blurred lines

In some ‘community schools,’ nonprofit staffers emerge as key school leaders

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Katie Hahn, who works for the nonprofit Grand St. Settlement, is Campos' new service coordinator. The city made a point of giving the coordinators access to the new data tools.

At some of the city’s 130 new “community schools,” new assistant principals seemed to have magically appeared and started sitting in on meetings, popping into classrooms, and hastening down hallways.

At the Green School in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, there is Toby Levine, who led a meeting this month where staffers discussed why certain students were missing class — an injured foot, a late shift at work — and how they should intervene.

Nearby at the Juan Morel Campos Secondary School, Katie Hahn and her staff have helped mediate disputes between students and their families and trained teachers on how to work with traumatized youth.

And at M.S. 50 in Brooklyn, Fiorella Guevara has launched a program that replaces traditional parent-teacher conferences with workshops for parents who are still learning English, while also overseeing the school’s mentorship and after-school programs.

Yet these seeming administrators are not assistant principals at all, but former teachers, nurses, social workers, and others who have assumed a remarkable level of authority at some schools — despite the fact that they work for nonprofits, not the city. Known as community school directors, they are on the front lines of a paradigm shift at these schools.

As certain principals offer them significant leadership roles, the directors are helping blur the line between nonprofit and school, putting a central theory of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s school-improvement initiative to the test: That schools must fully integrate outside groups in order to meet students’ academic and personal needs. It’s a novel arrangement for schools and community-based organizations alike, which have often collaborated on programs or projects, but have rarely joined forces as full partners.

“They’ve been in these silos for so long,” said Megan Hester, an organizer at the Annenberg Institute for School Reform who works closely with many community schools, “and now it’s like, Go get married!”

Fiorella Guevara, the community school director at M.S. 50 in Williamsburg, worked with a student during an art class.
PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Fiorella Guevara, the community school director at M.S. 50 in Williamsburg, worked with a student during an art class.

The community school program started in 2014 with 45 schools that struggled with low attendance, then expanded to include 85 low-performing schools. Each school (or, in some cases, multiple schools in the same building) chose a community-based organization, which worked with the principal to hire a full-time community school director.

The director’s job is to help the school identify its greatest needs — counseling services for students with turbulent home lives? Arts classes to inspire hard-to-reach teenagers? — then hire staffers or bring in other nonprofits to meet those needs. But when paired with receptive principals, ambitious directors have managed to push the boundaries of their role, using their six-figure budgets to plug school funding gaps, helping direct school employees in addition to their own, and serving as key advisors to their principals.

M.S. 50 Principal Benjamin Honoroff relies on Guevara, a former teacher and community organizer, to manage initiatives around attendance, arts education, and family outreach. But he also seeks her input on school policy: He heeded her advice to consult the parent-association president when setting the school’s cell phone policy, and he asked her to take a final look at the school’s high-stakes self-assessment.

“I view her as a co-leader of my school,” he said. “We’re texting each other at all hours of the night and sending emails — it’s that kind of relationship.”

Many directors have been notably successful at getting schools to dig deeper into student data.

The city provided the schools with a new online tool that allows them to quickly review students’ academic and attendance records. After signing confidentiality agreements, the directors were given access to that database. Now, many are helping their schools use the system to flag struggling students and coordinate tutoring, counseling, or home visits.

“It’s not something that, frankly, I would use a lot if I didn’t have Paul showing up for this [attendance] meeting every week,” said Patrick Kelly, principal of Urban Science Academy in the Bronx, about his community school director, Paul Neenos.

Other directors have shifted how school staffers interact with students.

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Toby Levine, the community school director at the Green School in Brooklyn, helped lead an attendance meeting where staffers used a new student-data system.

Many are spearheading mentorship programs that pair teachers, guidance counselors, and even secretaries with students who are floundering. In many cases, the directors train the school employees on effective ways to check in with students, set goals, and motivate them.

“In its best form,” said Hahn, the director at Campos Secondary School, the community school approach is “a way to build capacity in a school, so it’s not about an outside agency just coming in and plugging in its services.”

In schools where the initiative has taken hold, principals have come to rely on the directors to do much more than run an after-school program or hire counselors.

For instance, Neenos and the nonprofit he works for, Center for Supportive Schools, are helping Urban Science Academy and two other schools in its building develop better ways for teachers to plan lessons together. Neenos also helps the principals prepare the presentations they must give to education department officials showing how they have used data to tackle school challenges.

