A grant to create community schools makes strange bedfellows

The last time he led a New York City project, Geoffrey Canada, the founder of Harlem Children’s Zone, had the teachers union as his opponent. Now the two are partnering on a grant proposal that would take struggling elementary schools and surround them with the support services that barely exist outside their doors.

Naturally, the two have a buffer: Good Shepherd Services and the Children’s Aid Society, which is the lead applicant for an Investing in Innovation Fund (i3) grant — money that was set aside as part of the federal stimulus package. The grant proposal calls for $30 million to be used over four years to reduce absenteeism in nine schools in low-income neighborhoods like Harlem, the South Bronx, and Central Brooklyn.

All of the schools that are eventually chosen for the grant will have low-performing students, but they must also have a large number of students who don’t attend class. At least 30 percent of their students must be chronically absent, meaning they miss a month or more of school, hence the grant’s name: “Attend, Achieve, Attain,” or “a3.”

The idea is to keep more children in school for longer by lengthening the school day, adding after-school and summer programs, and turning the school into a community center and medical clinic their parents will want to come to as well.

United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew said the group is currently vetting six schools and will pick three to begin working with next year once it’s clear whether they’ve won the funding.

Mulgrew said the plan to create more community schools in New York began long before the stimulus bill and the i3 grant, with a report the New School published on chronic absenteeism. After talking with Children’s Aid, Mulgrew met with Canada and the two agreed to partner.

“We were going to go to outside funders,” Mulgrew said. “We always had the idea that this group could attract a mix of funders.”

The group’s political diversity is likely to be attractive to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, but it’s not a perfect partnership.

A spokesman for the city’s Department of Education said they intend to sign on as a grant supporter, but that didn’t stop Mulgrew from suggesting the DOE was less than sincere.

“The chancellor talks about the obstacles that children who live in poverty face as being excuses,” Mulgrew said. “There is just a philosophical difference between us and them. We say children can perform as long as they recognize that they have additional obstacles.”

The DOE and the UFT plan to submit their own i3 grant proposals this month.

UFT to join with Harlem Children’s Zone, Children’s Aid Society, Good Shepherd Services in seeking federal funding to reduce chronic absenteeism

Program would provide medical and family assistance, along with afterschool instruction in schools open until 6 pm

The Harlem Children’s Zone, Children’s Aid Society and Good Shepherd Services will join with the United Federation of Teachers in seeking a $30 million federal grant for a program to reduce chronic student absenteeism at nine schools in Manhattan, Brooklyn and the Bronx.

The “community schools program,” to be announced Saturday at the UFT’s annual Spring Conference, could include medical, dental and vision services on site, along with a wide range of family and social services, from GED and English as a Second Language classes to financial planning, legal assistance for eviction and other emergencies.

UFT President Michael Mulgrew said, “We need to create schools as places for families, not just children.  Many of our kids struggle with a huge range of medical and social issues, and our schools should be where families turn for help with all the problems that might affect their children’s academic performance.”

Geoffrey Canada, President and CEO of the Harlem Children’s Zone, said, “I deeply believe that we must all work together to improve NYC’s students chances of graduating high school and continuing their post secondary education.  I’m pleased to be working with this team, the UFT, The Children’s Aid Society and Good Shepherd Services to accomplish this mission.”

Richard Buery, President and CEO of The Children’s Aid Society, said,  “The Children’s Aid Society is excited to submit an application for the i3 federal grant with our diverse group of partners. The grant will address two issues we’re all so concerned about:  chronic early absence and improving student achievement.  When schools are transformed into community schools, the combination of integrated student supports and high-quality, professional development will turn schools around, improve student outcomes and validate the benefits of a model that can be replicated across New York City and throughout the country.”

Sr. Paulette LoMonaco, Executive Director of Good Shepherd Services, said, “Good Shepherd Services is thrilled to join in this critically important effort to demonstrate the effectiveness of the community schools strategy in turning around struggling schools, reducing early chronic absenteeism, improving student achievement and ensuring that vulnerable children, and their families, have access to the full-range of preventive, intervention and enrichment opportunities that are critical to their educational and developmental success.”

One in five elementary school children missed a month of more of the 2007-2008 school year, a chronic absenteeism rate that is clustered in the lowest-achieving schools and districts in New York City.  The goal of the collaboration is to increase student achievement in the targeted schools by significantly increasing attendance rates, particularly in the early grades.

Under the proposal, the schools selected for the program would be eligible for federal Title 1 funds, have a chronic absenteeism rate for more than 30 percent, and would be in the bottom third of all city schools in terms of math and reading performance.  Three schools would be selected for the first year of the program, and six more would begin in the program’s second year.  Total funding would amount to $30 million from USDOE Investing in Innovation (i3) grants.

Harlem Children’s Zone is a non-profit organization that has created a comprehensive network of education, social-service and community-building programs within 97 blocks in Central Harlem. HCZ works to break the cycle of generational poverty by supporting children from birth through college and working to strengthen the families and communities around those children.

