Turnaround Tactics

‘Turning a kid’s lights back on doesn’t make their test scores go up’: one principal on social services in schools

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Mark House

Two years ago, Mark House had a problem. The mother of one of his strongest students showed up to his office in tears after the power had been shut off at their apartment, and she hadn’t been able to buy groceries for weeks.

“She’d been subletting — the person she was paying money to wasn’t paying the landlord,” said House, principal at Community Health Academy of the Heights. But almost instantly, the school’s resource coordinator sprang into action, finding money to get the power back on, connecting the family to a food pantry, and helping to find them affordable housing.

To House, these are the moments that demonstrate the power of community schools — and their pitfalls. Though the Washington Heights principal firmly believes in the idea that students can only learn if their basic needs outside the building are met — a key element of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s approach to struggling schools — he is also wary of the argument that infusing schools with social services will immediately lead to academic payoffs.

“Turning a kid’s lights back on on doesn’t make their test scores go up,” House said. “It’s the precondition for learning.”

House knows that firsthand. His community school, serving grades 6-12, was built a decade ago, but changes in key metrics like graduation rates and test scores haven’t come quickly. CHAH, which is 92 percent Hispanic and roughly 90 percent poor, has only recently come off the state’s “priority” list of low-performing schools. (The school is also part of the UFT’s community schools program, which helps pay for certain staff and offers extra training and support.)

House recently sat down with Chalkbeat to talk about the challenges associated with running a community school and what is reasonable to expect of them. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The conversation around community schools often treats them as monolithic — what’s different about your school?

I think the first thing to bear in mind is that we’ve been thinking about doing this work a lot longer than a lot of folks have. Our model is to serve the students, the parents and the broader community. And I think that “and the broader community” doesn’t exist in a lot of places. We do a lot of adult education, a lot of ESL programming for adults, we do two different exercise classes. And the building is open until 9:30 with a lot of people in it and again on Saturdays; it is really servicing folks that don’t have an immediate tie to the school.

The students and their families have major medical needs, they’ve neglected things. We’re discovering kids in eleventh grade that need glasses, we’re discovering kids in tenth grade who haven’t seen a dentist in four years. If a kid has a crazy toothache, I mean, I can’t study with a toothache. I can’t do anything if I can’t see the board.

So opening a school-based clinic has been fairly remarkable because normally the state indicates you have to have over a thousand students to open one. We found a workaround to do it with only 640 students that works for all the entities, but it’s taken a while.

I think most people probably don’t need to be convinced that access to health care or eyeglasses or mental health supports is a good thing for kids who might otherwise struggle to have access to those things—

I would argue with that though. I think people see that as a common-sense solution, [but] they’re not interested in paying for it. To use our vision screening as an example, we’re on our fourth different program, trying to make that a reality. We’ve done it with one program; the program folded [because] the company couldn’t do it anymore. We coupled with a university; that professor moved on. We’ve worked with Warby Parker, which has donated glasses, and that has been amazing, but they’ve got a question on whether that’s sustainable for them in a long haul as a corporate policy.

That’s what we’re struggling with, and doing it again and again. So while it makes sense that everybody should see the board and have glasses on their face, the actual accomplishment of that takes endless numbers of hours and is a really frustrating process.

Your school is being held up as this model – test scores seem to be going up. Does it make you nervous that we’re talking about the success of the community school model in that context?

The thing I’m nervous about is the speed at which they’re going to expect to see results. We’ve been doing this work for a decade, and are now starting to see the fruits of our labor. As far as educational initiatives go, that’s ancient. At a school level, everything else has shifted — different superintendents, different chancellors. We’ve held fast to this idea for long enough to actually watch it grow and bloom. And it looks like it’s finally paying off, but these are students we got as sixth-graders that we’re now watching, seven years later, walk across a stage.

"The thing I’m nervous about is the speed at which they’re going to expect to see results."

People would come and visit our school — we were on the priority list — they came from the state, they came from the city. We had quality reviews, folks coming in and really picking it apart. And we kept having the same conversation over and over. People from the Department of Education would come in concerned about our results and they would say, “We don’t think that what we see here matches your results.” And each time I’ve had to argue, it will come. It will come, and it’s going to take time. That’s been the work, and my fear is that they’ll expect a faster change than what’s real.