Toby Levine meets individually with Green School Principal Cara Tait for two hours each week, where they troubleshoot school trends (for example, sagging attendance on field trip days) and plan for the future, like how to welcome next year’s ninth-graders. Levine even dipped into her budget to pay for an instructional coach that the school couldn’t afford.

“These are things I had as ideas,” Tait said, “but I didn’t always have the capacity to bring to fruition.”

Still, some marriages work better than others.

Some of the most effective directors had previously worked in both schools and nonprofits, but others without that background have had to learn more on the job. And while some of the 46 partner organizations that supervise the directors had prior experience managing schools, others had not.

(The groups also vary widely in how much they pay directors. Because the nonprofits have different pay scales, directors’ salaries range from about $40,000 to $90,000 or more even though their responsibilities are largely the same.)

Meanwhile, some principals are more eager than others to delegate duties and make joint decisions with their directors and community-based organizations.

“There are some schools where the principals do seem to have bought into the CBO partnership” and view their directors as a “chief of staff or a right-hand person,” said Emma Hulse, lead organizer for the New Settlement Parent Action Committee, which works with many community schools in the South Bronx. “There are other schools where the principals are like, I didn’t want this person here, and they’re going to push back on everything the CBO says.”

Chris Caruso, executive director of the education department’s community schools office, said that schools had not had a problem finding highly qualified directors, and that all but four of the director positions are currently filled. The nonprofits have enough funding in their contracts to pay the directors’ competitive salaries, he added, which is considered $84,000 on average for a director with a master’s degree.

The city provides monthly trainings to the directors, and Caruso and his 17-person team regularly visit the schools to offer coaching and support. In cases where the partnerships are not running smoothly, his office will intervene and can replace the nonprofit or director — which Caruso said has already happened in a couple cases.

“This is a change in mindset on everyone’s front,” he said. “We’re asking a lot of school leaders, and CBOs, and communities to think differently about these schools.”

“But,” he added, “the vast majority of these relationships have been overwhelmingly positive.”

test scores

New York City’s math and English test scores increased slightly. Here’s the breakdown.

Students take an exam at Bronx Science.

The proportion of New York City students who passed state exams in math and English this past school year ticked up slightly, according to statewide test scores released Tuesday.

The latest results show the share of city students who passed the English exams jumped by 2.6 percentage points to 40.6 percent, higher than the state average of 39.8 percent. The share of New York City students who passed math exams increased by 1.4 percentage points to 37.8 percent, lower than the state average of 40.2 percent.

New York City’s growth on English scores was higher than the state’s increase of 1.9 percentage points. In math, New York City also rose more than the state, which saw an increase of 1.1 percentage points.

The bump in grades 3-8 test scores is far less dramatic than last year’s, but is more likely to be an accurate barometer of student achievement.

Unlike last year, when state officials said changes to the tests made year-over-year comparisons unreliable, top education officials said this year’s gains show improvements in learning. “The test scores we’re announcing today are a positive sign that we continue to steadily head in the right direction,” said the state’s education commissioner, MaryEllen Elia.

Observers have been eager to see whether more or fewer students opted out of the state exams. Statewide, 19 percent of students refused to take the tests, down two percentage points from 2016. In New York City, 3 percent of students opted out of English exams and 3.5 percent opted out of math. A total of 17,234 students, or 4.0 percent, out of either exam. That’s higher than last year, when 2.4 percent of city students sat out the English exams and 2.76 percent opted out of math.

All racial groups made progress on English and math tests, and the so-called achievement gap between white students and those of color did not narrow significantly. On English tests, for instance, black and Hispanic students’ pass rates increased by 2.3 and 2.5 percentage points, respectively, while white students increased by 2.1 points. In math, white students posted slightly larger gains than their black and Hispanic peers.

The uptick in New York City’s charter school test scores was once again higher than that of district schools. Charter schools’ pass rate on English rose 5.2 percentage points to 48.2 percent. Their pass rate on math increased 3 percentage points to 51.7 percent. Success Academy, the city’s largest charter network, far surpassed those averages with 84 percent of students passing English and 95 percent of students passing math.