The Children’s Aid Society is an independent, not-for-profit organization established to serve the children of New York City.  Founded in 1853, it is one of the nation’s largest and most innovative non-sectarian agencies, serving New York’s neediest children in community schools, neighborhood centers, health clinics and camps.

Founded in 1857, Good Shepherd Services is a leading youth development and family service agency that serves over 23,000 program participants a year.  It provides comprehensive, integrated community- and school-based preventive and intervention programs which focus on positive family and youth development, including foster care and foster care prevention programs.

The agencies taking part will form a local advisory council whose membership will also include the Coalition for Educational Justice and the Center for NYC Affairs at the New School.

Final proposals must be submitted to the federal authorities on May 11; the collaboration’s goal is to start the program this fall.

Newark Enrolls

After changes and challenges, Friday’s deadline to enroll in Newark schools finally arrives

PHOTO: Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat
A student fills out an information sheet at Central High School's booth at the citywide school fair in December.

Newark families have just a few hours left to apply to more than 70 public schools for next fall.

At noon on Friday, the online portal that allows families to apply to most traditional and charter school will close. After that, they will have to visit the district’s enrollment center. Last year, nearly 13,000 applications were submitted.

The stakes — and stress — are greatest for students entering high school. Each year, hundreds of eighth-graders compete for spots at the city’s selective “magnet” high schools, which many students consider their best options.

This year, those eighth-graders have to jump through an extra hoop — a new admissions test the magnets will use as they rank applicants. District students will sit for the test Friday, while students in charter and private schools will take it Saturday.

That’s news to many parents, including Marie Rosario, whose son, Tamir, is an eighth-grader at Park Elementary School in the North Ward.

“I don’t know nothing about it,” she said. District officials have been tight-lipped about what’s on the new test, how it will factor into admissions decisions, or even why introducing it was deemed necessary.

Students can apply to as many as eight schools. Tamir’s top choice was Science Park, one of the most sought-after magnet schools. Last year, just 29 percent of eighth-graders who ranked it first on their applications got seats.

“I’m going to cross my fingers,” Rosario said.

Students will find out in April where they were matched. Last year, 84 percent of families applying to kindergarten got their first choice. Applicants for ninth grade were less fortunate: Only 41 percent of them got their top choice, the result of so many students vying for magnet schools.

This is the sixth year that families have used the online application system, called Newark Enrolls, to pick schools. Newark is one of the few cities in the country to use a single application for most charter and district schools. Still, several charter schools do not participate in the system, nor do the vocational high schools run by Essex County.

Today, surveys show that most families who use the enrollment system like it. However, its rollout was marred by technical glitches and suspicions that it was designed to funnel students into charter schools, which educate about one in three Newark students. Some charter critics hoped the district’s newly empowered school board would abolish the system. Instead, Superintendent Roger León convinced the board to keep it for now, arguing it simplifies the application process for families.

Managing that process has posed challenges for León, who began as schools chief in July.

First, he ousted but did not replace the district’s enrollment chief. Then, he clashed with charter school leaders over changes to Newark Enrolls, leading them to accelerate planning for an alternative system, although that never materialized. Next, the district fell behind schedule in printing an enrollment guidebook for families.

Later, the district announced the new magnet-school admissions test but then had to delay its rollout as León’s team worked to create the test from scratch with help from principals, raising questions from testing experts about its validity. Magnet school leaders, like families, have said they are in the dark about how heavily the new test will be weighted compared to the other criteria, including grades and state test scores, that magnet schools already use to rank applicants.

Meanwhile, León has repeatedly dropped hints about new “academies” opening inside the district’s traditional high schools in the fall to help those schools compete with the magnets. However, the district has yet to hold any formal informational sessions for families about the academies or provide details about them on the district website or in the enrollment guidebook. As a result, any such academies are unlikely to give the traditional schools much of an enrollment boost this year.

District spokeswoman Tracy Munford did not respond to a request Thursday to speak with an official about this year’s enrollment process.

Beyond those hiccups, the enrollment process has mostly gone according to plan. After activating the application website in December, the district held a well-attended school fair where families picked up school pamphlets and chatted with representatives. Individual elementary schools, such as Oliver Street School in the East Ward, have also invited high school principals to come and tell students about their offerings.

American History High School Principal Jason Denard said he made several outings to pitch his magnet school to prospective students. He also invited middle-school groups to tour his school, and ordered glossy school postcards. Now, along with students and families across the city, all he can do is wait.

“I’m excited to see the results of our recruitment efforts,” he said. “Not much else is in my control — but recruitment is.”


Jubilation, and some confusion, as Denver schools begin their post-strike recovery

PHOTO: Eric Gorski/Chalkbeat
Lupe Lopez-Montoya greets students at Columbian Elementary School on Thursday after Denver's three-day teacher strike.