If schools are only going to see incremental progress, what were the signs to you that things were working even if the numbers didn’t bear that out?

It helps to have somebody like [school founder] Yvonne Stennett that you meet with on a regular basis, an incredibly patient woman, encouraging you and saying, “No, you’re doing the right thing. Stick with it.”

We do the learning environment surveys that New York City puts out each year where parents and teachers and students get to respond to the quality of the education that they think they’re receiving and the environment. And those numbers for the past five years have been stellar.

So we were getting the feedback from the parents saying keep doing it, keep doing it. Our PTA meetings grew out to fill the cafeteria when we were having those. So I think a lot of it was saying, we’re going to go with these qualitative results and not ignore the quantitative, in fact the opposite. We work really carefully with New Visions for Public Schools and they have a lot of really incredible tools for tracking different metrics and for trying to find those incremental progress signs.

Where do you have the most ground to make up?

I think we may actually be looking within four or five years at a 92 percent graduation rate working with the same population. It’s that [remaining] 8 percent that’s almost entirely made up of students that entered this country without a strong grounding in their native language, frequently illiterate, and we’re trying to add a second language on top of it when they show up. We can do it when they arrive in middle school. It’s a tremendous lift and very, very challenging, but there’s enough time to do it there. We have not figured out how to do that in four years for the high school.

If you said: Plunk a school down in one of the poorest congressional districts in the United States, take anybody who walks in the door after all of the top performing students in the neighborhood have been siphoned off by specialized schools or selective schools, so you’re working with the most at-risk population in one of the most at-risk neighborhoods — and achieve close to an 80 percent graduation rate, that’s statistically not possible. And yet we’re doing it.

But we’re not doing it by making the teachers work longer hours, not doing it by just chasing test prep, not doing it in any of the models that I’ve seen where you start trying to push away your low-performing students. That’s the exciting part.

How I Lead

Meditation and Mindfulness: How a Harlem principal solves conflict in her community

Dawn DeCosta, the principal of Thurgood Marshall Academy Lower School

Here, in a series we call “How I Lead,” we feature principals and assistant principals who have been recognized for their work. You can see other pieces in the series here.

Dawn DeCosta, Thurgood Marshall Academy Lower School’s principal of seven years, never pictured herself leading a school. Originally a fine arts major and art teacher, she was inspired to be a community leader when she took a summer leadership course at Columbia University’s Teacher College. The program helped her widen her impact to outside the classroom by teaching her how to find personal self awareness and mindfulness. For the past four years she has taught the students, teachers, and parents in her school’s community how to solve conflict constructively through the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence’s RULER program — a social-emotional learning program that brings together many of the tools that she learned at Columbia. While describing these new practices and techniques, DeCosta reflected on the specific impact they have had on her community.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

What is the Yale RULER program?

It’s more of a process, not a script or curriculum. An approach that has these four anchors: the mood meter, the charter, the meta-moment, and the blueprint. We use the mood meter to describe feelings, because a lot of times we’ll just hear “I feel happy” or “I feel sad.” You want them to be able to better pinpoint how they feel, and the mood meter is a square with these quadrants that are different colors and show how much energy a student has at a given moment and how pleasant they’re feeling. The charter is an agreement to the class. It replaces “don’t hit, don’t kick” with “how do we want to feel, what are we going to do to feel that way, what will we do if we have a conflict.” The meta-moment are six steps on how to deal with a stressful situation, and the blueprint is a plan to serve a longer-term conflict between two people- to solve an ongoing conflict that we need a plan for, that’s not just in the moment. We integrate all four components throughout the day, throughout the week, throughout the year.

What changes did you make to it to make it work for your community, and what are the specific strategies you use?

