Chris Caruso is running one of the biggest education experiments in New York City.
The executive director of New York City’s community schools program, Caruso is responsible for delivering on one of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s core education promises: rapidly transforming hundreds of schools into community hubs with extra social services, additional learning time — and even washing machines.
It’s a model that has quickly gained steam. By September, 215 schools serving just over 100,000 students will be part of the city’s community schools initiative, which also encompasses de Blasio’s Renewal turnaround program. New York’s community schools program is considered a key national test case of whether the approach will pay off.
The responsibility to make sure it does rests partly with Caruso, who began working as a program director in a community school in Washington Heights nearly two decades ago. Chalkbeat caught up with him recently to talk about how he measures community schools’ success, what the program’s future looks like, and the challenges of quickly scaling up social services for thousands of students.
This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
Chalkbeat: This is the largest community schools program of its kind. Do you feel a lot of pressure to make sure it is seen by the public as a success?
Caruso: I think anytime you work on public policy change in New York City, eyes are on you. So we’ve done pre-K at a scale that no one else has done, we’ve done after-school on a scale that no one else has done, and that’s part of the territory.
So yes, you feel that. But for me, and my team, and this administration, I think it brings us energy and drives us to show the potential of the success.
The program has obviously scaled up really quickly. Do you feel like there are tradeoffs in expanding that fast?
I think doing something at a large scale really positions you to have a number of people going through a similar experience at the same time, and we’ve seen real value in schools and partners in learning from one another.
If you were to pilot something in a handful of schools, you have the ability to really be involved and direct day-to-day operations, but you lose the ability to create this learning community, a diverse learning community, and so that’s something that we’ve really seen gain traction.
So now that this program has been off the ground for three years, what are the big problems you’re trying to address as the program moves into its next phase?
I think [one] of the things that we’re looking at for next year is how do we ensure a high level of service and quality across all the schools?
We’ve had principal transitions, we’ve had some [community-based organization] transitions, we’ve had community school directors change, and so we have a diverse pool in terms of where people are at in the stages of development of being a community school.
That’s something that as a system we need to be able to adapt and meet the needs of those schools. A specific thing that we’re doing around that is in our first two years of operation, we held a monthly conference where all the community school directors would come together and we’d do group learning, we’d do individual things, we’d have seminars.
Next year, we’re going to be changing that model and doing more cohorts based on where those schools are at, based more on geography. Getting 215 schools together is a lot harder than 150, but this will allow us to really differentiate our support in a more meaningful way.
You’ve said before that community schools shouldn’t be thought of as a turnaround strategy — something [former U.S. Education Secretary] John King agrees with. Does that mean that providing these extra social services, partnerships and programs is worthwhile, regardless of whether it produces academic gains?
This is an equity strategy. There are neighborhoods in this city where kids have access to far fewer resources, whether those are healthcare resources, learning experiences, relationship resources. And so community schools are a strategy to level that playing field. There’s evidence to back that up. A long-term investment in [services] leads to higher rates of attendance, lower rates of chronic absenteeism, greater connectedness to school — and all those things lead to better academic performance.
It sounds like you’re saying that these supports help create the conditions necessary for a long-term academic boost. Does that mean you’re not paying a lot of attention to [whether] test scores go up this year or next year?
I think it’s impossible not to pay attention to that. That’s the reality and we have that data. We’re looking extremely closely at chronic absenteeism and average daily attendance. And you know we’ve seen a decrease in chronic absenteeism of almost 7.5 percent since the program started. Citywide, [the decrease in schools is] less than 2 percent, so we’ve been really pleased with that progress.
We’re looking at school culture and climate and so we’re looking at the number of suspensions and incidents and seeing decreases there. And we’re very much looking at graduation rates and how students are doing. We’re seeing positive movement there and we expect that we will continue and that will deepen as the school culture changes, as kids feel more connected to adults and to their peers, and as they can see better and they’re healthier and they’re ready to learn.
Many of those [measures] are getting better citywide so it’s hard to know to what extent that is caused by community schools versus some of these broader trends. How do you try to separate that out?
One way we do that is you look at the schools in our portfolio and these are schools that are disproportionately serving children living in poverty, serving English language learners and students with disabilities, and you kind of look at growth among a cohort compared to citywide growth. And that’s one way that you can measure the differences between a particular intervention and the general progress that a district or a system is making.
You’ve said before that strong instructional practices are a key element of community schools. What percentage of your time is spent on thinking about that part of what schools do?
Strong instruction is what schools need to be doing, and so we have an infrastructure in the Department of Education through our superintendents and our Division of Teaching and Learning to support that. That’s not part of my core responsibility.
My role in my team is to help schools integrate partnership resources, and many times schools are looking to partner to support instruction. So that might be: How do you take a momentary break in the middle of a literacy lesson to get kids to be able to focus again? That’s an instructional practice, but that’s not about how you help kids get phonemic awareness. There are elements of kind of being present on managing emotions, on the social emotional skills, that we spend more of our time thinking about. I’m not writing math or ELA curriculum.
I’m curious how much has this model permeated the city more broadly? There are a lot of schools that have partnerships with community-based organizations but aren’t in the city’s official program.
There’s a cohort of schools out there that were implementing this model [before the official program launched]. One of the things we’ve tried to do in our scaling is to bring more of those schools into the fold so that they have access to the same types of supports as the other schools.
The number of schools that might not consider themselves community schools but that are looking at partnerships and that are looking at the whole child in a different way — I think that’s grown exponentially.
And so when Chancellor [Carmen] Fariña visits schools now and is asking a principal — regardless of whether they’re a community school or not — tell me about your [community based] partner, tell me about your after-school program, how are they helping meet the needs of your students, and how are you aligning your supports? That’s huge.
Does the city see this as similar to pre-K, where once you do it, it just becomes part of the system — a feature of New York City public schools?
Yeah, I think so. This mayor ran on that and we have a deputy mayor and a chancellor who have championed that. This is something, again, the fact that it’s not a solely a top-down approach, this is something that communities have been organizing around and advocating for for a while.
I think the depth of the roots of support are deep, and I think that we as a department now are organized around this. It intuitively makes better sense on how we align resources and support schools. So yeah, I think community schools are here to stay.