Lupe Lopez-Montoya got the text message at 6:15 a.m. The strike was over, the colleague who’d been keeping her up to speed on news from her union told her.

And so as district and teachers union officials celebrated their deal at the Denver Public Library, Lopez-Montoya on Thursday resurrected her regular commute to Columbia Elementary School, the northwest Denver school where she’s the longest-serving tenured teacher.

For the past three days, Lopez-Montoya had stayed out of school as Denver Public Schools and the Denver Classroom Teachers Association sparred over how teachers in Denver are paid. She still had unanswered questions about the future. But first, it was time to greet students.

One girl ran across the sidewalk to give a hug. “Ms. Montoya’s back,” she shouted, burying her face in the teacher’s side.

Lopez-Montoya began to welcome students into the building. “Line up and you can go get breakfast,” she told one boy. “I’m happy you’re here today.”

The moment kicked off what was a not-quite-normal day in Denver schools. With a deal coming just an hour before some schools were due to start for the day, teachers and families had little time to adjust their plans. The district also had too little time to reopen early childhood classes that have been closed all week; those will reopen on Friday, officials said.

Building principals got an email around 7 a.m. telling them that the strike was over and that many teachers would be coming back to work. In some buildings, central office staff and substitutes who had been filling in for teachers were already on site when teachers returned to work. And some students who commute long distances didn’t get the word in time to go to schools.

By early afternoon, about 81 percent of teachers in district-run schools had shown up to work, and about 83 percent of students had, according to Denver school district spokesman Will Jones.

In the parking lot outside Mathematics and Science Leadership Academy, a west Denver elementary school, teachers still clad in the red of their cause gathered in the parking lot to walk in together. Asked what the mood was, reading intervention teacher Denise Saiz said, “Relief!” and her colleagues responded with an enthusiastic “Yes!”

“We’re really excited to get back to the kids,” said fifth grade teacher Emily Mimovich.

While strike participation was high at the school — it was founded with support from the state and local union as a teacher-led school — the teachers said they did not believe there would be hard feelings between those who walked and those who didn’t.

“We have such a good relationship,” said Reyes Navarro, who teaches Spanish to kindergarten and first-grade students. “We understand that you have to do whatever is right for you.”

Parents also said they were eager to have their children get back to school.

Sarah Murphy, who has a third-grader and a 4-year-old preschool student, said this morning was a “bit of a scramble, albeit a welcome one.” She had both children signed up for a day camp at the University of Denver and was unsure if she should send them to school or to camp because she wasn’t sure teachers would be back at school. Then she got word that camp was canceled for both children — but Denver Public Schools preschools are still closed.

“We were left trying to figure out what to do with our ECE4 since they were still closed,” she wrote to Chalkbeat. “We know how hard this has been on everyone, but this morning proved that the ECE program was the hardest hit, short notice every step of the way. We very much look forward to tomorrow when both are back in their normal school routines.”

Not everyone returned to school. Some teachers said they needed a day to collect themselves after an emotional experience. Judy Kelley, a visual arts teacher at Martin Luther King Jr. Early College, said she and many of her colleagues live too far away from the school to get there on short notice.

But the majority of teachers who went back to work Thursday describe positive experiences returning to their schools. Ryan Marini, a social studies teacher and football coach at South High School, called it the “best day” in 17 years of teaching.

Suzanne Hernandez, a first-grade teacher at Westerly Creek Elementary in Stapleton, said she and other teachers gathered to walk into school together at 7:45 a.m.

Teachers thanked the subs from central office who were in the building. They headed back to their roles in central offices.

Early in the morning, Hernandez sent a message to her students’ parents to let them know teachers would be back in school. The reaction from students as she greeted them was “overwhelming,” she said.

With the help of paraprofessionals who had prepared lessons, Hernandez said teachers were able to jump right back to where they left off last week.

As far as Valentine’s Day, that celebration will be pushed back until Friday afternoon, she said. For now, teachers are having their own celebration, happy to be back in the classroom.

“I think if there’s any sort of effect from the strike, it’s been a positive one,” she said. “It’s been a very unifying experience.”

Allison Hicks, a teacher at Colfax Elementary, said returning teachers were greeted with hugs, music, smiles and tears.

“After finding out an hour ago we were going back to work, I scrambled home to get ready,” she wrote to Chalkbeat. “I am exhausted, but so excited to be back with my students. This day won’t be normal, but knowing I did my part to put my students first is the best feeling to have.”

Kade Orlandini, who teaches at John F. Kennedy High School, said most of the teachers are back in her building, despite the short notice.

“Teachers were ready, and we are jumping right back into instruction,” she wrote. “Attendance seems lower than normal, but students who are here are ready to learn. The atmosphere in the school is very positive all around.”

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Chalkbeat’s Ann Schimke, Erica Meltzer, and Yesenia Robles contributed reporting to this article.