We do it with teachers, students, staff, and supplement it with a culturally relevant approach. We have 100 percent black and brown children, so this means using culturally relevant texts, since we want students learning about leaders and artists who look like them. We want them to see models of excellence in themselves and see success too in themselves in order to combat some of the negative images they see in the media or even in their neighborhoods. This is a beautiful place but there’s also a lot going on in terms of poverty and violence, which have an impact on their lives, how they feel, how they live, how they see things. We’ve incorporated meditation, mindfulness, brain breaks, yoga, and arts into our curriculum. We’ve put all the different pieces together to tap into what makes kids want to go to school and makes them love to be here. We want to use these in every grade, so that we give students a common language and kids can move from one grade to the next easily. Student ownership is a big piece, because what happens when the teachers aren’t there? Do you know how to use this in less structured environments, at home with your siblings at home?

How do you make sure vulnerable students are getting emotional support and give time for that reflection and self growth but also provide a rigorous education that meets your school’s standards?

The work that we are doing is ensuring that the kids have academic improvement and success. Because they feel cared for and comfortable, ultimately students feel successful, and when you feel successful you will apply yourself more. Right now, learning is rigorous. It’s not what it was 10 years ago. So we ask kids to think very deeply to be critical thinkers. The text that they have to read is more rigorous, ones that require problem solving (and) for kids to think for themselves. And so that by itself is taxing. And that kind of work can be really stressful. A lot of the work we’ve done is around test anxiety. We want kids to know that this is just a piece of information, you need to know where you’re doing well, where you’re struggling so that they can address areas of challenge with a little more positivity. But we see the effects of it in our academic performance.

How have you measured the success of the program?

When I first became principal it wasn’t like we were having emergencies necessarily, but we were putting out a lot of fires. Kids were just coming in with issues, getting into fights, things like that. We also wanted to bring in more of the parents, because there were some that we wanted to be more engaged. We have seen an increase in test scores, but I use personal growth stories as my data–that’s how I know that this works. When I have those success stories, when I see students that really needed it, use it and feel a change, that is the data. We didn’t actually see real, big changes until last year, when we were three years into using this new style of learning. There’s always work to be done, it’s an ongoing thing.

In your own words, what is emotional intelligence and why is it important to have?

To me, it means that you are aware of what you may be feeling at a certain moment and of how your feelings impact interactions with others. It’s about how self aware you are, how are you thinking about what you’re going to say or do before you do it, and about how you show compassion for others who are also thinking and feeling just like you. It’s about how you listen to others, how you see and recognize what others are giving you, and how you support others. We’ve been told that all we can do is control ourselves, and that we’re not responsible for other people. But I think through emotional intelligence, we are responsible for how we make people feel.

In what ways do you help take this learning outside of the classroom?

We send home activities for students to do with their families, for over vacation. It will be like, “check in with your family members on their moods for the week and on how everybody is feeling this week,” or “what was one time when you and your parents had a conflict and what did you do well or not do well.” We keep finding the means to engage the parents at home with it by having them come in and do stress relief workshops. I have students ask, “Can I have a mood meter for my mom? I think it will help her because she feels really stressed.” So that home/school piece is a really important part of what makes everything successful. We’re all supporting the kids, we’re raising them together.

In what other ways, do you help the parents learn as well, and what does that look like?

We trained a group of parent leaders in RULER, who helped us train other parents. Parents like hearing from other parents, so we wanted to make sure that it was presented to them as something they could relate to. I think that sometimes as educators we are guilty of using a lot of acronyms and indigestible words when we’re talking to families, and what we’ve decided to do is breaking it down to talking about how do they deal with stress. Kind of how we brought it to the parents is that we brought to the kids strategies on how to deal with stress. We did some yoga with them, breathing techniques, and then we just started talking to them about what kinds of emotion they go through in a day. They talk about getting kids ready, making trains, dealing with family members, and really getting out what they were dealing with as parents–all that stuff that nobody really asked them about before. Honestly, they were the most receptive group. I think talking to each other, in a place where we’re all supporting each other, creates that space that we need.

Describe a specific instance or an anecdote that you think is reflective of the changes that have happened since you have implemented these new practices. How did you see the impact?

