The co-location situation

Do charter schools hurt their neighboring schools? A new study of New York City schools says no — they help.

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
A scene from a 2013 Panel for Educational Policy meeting where the city approved dozens of co-location plans later subject to legal dispute.

Far from hurting existing schools, new charter schools in New York City have actually helped their neighbors improve, according to a new study.

The study’s surprising conclusion adds some hard data to a divisive debate: Do the privately operated yet publicly funded institutions sap resources and hurt traditional public schools? Or do they exert competitive pressure that lifts all boats?

The answer, at least in New York City, is that traditional public schools should want to be as close as possible to multiple charter schools, and ideally share a building with one.

The study finds that being closer to a charter school led to small increases in math and reading scores, boosts in reported student engagement and school safety, and fewer students being held back a grade. The test score gains increased slightly more in traditional public schools that are co-located with a charter.

Sarah Cordes, a professor at Temple University and the study’s author, suspects that her findings are the result of the competition stoked by charters.

“I think having that close a proximity might really get administrators to get their act together,” she said. “Part of it is just that it’s really hard to ignore a charter school in your building.”

The peer-reviewed study, set to be published in the journal Education Finance and Policy, is based on student-level data from nearly 900,000 third- through fifth-graders between 1996 and 2010. Cordes’s method takes advantage of the timing of when new charter schools opened to isolate their effect on nearby district schools, using performance before and after the charter opens.

A school within a half-mile of a charter school, for instance, saw significant bumps in math and reading scores — estimates that are boosted with greater numbers of nearby charter schools, and schools from “high quality” charter networks such as Success Academy or KIPP.

Test score bumps at traditional public schools were even more pronounced in cases where they occupied the same buildings as charter schools — an arrangement that has drawn intense criticism from many educators and parents, and which often forces the schools to share resources like cafeteria and gym space.

Cordes’s results are consistent with previous research from other districts, which have typically pointed to either neutral or slightly positive test score effects of charter schools on their neighbors.

The critics get something from the study, too: evidence that existing schools do lose some students when charters open nearby. When a charter was between one-half to one mile from a district school, for instance, the district school tended to lose roughly 16 general education students. But Cordes concluded that the population changes weren’t big enough to influence test scores.

So why do the city’s charter schools boost their neighbors’ performance?

One reason, Cordes says, is that the charter sector is working as it was intended: creating pressure on administrators to improve the quality of their schools.

Based on survey data collected by the city, she found that parents reported significantly higher levels of student engagement, and those with children in co-located schools were less likely to describe their schools as unsafe. Teachers reported higher academic expectations and “more respect and cleanliness” after a nearby charter school opened.

Cordes also points to the budgetary effects of charter schools. Somewhat paradoxically, given charter critics’ arguments, competition from charter schools led to more average spending per student at traditional schools — between 2 percent for schools that are further away to 9 percent for co-located schools.

Though she did not look at whether decreases in enrollment had adverse effects on programming that wouldn’t be measured by reading and math test scores or survey data, Cordes said future research should look at whether enrollment drops lead to smaller class sizes, which have been shown to boost learning.

grant money

Denver charter Compass Academy wins $2.5 million to “reimagine high school”

PHOTO: Courtesy Compass Academy

A Denver charter middle school devoted to bilingualism and founded with help from City Year, an AmeriCorps program that deploys young adults to mentor and tutor at-risk students, has won a $2.5 million grant to help design and launch an innovative high school model.

The money is from the XQ Institute’s Super School Project, an initiative backed by Laurene Powell Jobs, the widow of Apple’s Steve Jobs. XQ aims to “reimagine high school” by funding novel ideas. Last year, it gave $10 million each to 10 schools across the country.

Compass Academy in southwest Denver applied for one of those big grants. It didn’t win, but XQ gave the school a second look as part of an effort to bring more diversity in geography and school type to its “super schools,” said Monica Martinez, senior school support strategist for the California-based XQ. Compass will receive $2.5 million over the next five years.

“Their idea stood out to us,” Martinez said.

