friendly fire

As 12 early community schools face funding cuts, advocates question city’s long-term commitment

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder
Chancellor Carmen Fariña (middle) and Chris Caruso (right) visited East Flatbush Community Research School in 2016.

In New York City, an unexpected fight has flared up between proponents of social service-filled “community schools” and the administration of Mayor Bill de Blasio, one of the nation’s most outspoken champions of those schools.

The skirmish centers on a dozen community schools that used state grants to finance after-school programs, tutoring, and student health services over the last three years. The city has not yet promised to pick up the tab for the schools when their $6 million expires at the end of June — even though state officials said Monday that the city could use a pool of state funds to do so.

That has frustrated advocates who say those 12 community schools, whose programs date to 2013, were at the forefront of an approach that de Blasio is now trying to establish in nearly 130 other schools across the city. It also has stoked fears that his administration might let the funding lapse at other community schools in the future just as new programs are taking root.

On Tuesday, they wielded a new weapon to make their case: a just-published report that pulls together multiple studies showing that school-improvement programs require between five and 10 years to take hold. The implication is that if the city fails to renew the funding for those dozen schools, it will be ignoring clear research that says the schools need time for their reforms to flourish.

Schools with some future funding in question
  • The Heritage School (Manhattan)
  • P.S. 36 (Manhattan)
  • P.S. 154 (Bronx)
  • MS 376x (Bronx)
  • Fannie Lou Hamer Middle and High School
  • Boys and Girls High School
  • Kurt Hahn Expeditionary Learning School
  • P.S. 503 and P.S. 506 (Brooklyn)
  • M.S. 72 (Queens)
  • Bushwick Leaders High School

“It takes longer than three years — and the research supports that,” said Yolanda McBride, director of public policy at The Children’s Aid Society, which works with six of the schools. “We’re pushing the [de Blasio] administration to acknowledge that.”

The funding fight is just the latest instance of tensions arising between community-school advocates and an administration that has promoted that education model.

After de Blasio unveiled in 2014 his “School Renewal” program to help academically struggling schools partly by flooding them with services for students and their families, some advocates expressed doubt about using the community-school model as a turnaround strategy. And last fall, they staged a rally where they (successfully) called for the city to publish a clear policy to guide new community schools.

The current funding dispute touches on a deeper concern among advocates that the city will treat the community-school approach as a quick fix for struggling schools rather than a permanent model for all its schools.

Their fears are rooted in the Renewal program’s timeline: The 94 schools that were originally part of it were given just three years to make significant academic gains or face closure. (In fact, the city has already announced plans to shutter three of the schools.)

That requirement, and a parallel one at the state level, “reflect maybe political eagerness and expediency, but they don’t reflect research on how school improvement works,” said Megan Hester, a staffer at the Annenberg Institute for School Reform and an organizer of the Coalition for Community School Excellence, a new alliance of dozens of advocacy groups and social-service agencies in New York City that work with community schools. The group formed last fall partly to ensure that the community-schools initiative is sustained beyond this administration.

The report commends the city for adopting the community-school model, which it says is an effective strategy for improving schools. But researcher Michelle Renée Valladares said that demanding those gains happen too quickly can undermine a school’s transformation by tempting teachers to focus on test prep. When schools make more structural changes, like overhauling their teaching, they typically see their test scores rise after five years, she said.

“If New York City is saying they have to show gains on their math and English test scores in three years, that’s absolutely bad science,” said Valladares, associate director of the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado at Boulder, which published the report.

But the de Blasio administration faces enormous pressure from critics, lawmakers, and state educational officials to show that its massive investment — the Renewal program is projected to cost nearly $839 million over five years — is having an impact.

In response, the city education department says that its efforts will result in short-term academic gains by next year but also lasting changes at the troubled schools.

It has replaced the principals at many of the schools, given them new classroom materials, and provided additional training for its teachers, a spokeswoman pointed out. It has also paid for each school to partner with a social-service agency, hire a full-time community school director, and add an extra hour of instruction — though those reforms are more tenuous, since they rely on funding that could vanish when de Blasio leaves office.

choice and competition

It’s not just Detroit. Across Michigan, ‘active and aggressive’ competition imperils schools

PHOTO: Kimberly Hayes Taylor
Eric Lupher of the Citizen Research Council of Michigan, Benjamin Edmondson of Ypsilanti Community Schools, Randall Davis of Albion-Marshall School District and Scott Menzel of Washtenaw County Intermediate School District testify before the Michigan Civil Rights Commission

Detroit is not the only district struggling with lower enrollment and other challenges related to competition from charter schools and surrounding districts. On the other side of the state, similar forces led to the Albion school district’s demise.

