The United Federation of Teachers won’t wait for a new mayor to expand the school model that the union says could be key to boosting student success.
This fall, at least nine and possibly as many as 12 schools across all five boroughs will turn into “community schools,” offering a full range of social services to students and their families. They will join the half-dozen schools that already transitioned to the model this year, using a combination of union, city, and private funding.
The UFT has made the community schools model a priority in the lead-up to the city’s mayoral election. Touting the model as one that could mitigate against the many obstacles to academic achievement that poor children face, the union organized several trips to Cincinnati, where all district schools use partnerships with businesses and non-profits to provide an array of supports including early childhood education, classes for adults, food banks, and health, dental, and vision services.
Four leading Democratic candidates for mayor accompanied union officials on those trips, as did State Education Commissioner John King and elected officials and educators from across the city. All of the candidates who took the trips have said they are committed to expanding the model in New York City. And Gov. Andrew Cuomo built $15 million in competitive grants into the state budget for schools to add community services.
But even before the state funds begin flowing or a new mayor takes office, the union is going ahead with an expansion. It opened applications to schools earlier this year and recently selected nine from the nearly 50 that applied to join the second round of the program. Now, union officials are considering bringing even more schools on board.
“There were some schools that were very, very motivated so we’re revisiting their applications,” said UFT President Michael Mulgrew. “We’re always willing to go to schools where we think this could be useful to them.”
Mulgrew said the union had overhauled the application process since last year after a rocky start to the program, when some schools expected the union to handle all of the heavy lifting and keep paying for services indefinitely.
“We realized after two months we had not correctly framed the vision of it. They just thought they were going to get help and money,” Mulgrew said. “This is about teaching the school community how to analyze what your needs are, but the path has to be to self-sustainability.”
The union’s position is that there are sufficient service providers in the city to meet many students’ needs, but they do not work where students and their families need them most. The community schools program gives each participating school a coordinator whose job is to figure out what families need and work with existing service providers to help them relocate some of their efforts to the school building. Union officials act as a citywide broker, connecting coordinators with the service providers they request.
In the revamped application process, schools won points if they could show they understood the model, had ideas for implementation, boasted good relationship between teachers and administrators; and already managed their space and partnerships creatively. Only schools where at least 60 percent of students are eligible for free lunch could apply. The top 20 applicants made their case further in hourlong interviews.
The schools that came out on top are P.S. 83 and the International School for Liberal Arts High School in the Bronx; P.S. 1 in Manhattan; P.S. 65 in Queens and the Queens High School for Information, Research, and Technology; P.S. 335 and M.S. 584, which share a Brooklyn building; and P.S. 78 and P.S. 14, which share a building on Staten Island.
The six schools that joined the program this year also opted to continue it for a second year. Two of the schools are launching vision clinics, something Mulgrew said had not been planned for them until the school coordinators raised the idea.
Last year, the $600,000 in startup funding came from the union, the City Council, and the Partnership for New York City. Another funder, Trinity Wall Street, pitched in another $150,000 midyear. Union officials said they were still working to line up funding sources for the program’s second year but that they hoped that the City Council and the Partnership for New York City would continue to show support.
Council Speaker Christine Quinn is among the mayoral candidates who have touted the community schools model, and Mulgrew pointed to two other council members, Melissa Mark-Viverito and Debbie Rose, who had also traveled to Cincinnati.
With the model seeming likely to be poised for an even larger expansion in the near future, Mulgrew said he was glad the union could grow its community schools program slowly and cautiously to start.
“I don’t think that this is a fit for every school,” he said. “We have to make sure that we are doing this work correctly. We have to make sure we don’t just expand this for political purposes.”
Still, Mulgrew said, the possibilities of what could happen if the city’s next mayor believes in the community schools model are exciting. Right now, he said, city school construction doesn’t take non-academic services into account, and city agencies aren’t told that they must work together with the Department of Education.
“That would be a huge barrier to overcome — if we had a mayor directing them to cooperate,” Mulgrew said.
He added, “This is what has frustrated me about the whole city — there are a lot of services, and they really want to try to help, and there’s no one trying to connect it all.”