Big gains

No. 1: This Denver turnaround school had the highest math growth in Colorado

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
University Prep Steele Street students at a celebration of their test scores Friday.

Denver’s University Prep faced a gargantuan task last year: Turn around a school where the previous year just 7 percent of third- through fifth-graders were on grade level in math and 6 percent were on grade level in English.

On Friday morning, dozens of those students — dressed in khaki pants and button-up sweaters — clustered on the lawn to listen to officials celebrate their charter school, University Prep Steele Street, for showing the most academic growth in Colorado on last spring’s state standardized math tests.

The high-poverty school also had the eighth-highest growth on state English tests. Another Denver charter, KIPP Northeast Denver Leadership Academy high school, had the first-highest.

“I want to say clearly to all of you that no one is ever going to tell you what you can and can’t do — ever,” University Prep founder and executive director David Singer told his students. “You’re going to remind them what you did in a single year.”

By the end of last year, 43 percent of University Prep Steele Street third- through fifth-graders were at grade level in math and 37 percent were at grade level in English, according to state tests results released Thursday.

University Prep Steele Street students scored better, on average, than 91 percent of Colorado students who had similar test scores the year before in math and better than 84 percent of students who had similar scores in English.

As Singer noted Friday, that type of skyrocketing improvement is rare among turnaround schools in Denver and nationwide.

“This might be one of the biggest wins we’ve ever seen in our city, our state, and our country of what it truly means to transform a school,” he said.

Many of the kids were previously students at Pioneer Charter School, one of the city’s first-ever charters. Founded in 1997 in northeast Denver, Pioneer had struggled academically in recent years, posting some of the lowest test scores in all of Denver Public Schools.

In 2015, Pioneer’s board of directors decided to close the school, which served students in preschool through eighth grade. University Prep, an elementary charter school a couple miles away, applied to take it over. But unlike many school turnarounds, it wouldn’t be a gradual, one-grade-at-a-time, phase-in, phase-out transition. Instead, University Prep would be responsible for teaching students in kindergarten through fifth grade on day one.

“When Pioneer Charter School became an option and we looked at our results up to that point of time and what we believed to be our capacity … we saw an opportunity,” Singer said.

A former math teacher at nearby Manual High School, which has itself been subject to several turnaround efforts, Singer started University Prep after becoming frustrated with the reality faced by many of his teenage students, who often showed up with gaps in their knowledge.

“When you walk into school at 14 or 15 and have a huge gap, the likelihood you get to be whatever you want to be is diminished,” he said.

The key to changing that, Singer realized, would be to start students on a path to success earlier. That’s why University Prep’s tagline is, “College starts in kindergarten.”

“It’s a significantly better pathway than the one of intense catch-up on the backend,” Singer said.

University Prep Arapahoe Street opened as a standalone charter school in 2010. Last year, its fourth- and fifth-graders outperformed district averages on both the English and math tests.

Several teachers and staff members from the original campus helped open Steele Street in 2016. The school started with 226 students, 89 percent of whom qualified for subsidized lunches. Ninety-seven percent were students of color and 71 percent were English language learners, more than twice the percentage in the district as a whole.

The biggest difference from the year before, Singer said, were the expectations. The work was more rigorous and there was more of it: three hours of literacy and more than 100 minutes of math each day as part of a schedule that stretched from 7:15 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Lauren Argue was one of the teachers that moved from the original campus to Steele Street. She and Singer said the other big difference was the honest feedback students received from their teachers. That included sharing with students the fact that they were several grade levels behind, and starting the year by re-teaching second-grade math to fourth-graders.

“We had conversations of, ‘Here is where you’re at,’ but also expressing our unwavering belief that, ‘By the end of the year, you will grow a tremendous amount,’” Argue said.

While those hard conversations may have been uncomfortable at first for students and their families, Argue said they embraced them once they saw the progress students were making — progress that teachers made sure to celebrate at every opportunity.

“Kids learned the joy of what it means to do hard academic work and get through to the other side,” Singer said. “That became a source of pride.”

Ten-year-old Abril Sierra attended Pioneer since preschool. This year, she’s a fifth-grader at University Prep. On Friday, she said that while at times she thought her brain might explode, it felt good to tackle harder work. She credited her teachers with helping her achieve.

“The things that changed were definitely the perspective of how the teachers see you and believe in you,” Sierra said. “…They make you feel at home. You can trust them.”