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.

it's official

An integration plan is approved for Upper West Side and Harlem middle schools

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Middle schools in District 3, including Wadleigh Secondary School for the Performing Visual Arts, pictured above, will give struggling students priority in admission, the local Community Education Council announced.

The New York City education department on Wednesday approved a plan to integrate middle schools in Manhattan’s District 3, the culmination of years of advocacy amid vocal pushback against admissions changes aimed at creating more economically and academically diverse schools.

The plan marks the city’s first attempt under Mayor Bill de Blasio to integrate middle schools across an entire district, an effort that garnered national attention after the schools Chancellor, Richard Carranza, tweeted a blunt criticism of parents who protested the proposal.

Announcing approval of the plan, Carranza said in a statement that he hopes District 3 will serve as a model for other communities aiming for more diversity.

“Students benefit from integrated schools, and I applaud the District 3 community on taking this step to integrate their middle schools,” he said.

The new admissions system builds on growing momentum to unravel deep segregation in the country’s largest school system. A few weeks ago, de Blasio announced a contentious plan to overhaul admissions at the city’s elite specialized high schools. And later on Wednesday,  a set of recommendations is expected to be unveiled for integrating middle schools in Brooklyn’s District 15.

Under the plan approved in District 3, students who are poor, struggle on state tests, and earn low report card grades will be given admissions priority for a quarter of seats at the district’s middle schools. Of those seats, 10 percent would go to students who struggle the most, and 15 percent would go to the next-neediest group.

Education officials had considered weighing a number of different criteria to determine which students would get priority. They settled on a mix indicators including student poverty and academic achievement because it “identifies students most likely to suffer the consequences of long-term segregation in District 3,” according to a statement released by the Community Education Council, a group of parent volunteers who have supported the district’s integration efforts. 

Since academic performance is often linked to race and class, the new admissions system could integrate schools on a number of different measures. But in aiming for academic diversity explicitly, the district is pushing for a unique and controversial change. In District 3 and across New York City, high-performing students are often concentrated in a tiny subset of schools.

Parents who worried their children would be elbowed out of the most selective schools pushed hard against the plan, including a woman featured on a viral NY1 video saying that the proposal tells hard-working students “life sucks.”  

“I think it was definitely a much harder concept for parents to understand,” said Kristen Berger, a parent on the local Community Education Council who has helped lead the integration effort.  “We have a lot of talk about meritocracy… anything that challenges it, challenges a very basic concept parents have.”

With those concerns in mind, the district says it will boost training training for school staff in strategies to help struggling students. The district will also provide anti-bias training for all middle school staff and teachers will also focus on culturally relevant education practices, which ensure that all students are reflected in what is taught in classrooms.

Despite the backlash, the proposal would actually have a modest impact on many district schools, according to city projections. Among the schools expected to change the most is the Computer School, which would see a 16-point increase in the number of needy students who are offered admission. Still, only 28 percent of students would be poor and have low test scores and report card grades.  

Schools that currently serve the greatest number of struggling students aren’t expected to change much, if at all, according to projections. Many of those schools are in Harlem, prompting education council members to push the education department to do more for those schools.

The council pledged to take on the work itself. Parents want to weigh whether new school options are needed, and “address long-standing challenges such as disparities in resource allocation,” the council’s statement said.

“We need a Harlem vision. That’s really important and that’s key to the next steps,” Berger said.

Spread the wealth

A few Colorado charter schools won ‘the lottery’ in this year’s round of school construction grants

Samantha Belmontes, 7, tries to keep a foam ball rolling in the center of her tennis racket for as long as she can in a class at Ricardo Flores Magón Academy in 2011. (Photo By Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

Five Colorado charter schools are among the nearly three dozen schools getting new roofs, HVAC systems, or even entire new buildings courtesy of state land proceeds, lottery funds, and marijuana tax revenue.

The State Board of Education this month approved $275 million in grants through the Building Excellent Schools Today or BEST program, with schools and districts contributing an additional $172 million for $447 million in total construction projects.

