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.

Indiana's 2019 legislative session

Indiana’s push to raise teacher pay is creating some unlikely allies

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Middle school math teacher Eliana Moore, left, gives Armando Flynn, 13, some extra attention to help with a lesson in algebra.

It’s not every day that the state’s teachers union, Republican leaders, and education advocacy groups find themselves working toward the same goal. But this year, as Indiana puts teacher pay at the forefront of its legislative priorities, there seems to be an all-hands-on-deck approach to make it happen — and that means some unlikely allies.

During Tuesday’s ceremonial first day of the legislative session, House Speaker Brian Bosma announced in a speech to fellow lawmakers that Republican Reps. Bob Behning and Todd Huston — as well as representatives from the Indiana State Teachers Association, advocacy group Stand for Children, and the educator organization Teach Plus — were working on a plan to ensure teacher raises are part of the state’s next two-year budget.

“The most important profession for the future is those that serve in our classrooms,” Bosma said, adding that although the state has made increases over the past few years in school funding, pay for teachers has not kept pace even as administrative spending has increased.

It’s an unusual partnership because the teachers union has frequently had tension with Republicans who favor school choice and expanding the state’s charter school and private school voucher programs. The union, which staunchly advocates for traditional public schools, has also clashed over charter partnerships with districts, a model that Teach Plus and Stand for Children have supported, even though they aren’t inherently partisan.

Why now? The combination of local districts struggling to hire teachers and keep them in the classroom and a larger national conversation about teacher compensation has put raising teacher pay in the spotlight, both in Indiana and across the country. Last week, teachers in Portage, Indiana, picketed to push for larger raises as they negotiate a new contract.

“It’s been a crisis that’s been coming — we’ve seen it coming … and finally people are starting to connect the dots between compensation and retention,” said Teresa Meredith, president of ISTA, the state’s largest teachers union. “We finally had to take a step back and say, obviously fighting each other is not getting anything done.”

Meredith said state-driven policies that have led to more testing and dialed up the need for schools to compete for students naturally has resulted in increased spending on staff members who aren’t in the classroom. Now, she said, lawmakers are seeing how that’s affecting school budgets, and, in turn, making it difficult to attract and retain teachers.

The desire to figure out ways to keep teachers in the classroom also brought Teach Plus to the table, said Rachel Hathaway, program manager for the national organization’s Indiana arm. Teach Plus helps train teachers to be policy advocates.

“There is a moment happening this year that can bring folks together to really elevate the profession and support teachers to make sure they are able to stay in the classroom,” Hathaway said. Teach Plus has “a history of knowing the importance of teacher recruitment and retention and ensuring we have high-quality teachers in front of our students.”

And it’s that impact at the classroom level, Stand for Children Indiana executive director Justin Ohlemiller said, that speaks to his group’s mission. Stand is an organization that aims to help parents learn how to advocate for their children in schools, but the group has been criticized, such as during the recent Indianapolis Public Schools board election, because they do not have to disclose their spending.

“At the end of the day, data shows one of the most important single factors in children’s education is the educator at the front of the room,” Ohlemiller said.

Indiana’s plans for how to boost teacher salaries are expected to come into sharper focus over the next few weeks. But Bosma cautioned again Tuesday that there might not be much extra money to work with, casting some doubt on the state’s ability to raise pay enough to make a meaningful difference for educators across the state.

“We’re going to have more needs, more critical needs, than we have available dollars,” Bosma said.

Bosma wouldn’t offer details about how much money House Republicans would add for teacher pay, but said after funding obligations to the Department of Child Services, that state would have an optimistic $50 million per year in new revenue for other funding requests. If teacher pay were to receive just a piece of that, it would be far less than the $81 million per year or so that Senate Democrats have called for — which they figure would amount to a 5 percent raise for teachers and counselors over the next two years.

And if curbing teacher shortages is as much of a priority as the state’s majority is now pushing, state Democrat leaders say, Indiana needs to prove that come January by making it a meaningful part of the budget.

“We have the resources,” Sen. Tim Lanane, a Democrat from Anderson, said on Friday when his caucus presented its 2019 priorities. “We can make that sacrifice to make sure our teachers know we respect and appreciate them.”

cry for help

View from the child care trenches: ‘Those of us cleaning the poop are not making it’

PHOTO: Ann Schimke | Chalkbeat

At the end of three hours of briefings Monday on advancing care for Illinois’ tiniest residents, an on-the-ground provider’s 3-minute plea shook awake a gathering of the state’s top early childhood leaders and reminded them why they were there.

“We are in a crisis and unable to get help,” said Holtz, who in seven years has cycled through 147 staff members at her two day care centers in south central Effingham.

Turnover in that time among her 35 employees has been enough to staff the two centers more than four times over.

Speaking to the early learning council that directs how the state funds services for children from birth to age 5, Holtz said half of those departing sought better-paying jobs in other fields. Others headed to public school districts that pay better. Some she let go.

“Down here in the trenches, those of us who are cleaning the poop and plunging the toilets — we’re the ones who are not making it,” said Holtz, ticking off how well-intentioned Illinois directives make it tough to run a childcare business. She listed state policies like raising degree requirements for jobs that pay $8.50 to $10.25 an hour in her area, an endless stream of “health and safety” trainings, and lead and radon tests that cost her $1,000 apiece.

In a meeting that focused mainly on future ambitions, Holtz redirected attention to a present hazard: a critical shortage of qualified staffers to work in infant centers, daycare programs, and community-based preschools.  

The issue threatens to undercut any sort of universal pre-K program, which governor-elect J.B. Pritzker pledged to pursue as a candidate.

Preschool expert GG Weisenfeld said Illinois meets many established early learning benchmarks. But the state lags in salary parity. Other shortcomings: a revolving door of the state’s top leadership in early learning and a lack of full-day programs.   

“For preschools housed within public schools, those teachers have salary parity with other teachers,” said Weisenfeld, the lead author of a new state preschool policy scan from the National Institute for Early Education Research. “Unfortunately, when programs are housed in community-based centers, those teachers do not.”

But the state’s powerful Early Learning Council barely touched on that topic at its quarterly meeting Monday.

Holtz, one of only two people to address the council, said she drove several hours from Effingham for her three minutes at the mic. She said she supports the state’s push for better quality, but that effort doesn’t pencil out for her and other caregivers. One state subsidized program for low-income families reimburses her only $23 per day per child. That’s not enough to pay a lead teacher with a bachelor’s degree.

“When we do hire them, they uniformly all leave for better pay and benefits — and less stress. The stress is up there with the reasons for leaving, along with pay.”

As Illinois focuses on raising the quality of early learning throughout the state by requiring bachelor’s degrees for lead teachers in preschools, it faces a conundrum: Teachers with college degrees want to and can earn more than minimum wage elsewhere. (A 2017 state report said the median hourly wage for a licensed childcare center teacher was $12.50. Assistant teachers and infant caregivers generally made less.)

Jill Andrews, another downstate center director who heads up the Southern Illinois Child Care Assistance Task Force and made the trek with Holtz, handed out folders with her own set of recommendations.

Among them: raising state reimbursement rates for publicly funded child care programs, helping child care providers qualify for state health insurance, and offering community college credit as an incentive for workers to pursue training.