A boy came to us in the second grade, and he had been on a safety transfer, which means that he had been in a situation that may not be safe for a child. They’re either in violent conflict with others, or they’re being bullied, or something’s happening where they need to be removed from where they are. At first we had a lot of emotional difficulties and poor relationships with his teachers, and even though he was only six or seven he had been suspended several times. His family had also shut down from the school connection because since they were constantly hearing negative information. The principal basically said “Look, there’s nothing you can do with him. It’s just too much, he’s violent, he bites, it’s just too much.” But he came to the school, and just through engaging him through some of the new practices he was able to self regulate. It impacted his focus and changed his ability to relate to others. The changes didn’t make him perfect or change who he is, but it gave him some tools to be successful and work with others. Once he had love and compassion and felt accepted in our community, all of those behaviors just disappeared. His family became more supportive and trusting and he graduated last year.

Regents retreat

Regents use annual retreat to take stock of changes in testing, charter schools and more

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Chancellor Betty Rosa, center, at a recent Board of Regents meeting.

New York State’s top education policymakers took a whirlwind tour Monday of their own accomplishments this year, kicking off a two-day retreat full of presentations and updates.

The briefings, conducted by top education department officials, served as a distillation of some top policy goals among the Board of Regents: rolling back graduation requirements, creating new graduation pathways, cutting back on state testing, and even rethinking how the board evaluates the charter schools it oversees.

Monday’s discussions largely tread on familiar territory, but here are three of the key issues they discussed.

Testing

New York State continues to be a hotbed of controversy surrounding testing, with roughly one in five students opting out of the 3-8 math and reading exams in recent years (the number is far smaller in New York City).

In response to concerns about the length of the exams, the Regents reduced the number of testing days for each exam from three to two — a change that went into effect this year. Education officials touted those changes Monday while stressing that they have gone out of their way to involve educators in the process of crafting exam questions.

“One of the things I believe is a major adjustment in New York is the extent to which teachers across New York are involved,” state education MaryEllen Elia told the board, noting that 75 percent of the test questions are released to the public. “We have to constantly be asking ourselves what can we do better.”

Still, some Regents continued to express concerns about the exams, including whether they are fair to English learners, and whether the tests themselves help perpetuate disparities.

“What research is used about what’s developmentally appropriate?” Regent Judith Johnson asked. “Is it possible to have a test question that is culturally neutral?”

Charter schools

The Regents are currently discussing changes to the way they evaluate the charter schools they oversee, including taking a deeper look at suspension rates compared to traditional district schools, and tracking why students leave.

“There are charter chains that might have 25 percent of the students when they first started and they’re claiming great growth,” Regent Kathleen Cashin said during Monday’s discussion, adding that questions about why students leave shouldn’t be “buried.”

The discussion highlights a tension in the board’s discussion of the publicly funded, privately managed schools. On the one hand, board members are often quite critical — worrying some within the charter sector. But on the other hand, they have still approved large batches of new charters, including at their most recent meeting.

And the debate will continue in the fall: The Regents are expected to consider a proposal for changing the way charter schools are evaluated at their September meeting.

Students with disabilities

The board also heard from state officials about efforts to improve access to programs for students with disabilities, including those in preschool.

As Chalkbeat has previously reported, there is a shortage of seats for preschool special education students — with students often languishing at home without education services, a problem that advocates say has only gotten worse. Part of the issue, officials say, is they don’t have a way of quickly tracking supply and demand for those programs, which are often provided by private organizations.

Instead, state officials rely on phone calls and informal surveys, which can make it difficult for officials to quickly respond to shortages. Now, state officials are in the process of implementing a new data system for tracking students and open seats.

“We need to move from our current reactive system,” Christopher Suriano, an assistant commissioner of special education told the board. “We have to start reacting proactively to make sure we have capacity.”

Grab bag

  • The Regents spent some time talking about how to measure “civic readiness” which will be a component of how schools are judged under the state’s ESSA plan.
  • New data released by state officials shows that at least 500 students with disabilities graduated this year as part of a new policy that lets superintendents review their performance in lieu of passing all of the Regents exams. Though officials cautioned that the data are preliminary, and the number is likely to increase, that’s up from 315 students during the previous year.