This is the largest award the state has ever given, a 60 percent increase from the nearly $172 million given out last year. It’s also likely to be the largest award for some time to come. With this grant cycle, the board that oversees the BEST program used up its existing ability to issue debt, similar to the limit on a credit card, and next year’s grants will be limited to cash awards of roughly $85 million.

Charter schools traditionally have not done well in the competition for BEST grant money – a sore point for advocates because the schools can’t bond off property tax revenue like school districts can –  but this year, with more to spend overall, the committee that distributes the money also gave more of it to charter schools.

In a typical year, the grant program funds about half of the requests that come in, after prioritizing them based on a number of criteria, including health and safety concerns. This year, almost 70 percent of requests were funded.

Jeremy Meyer, a spokesperson for Colorado Department of Education, said officials in the capital construction program also made a deliberate effort to reach out to charter schools and explain the requirements of the grant program. Some of the successful applicants had applied before and were able to make refinements to this year’s applications. Representatives of charter schools, meanwhile, said this iteration of the BEST board seems more receptive to their needs.

“A lot of it was a function of them having more resources to distribute,” said Dan Schaller of the Colorado League of Charter Schools. “It’s a very positive development, but it’s important to keep it in context that over the last five years, charter schools have received in aggregate less than 1 percent of the funding.”

About 13 percent of Colorado students attend charter schools, which are publicly funded but independently run and exempt from some rules.

Legislation passed in the 2018 session increases the amount of marijuana tax money going to the grant program to 90 percent of all recreational marijuana excise tax revenue. Before, it had been capped at $40 million a year, even as the state took in far more pot tax money than was originally projected. Of this money, 12.5 percent will be set aside for charter school facilities needs.

However, state lawmakers balked at allowing the BEST program to borrow off of marijuana revenue, given the uncertain regulatory future under President Donald Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who is hostile to legal marijuana.

Without the ability to issue new debt, future awards are more likely to go to roof replacements and new heating and cooling systems than to new buildings, like the new elementary school approved in Adams 14 or the new buildings for Ricardo Flores Magón Academy in northwest Denver and Swallows Charter Academy in Pueblo.

Having the state fund a new building for a charter school is “like winning the lottery,” said Jane Ellis, who works with charters to find low-cost financing for their facilities.

This was Flores Magón Academy’s third attempt at getting a BEST grant. The state-authorized charter school serves roughly 300 students from kindergarten through eighth grade, most of them from low-income families. The school sits in a pocket of unincorporated Adams County at West 53rd Avenue and Lowell Boulevard, near Regis University, and most of the school’s families live in Denver.

In 2011, the school bought the Berkeley Gardens Elementary building, which had been shuttered for a decade. The school was built in 1906 and has several additions.

“Each add-on is very unique and reflective of its decade and comes with its own delightful challenges,” said Kaye Taavialma, a former executive director of the school who is working as a consultant on the building project. “We have to be very cognizant and aware of any precipitation.”

The roof leaks, the pipes leak, there aren’t enough bathrooms, and there’s asbestos in the walls and in the glue that holds down multiple layers of carpet. Portions of the school have been blocked off due to mold problems. The office is in the center of the building, without a clear line of sight on the entrances, creating security concerns. During one storm, a window blew out in a classroom. Fortunately, no students were injured, Taavialma said.

The school got $15.5 million from the BEST program and through a waiver only has to contribute $818,000 to the total project cost, rather than the $3.3 million that would normally be required under a state matching formula. The new building will be built on the site of the play fields and should open to students during the 2020-21 school year.

“For our school, this is tremendous because coming up with $3 million would have been darn near impossible,” Taavialma said. “As we see charters continue to proliferate and they’re being asked to move into buildings that either weren’t constructed to be school buildings, or like we experienced, a school building that has been sitting vacant for a long time, I hope this is a trend that continues.”

You can see the full list of grant winners here.