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.”

School choice

Denver judge blocks school transportation provision added to Colorado law

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Sam Boswell, 7, all bundled up in his winter clothes, splashes his way to the school bus on May 12, 2010.

A Denver judge struck down a provision of a bill related to the education of youth in foster care that would have removed barriers to transportation for all students.

The transportation provision was an amendment added by Republican lawmakers late in the 2018 session. Soon after the bill was signed by Gov. John Hickenlooper, several Colorado school districts and the associations that represent them filed a lawsuit to block it.

In a ruling issued Friday, Denver District Court Judge David Goldberg found that the amendment violated rules in the Colorado constitution that require every bill to have a clear title that explains what the bill is about and to deal only with one subject.

The bill’s title was “Improving Educational Stability for Foster Youth,” and it seeks to improve graduation rates for foster youth by requiring child welfare officials and school districts to work out transportation to the student’s home district when that’s in the child’s best interest. It also creates flexibility around graduation requirements when students do change schools. Foster youth have the lowest four-year graduation rates in the state, much lower even than homeless youth and students whose parents are migrant workers.

The tacked-on language was added in the Republican-controlled State Affairs committee five days before the end of the session. It said that a school board “may furnish transportation” to students who are enrolled in the district but who live in another district. The provision applies to all students, not just those who are in the foster system. It also struck language from an existing law that requires the consent of the school district from which students are being bused.

The amendment language came straight from a separate bill about expanding school choice that had been killed by Democrats in the House the day before.

Many school districts opposed the transportation provision because they feared it would open the door for better-off districts to poach students and undermine the meaning of school district boundaries. Advocates for school choice argued the provision was good policy that would allow more students, especially those from low-income families, take advantage of opportunities. They also argued, apparently unconvincingly, that it was required for implementation of the foster youth portions of the bill.

The Donnell-Kay Foundation intervened in the case in defense of the law. (The Donnell-Kay Foundation is a funder of Chalkbeat. You can read our ethics policy here.)

In his ruling, Goldberg said this specific issue has never been litigated in Colorado before, and he relied in part on rulings from other states with similar requirements. Bills with broad titles, he wrote, can be construed broadly and encompass a range of issues as long as they have some connection to the title. But bills with narrow titles must be construed narrowly — and this amendment didn’t make the cut.

“The subject of House Bill 18-1306 is out-of-home placed students and efforts to ensure educational stability,” Goldberg wrote, while the amendment’s subject “is all students, with no qualifiers, conditions, restrictions, or reference to out-of-home placed students. … House Bill 18-1306 seriously modifies transportation for all students and is hidden under a title relating exclusively to out-of-home placed students.”

Goldberg ruled that the amendment is “disconnected” from the rest of the bill, and neither lawmakers nor the public had enough notice about its inclusion before passage.

That leaves the rest of the foster youth bill intact and advocates for expanded school choice facing an uphill battle in a legislature in which Democrats, who are more likely to give priority to school district concerns, now control both chambers.

This isn’t an abstract issue. In 2015, more than 150 students who lived in the Pueblo 60 district but attended school in higher-performing Pueblo 70 lost access to transportation when the city-based district ordered its neighbor to stop running bus routes through its territory.

Online Shopping

Jeffco launches universal enrollment site to make school choice easy

PHOTO: Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat
Students in a social studies class at Bear Creek High School in Jeffco Public Schools read about Genghis Khan.

Starting Monday, parents in Colorado’s second-largest district will be able to shop online for schools and, once enrollment opens in January, apply to as many as they like.

The launch of Enroll Jeffco, following the path paved by Denver Public Schools, means some 86,000 students and their parents won’t have to go to individual schools during the work day and fill out paper forms if they want to apply somewhere other than their neighborhood school.

The online system cost about $600,000 to develop and operate for this school year. The district expects it to cost about half of that annually going forward.

Universal enrollment systems allow parents to compare and apply to traditional district-run schools, district schools with specialized programming or models, known in Jeffco as options schools, and charter schools with a single application on the same website. Universal enrollment systems are a key component of what some call the “portfolio model,” in which districts oversee a range of school types and parents vote with their feet. They’ve been controversial in places, especially when coupled with aggressive school accountability policies that lead to school closures.