After years of declining enrollment, falling revenue, poor student performance and school closures in the district, the Albion district in western Michigan faced a difficult problem: How to keep the district from dying. The city of Albion had a large number of students, but many of them travelled outside the city to attend school, forcing the Albion Community Schools district to merge with nearby Marshall Public Schools in July 2016.

Albion’s story was one of many shared Monday with state’s Civil Rights Commission, which held its first in a series of public hearings Monday in Ypsilanti to hear firsthand about issues confronting school districts. Representatives from public policy organizations, school districts, as well as parents, educators and advocates from Detroit and around the state shared stories of hardships and difficult decisions they face.

The commission is charged by the state’s constitution with investigating alleged discrimination. It launched the hearings this week after learning from education experts that state schools are in crisis. The goal of the hearings is to determine if minority students and those with special needs have faced discrimination in the state’s schools.

Albion’s story came from Randall Davis, superintendent of the Albion-Marshall School District, who told commissioners he blamed what happened to Albion schools — a district that had primarily served low-income, African-American students — on a law passed more than two decades ago that allowed students in Michigan to attend any school in any district that would take them.

“Schools of choice decimated the schools,” Davis said. “They had three or four of our contiguous districts that were driving into their district picking kids up. It was active and aggressive….I believe that is not the intention of schools of choice, but that’s what happened.”

The hearing was not intended to focus on competition from charter schools and between neighboring districts, but many of the people who testified came from traditional district schools or from policy organizations, so much of the testimony centered on the consequences of choice in Michigan.

Individuals also came forward to raise various concerns about equity in schools. The commission did not hear from charter school advocates but the commission plans to hold at least two other hearings.

“We also open it up to anyone to offer their opinions,” said Vicki Levengood, communications director for the Michigan Department of Civil Rights. “We encourage people on all sides to bring their messages to the hearings.”

The next hearing will be July 23 but a location has not yet been set, she said.

At the first hearing Monday, Benjamin Edmondson, Superintendent of Ypsilanti Community School District, painted the grim, poignant picture confronting him when he became the district’s school chief in 2015.

The Ypsilanti district lacked money to pay for services students needed such as social workers, homeless services, school safety officers, and washers and dryers. The district only managed to provide those services by partnering with the University of Michigan, Eastern Michigan University and community colleges.

“Those partnerships are critical,” he said. “I don’t know how we would survive without those entities buying into the district.”

Edmondson said his district had lost 300 students before he arrived, costing the district nearly $2.4 million. That forced him to scrap advanced placement classes and meant he couldn’t pay teachers enough to fully staff his classrooms. Graduation rates were low and the district was swimming in debt. The district’s challenges were compounded by the fact it competes with the nearby Plymouth-Canton Community Schools district, which enrolls more than 17,000 students. “We were David and Goliath,” he said.

The district also faces a “strong charter school presence,” he said, recalling a charter school representative who came vying to purchase a vacant district building. He said he felt threatened by the potential buyer’s ability to automatically take 300 students from the district.

“Here I am a new superintendent with a new school board and I just want to paint the story,” he said. “In 2015, we had declining enrollment, white flight, poverty, low expectations, low wages, high debts and priority schools, neighboring charter schools, and a state takeover threat for our schools.”

This year, Edmondson said the district is improving but still facing daunting challenges.

With population declines and fewer students in districts, even with consolidated districts, Michigan’s districts are too small, Eric Lupher of the Citizens Research Council of Michigan told commissioners. He said it means school districts from around the state are struggling because they are losing so many students to surrounding districts.

For example, he said Ypsilanti Community School District is continuing to bleed students to Ann Arbor, Plymouth-Canton and other districts. Ferndale schools are gaining almost 800 students from Oak Park and Detroit schools, but is losing about 350 students to districts further from city line such as Royal Oak and Berkley schools.

The issue isn’t limited just to southeastern Michigan, he said, pointing to Wyoming Public school district, about five miles from Grand Rapids, which has lost students to nearby Jenison and Grand Rapids.

“It’s a bigger issue, and it’s a lot bigger than just consolidation,” he said. “It’s the choice we’ve offered. I’m not here to speak ill of choice, but it’s creating issues we’re not dealing with.”

