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.”

study up

Do community schools and wraparound services boost academics? Here’s what we know.

At Gompers Elementary Middle School in Detroit, where the city health department and the Vision To Learn nonprofit announced a partnership to provide free eye exams to 5,000 children in 2016. (Photo: Detroit Public Schools Community District)

New York City has been trying to help struggling schools by partnering them with nonprofits that provide counseling and health services. A Detroit school recently added a washing machine to make sure students have clean clothes. A Tennessee superintendent just petitioned the state for more funding to offer similar help to students and families.

The strategy, often referred to as the “community schools” model or “wraparound services,” has been embraced by districts across the country. It also makes intuitive sense to help kids in class by directly dealing with out-of-school factors, like poverty, that affect learning.

So do school-based efforts to counter the harmful effects of poverty lead to measurable academic gains?

Here’s what we know: Research shows that these efforts often do help learning, but in a number of cases they don’t seem to have any effect — and it’s not clear why efforts sometimes succeed and sometimes don’t.

The impact on academics is promising

Child Trends, a research group, recently compiled and analyzed the results of 19 rigorous studies that tried to isolate the effects of efforts to improve students’ mental and physical health, offer counseling services, add after-school programs, provide direct social services to families in need, and other similar programs.

Examples include the national Communities in Schools and Boston’s City Connects programs, which place site coordinators in schools to connect students and families to those resources.

When looking at the effect of wraparound services on grades and test scores, those 19 studies come to a mix of positive and inconclusive findings. Results were a bit more positive in math than in English, which is common in education research.

There was also variation within programs, like Communities in Schools, which has become the most evaluated wraparound-style initiative. Separate studies have shown that the program produced test score gains in Chicago and Wichita, but not Austin or Jacksonville. A recent national evaluation focusing on Texas and North Carolina found a mix of outcomes.

One notable finding: across the 19 studies, there are virtually no cases where students appear to do worse thanks to the programs, the review notes. The researchers conclude that the approach is “promising but not yet proven.”

Not included in the review were a few initial evaluations of New York City’s community schools-based turnaround program, which included extending the school day. One analysis found that the program actually seemed to reduce high school graduation rates relative to similar schools that did not participate, and had no effects on elementary or middle school test scores. But another study using a different approach found that the initiative did lead to moderate test score gains.

The impact on attendance, behavior, and other outcomes is inconsistent

One surprising aspect of the research on these wraparound services: there aren’t consistent findings about how the programs affect things other than academics.

In a handful of studies in the Child Trends that examined other outcomes, most found no effects on students’ attendance, behavior, engagement in school, or social-emotional outcomes. Still, a few studies found positive effects and, again, negative ones were quite rare.

One recent paper, not included in the Child Trends review, found that a wraparound initiative in Massachusetts led to substantial gains in students’ math and English test scores. That program made no apparent impact on students’ attendance, their likelihood of being held back a grade, or suspension rates, though.

What makes a program work?

Frustratingly for policymakers, it’s not clear.

The Child Trends report suggests providing community schools with substantial resources over several years is most likely to lead to success. But it concludes that there’s a “lack of evidence regarding the concrete elements that make different models successful or how they must be implemented.”

Meanwhile, there appears to be stronger evidence for the academic benefits of direct anti-poverty programs that are separate from schools. The earned income tax credit, health insurance, child tax credit, food stamps, and simply giving cash to low-income families have all been linked to better outcomes in schools for children.

Finally, many would argue these sorts of wraparound services and anti-poverty programs are worthwhile regardless of students’ short-term academic gains.

Elaine Weiss, who led a group that supported wraparound services, previously told Chalkbeat that the approaches have intrinsic value.

“Don’t we all agree that having kids who have access to mental and physical health care, regular nutritious meals, and quality, safe after-school and summer programs is inherently a good thing?” she asked.

Hello Again

Debora Scheffel chosen by acclamation to fill State Board of Ed vacancy

State Board of Education member Debora Scheffel at a campaign event in 2016. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

A Republican vacancy committee unanimously selected Debora Scheffel to fill the opening left by Pam Mazanec on the State Board of Education.

Mazanec, a staunch defender of parental rights and school choice who represented the 4th Congressional District, resigned at the end of January to focus on her other obligations. Scheffel previously represented the 6th Congressional District on the board but lost that seat in 2016 to Democrat Rebecca McClellan.

McClellan’s narrow victory gave control of the board to Democrats for the first time in 46 years. Scheffel, who serves as dean of education at Colorado Christian University, moved to Douglas County, and ran unsuccessfully for school board there in 2017.

Scheffel’s selection does not change the balance of power on the state board because she replaces another Republican. Scheffel faced no opposition at the vacancy committee meeting, which took place Saturday in Limon.

Scheffel has said she wants to continue Mazanec’s work on behalf of rural schools and in support of parent and student choice, as well as work to protect student data privacy, a cause she previously championed on the board.

The district takes in all of the eastern Plains, as well as the cities of Longmont, Greeley, and Castle Rock.