In Jeffco Public Schools, which is more affluent than many Denver metro area districts, officials see the move to a single, online enrollment system as a valuable service for parents.

“Regardless of how people feel about it, we operate in a competitive school choice environment, both inside the district and outside the district,” Superintendent Jason Glass said. “That compels us to make thinking about that transaction, making people aware of the options and enrolling in our schools, as frictionless and easy as possible.”

Colorado law requires schools in any district to admit any student for whom they have room and for whom the district can provide adequate services, after giving priority to students who live in the district. But many districts still require paper applications at individual schools, and schools in the same district might not have the same deadlines. A recent report by the conservative education advocacy group Ready Colorado found that parents who use school choice are more likely to be white, middle- or upper-class, and English-speaking than the state’s student population. The authors argue that districts should streamline the enrollment process and consider providing transportation to make choice more accessible.

Jeffco isn’t rolling out new transportation options yet, but it might use data from the enrollment process, including a parent survey that is built into the website, to see if that’s desired or feasible. And officials believe strongly that the new online enrollment system will open up more opportunities for low-income parents and those who don’t speak English.

The website will provide information in the district’s six most commonly spoken languages and should be optimized for use on mobile phones. All parents will be required to use the system to express their preferences, including the majority of parents who want to stay in their neighborhood school, and the district is planning significant outreach and in-person technical assistance.

We believe that if all parents are participating, it improves equity,” Glass said. “One of the things we struggle with is that upwardly mobile and affluent parents tend to be the ones who take advantage of school choice. We want all of our schools to be available to all of our families. We think being able to search through and make the enrollment process as easy as possible is an equity issue.”

But critics of universal enrollment systems worry that the ease of application will encourage parents to give up on neighborhood schools rather than invest in them.

Rhiannon Wenning, a teacher at Jefferson Junior-Senior High School, said the link between charter schools and open enrollment systems makes her distrustful, even as many of her students are using the choice process to stay at the school after rising home prices pushed them into other parts of the metro area.

“I understand parents want what is best for their child, but part of that as a citizen and a community member is to make your neighborhood school the school that you want it to be,” she said, calling the universal enrollment system an attack on public schools.

Joel Newton of the Edgewater Collective, which provides community support for lower-income schools in the eastern part of the district, said Enroll Jeffco will give the district much better data on which to base decisions, but he worries that Title I schools, which serve large numbers of students from low-income families, won’t be able to compete.

“With an online system like this, it really needs to be a level playing field,” he said. “And in my area, I’d much rather have resources going to curriculum and instructional aides to catch kids up than going into marketing support. But other areas can do that and they have these big, well-funded PTAs.”

Until now, parents have had to seek out information on each school’s website. The online portal starts by asking parents to enter their address and the grade in which they’re enrolling a student. It then displays the parents’ neighborhood school, with an option to explore alternatives. Each school page has extensive information, including a short narrative, descriptions of special programs like math, arts, or expeditionary learning, the school mascot, and the racial and economic breakdown of the student population. The intent, district spokesperson Diana Wilson said, is to let schools “tell their own story.”

Parents can select as many schools as they want when enrollment opens Jan. 22, and they’ll learn in mid- to late February where they got in. However, they have to commit within five days to one school, ending a practice by which parents in the know kept their options open through the summer months. District officials say this will help them plan and budget better.

Kristen Harkness, assistant director for special education in Jeffco, served on the steering committee that developed the system, and she’s also a parent in the district. Even as a district employee who thought she knew the process inside and out, she managed to miss a deadline for her son to be considered at another middle school.

She said that choosing between schools isn’t a matter of which schools are better but which are a better fit for a particular student. In her case, her son could have stayed at a K-8 or transferred to a combined middle and high school, with each option presenting a different kind of middle school experience. He’s happy at the K-8 where he stayed, she said, but parents and students should have the chance to make those decisions.

The new universal enrollment system is poised to give more families that chance. In the course of the rollout, though, there may be a few glitches.

“We’re doing all we can to look into the future and foresee any technical problems and design solutions to that proactively,” Glass said. “That said, this is our first time, and we ask for people’s patience.”