretary from 2016 to 2017 and is now the president and CEO of The Education Trust, came after nearly three hours of sobering discussion during an event Wednesday about the need to address inequities in education in Michigan.

Several times, King used the term “grand bargain” to describe what Michigan needs. It’s a term many Detroiters will remember from the Detroit bankruptcy and the deal that was a key part of getting the city out of bankruptcy.

As it relates to education, the term “grand bargain” has been used to refer to the bipartisan agreement struck more than two decades ago in Massachusetts that had broad buy-in from business and education groups, teachers, and parents, to improve academic achievement. The gist: The state invested more money in schools. In return, standards and accountability were increased.

King said Michigan is poised to reach the same consensus and invest more money in education, in particular investing money more equitably so the highest-need students are getting the most funding. He said there needs to be a thoughtful approach to accountability, as well as more investments in teacher preparation and support.

He sees it happening because of new leadership at the state level, including Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and new Republican leaders of the House and Senate.

“This is a moment where the new leadership in Lansing could come together … and it could be truly transformative.”

The event Wednesday, which took place at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, was organized by the Education Trust-Midwest, a Royal Oak-based education advocacy and research organization. The topic was inequities in education and the need to provide equitable opportunities for children regardless on where they live.

Amber Arellano, executive director of the organization, said Michigan ranks 43rd out of 47 states for the funding gap between poor and wealthy school districts.

“Students and families pay the price for this under-investment,” Arellano said.

She said the experiences of states like Massachusetts that have seen striking improvement provide hope for Michigan because they show transformation can happen over five to 10 years.

Michigan has been falling behind other states in performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a national exam that tests a representative sample of students in each state. The state’s performance, in fact, has shown little to no improvement over the last decade.

“We rise and we fall together. In Michigan’s case, we’re falling together,” Arellano said.

The audience at the event’s two panel discussions also heard from speakers such as Nikolai Vitti, superintendent of the Detroit school district. He said that often, when K-12 educators talk about the need for more resources, “you see the rolling eyes of lawmakers.”

But, Vitti said, “It takes funding to educate children. And it takes more funding to educate children who enter … with more challenges.”

Panelists agreed that Michigan is at a pivotal moment because of its new leadership. And they came up with solutions they think will make a difference.

Melody Arabo, outreach specialist at EdReports.org and former Michigan Teacher of the Year, said the state needs to address a lack of resources for educators. She said that in a classroom of 30 students, a teacher can have some reading at the kindergarten level and others “who can read better than I can.”

The materials that teachers have “are not meeting those needs. Teachers spend an average of 12 hours a week going online looking for resources.”

David Meador, vice chairman and chief administrative officer of DTE Energy, said Michigan should look at what successful states have done and adopt best practices. Just as important, he said:“Stick with it. Don’t change it every year.”

For King, the solution to improving schools is simple and starts at a young age.

“If Michigan is going to improve, it will need a surge in high quality early learning that prepares every child for kindergarten or beyond,” King said.