The eight commissioners listened intently through the six-hour hearing at the Eagle Crest Conference Center, Ann Arbor Marriott in Ypsilanti, occasionally asking questions.

Commissioner Jeffrey Sakwa at one point expressed sympathy for the superintendents. “You guys are in a tough place,” he said.

While Michigan once had nearly 600 school districts, Sakwa said, that number is shrinking.  

Sakwa blamed competing school districts as a primary reason for the changes.

“It’s like Burger King, McDonald’s, and Kentucky Fried Chicken all on the corner trying to steal everybody’s lunch every single day,” he said.

PHOTO: By Kimberly Hayes Taylor
Helen Moore

About 20 people from Detroit, Ypsilanti and Ann Arbor spoke during the public comments portion of the hearing. Among them was longtime Detroit education advocate Helen Moore. “Don’t play games with us,” she told commissioners over applause that sometimes drowned her words.

“You know the discrimination we have received as black people and our children. You know that during slavery it was against the law to read. This is what’s happening to our children now.”

 

Prize money

A million dollars, 570 hopefuls, and 15 winners: How a new competition aims to boost babies and toddlers

PHOTO: JGI/Jamie Grill | Getty Images
Boy displaying drawing.

A Colorado team is one of 15 winners to share in $1 million awarded by a Denver-based organization as part of a new contest recognizing innovative efforts benefitting children from birth to 3 years old.

The Boulder-based team will receive $80,000 for a project that helps little kids acquire language, thinking, and social-emotional skills using a cell phone app inside a stuffed animal.

Gary Community Investments, which gives grants and makes for-profit investments to benefit low-income children and families, announced the winners of the Early Childhood Innovation Prize on Tuesday afternoon. (Gary Community Investments, through the Piton Foundation, is a Chalkbeat funder.)

The Colorado team that won prize money developed a tool called MindScribe. It works like this. An adult slips a cell phone with a special application into the belly of a stuffed zebra. The app prompts the child to explain what they are doing or making and asks follow-up questions, such as “What happened next?” and “Why?”

MindScribe founder Layne Hubbard, a Ph.D. student in computer science at the University of Colorado Boulder, said her work as a teacher at Boulder’s Children’s House Preschool inspired the project.

“I thought back to storytelling and how powerfully the children’s original stories catalyzed growth, development, and connectedness,” she wrote via email. “I realized that I wanted to scale this opportunity to reach young children across diverse early childhood communities, especially those which are multilingual, low-income, or affected by trauma or disability.”

One little girl who stars in a MindScribe’s demonstration video describes her crayon drawing of a garden — and her fictional protagonist’s desire to change “boring weather” — to the MindScribe zebra for seven minutes.

But the girl, Mia, isn’t oblivious to the cell phone inside the paunchy stuffed animal. Instead, she’s delighted.

She explain how it works to her father, saying, “This is like the teacher but with a radio inside the teacher.”

Mindscribe, which is still in the pilot stage, began with three languages and is now available in 11.

The Early Childhood Innovation Prize, unveiled by Gary last fall, is distinctive because there are few contests that focus on very young children — despite a large body of evidence showing that high-quality care and education for this group yield significant financial and societal dividends.

Leaders at Gary invited prize submissions from teams with advanced ideas, early-stage ideas, and nascent concepts. Five advanced winners received $100,000 each, five early-stage winners received $80,000 each, and five beginning-concept winners receiving varying shares of $100,000. Gary also recognized seven teams, including one from a Colorado Springs-based network of child care centers, that didn’t win money but offered promising ideas.

The contest used an online platform that made each submission publicly viewable and allowed teams to get feedback from fellow candidates, and in some cases, mentoring from experts.

“We really wanted the prize to be an engaging opportunity for people in the early childhood field,” said Steffanie Clothier, Gary’s child development investment director.

Gary received 570 submissions, with winning ideas coming from nonprofit and for-profit groups, universities, city governments, and the National Head Start Association.

One winning team aims to eradicate book deserts by putting children’s reading materials in public spaces like barber shops and beauty salons. Another proposes classes on mindfulness to reduce child care providers’ stress levels. Several feature technology solutions — to improve child care business operations or promote early developmental screenings.

Clothier said although most of the prize winners are testing projects outside Colorado, their ideas could eventually be replicated here. She said the organization has not decided whether to hold the innovation competition again.