That idea is to pair personalized, community-based learning — dance classes at local studios, science classes at local hospitals — with the type of social and emotional support City Year corps members provide, such as checking in with kids who were absent the day before.

“There’s joy and love in this building,” said executive director Marcia Fulton. Compass students, she said, “feel that somebody understands, and they feel worth.”

Compass also aims to have every student graduate with a seal of biliteracy, a new credential that proves to colleges and employers they can communicate in at least two languages. That goal, Fulton said, was born of a desire expressed by families in the community.

The school opened in 2015 with just sixth grade. When classes begin again next week, Compass will be a full middle school with more than 300 students in sixth, seventh and eighth grades. Last year, 98 percent of students were students of color, 96 percent were eligible for subsidized lunch and 64 percent were English language learners.

Academically, Compass has struggled. Its first year, 14 percent of sixth-graders met or exceeded expectations on state math tests and just 8 percent met that bar in English. The school’s academic growth scores, which measure how much students learned in a year compared to their academic peers, also lagged behind school district averages.

XQ didn’t take the school’s test scores into account, Martinez said. The XQ grants, she said, “are based on a vision and an idea, and Compass was the same way.”

Fulton said the school “did not land where we wanted to land” on the state tests. But she said Compass has made shifts in its scheduling, staffing and approach that she hopes will drive higher academic achievement going forward. The school is currently rated “red,” the lowest category in Denver Public Schools’ color-coded school rating system.

“When you’re lifting up so many powerful components of design, it takes time,” Fulton said. “The funding is about an acknowledgement of the path we’re on. … We are being supported to say, ‘Keep doing what we know is important for all learners in the community.’”

Compass’s charter is for sixth through 12th grade. But Compass does not yet have a building for its high school. The Denver school board voted in 2015 to place Compass’s middle school in underutilized space on the Lincoln High School campus, a controversial decision that drew intense pushback from some Lincoln students, parents and teachers.

Compass has not asked DPS for space for its high school. In fact, Fulton said, the Compass board of directors has not yet decided when the high school will open. She said the board is “committed to identifying and investing in a private facility.”

Earlier this week, 13-year-old student Davonte Ford was at Compass, helping teachers set up their classrooms before the start of school. The rising eighth-grader came to Compass last year from a school where he said he “used to get in a lot of physical altercations.”

“I used to get frustrated sometimes,” he said. “If I got frustrated, I had no one to talk to.”

But at Compass, Ford said, it’s different.

“At this school,” he said, “I have someone to help me.”

mental health matters

Mental health services in Manhattan schools are ‘falling short,’ says report from borough president

PHOTO: Marc Piscotty / © 2013

Mental health services in Manhattan schools provide only a “patchwork” of care that is “falling short” of what students and educators need, according to a report released Wednesday by Borough President Gale Brewer.

Almost 237,000 New York City children under the age of 18 have a diagnosable mental health condition, according to Citizen’s Committee for Children of New York. In schools, mental health services are provided to students in a range of ways, including via school social workers, on-site clinics and mental health consultants.

But too often, the report notes, these services are inadequate.

“Our school mental health system, if you can call it that, is a quilt of mismatched pieces slapped together to do more with less,” Brewer said in an emailed statement.

More than 100 of the borough’s 307 public schools, the report notes, have no mental health services other than consultants provided through ThriveNYC, an initiative started by New York City’s first lady, Chirlane McCray. The consultants are licensed social workers who are supposed help schools assess their mental health needs and connect them with community organizations that can meet those needs.

Yet many counselors and assistant principals interviewed for the report didn’t even know their schools had been assigned a mental health consultant through the program. Others said the training and resources the consultants provided for staff were “a waste of time.”

The city has paid for 100 consultants over the last two years, but these mental health professionals may be stretched too thin, the report notes. Each is assigned to up to 10 campuses and can serve as many as 8,000 students.

“Staff in multiple schools expressed that the mental health consultant’s impact was minimal and that the resources they provided could have easily been found online,” the report notes.

Social workers also face heavy loads. In Manhattan, there is one social worker for every 800 students, the report calculates. Citywide, the ratio is one for every 900 students. But social workers are mostly funded through money set aside for students with special needs and often can’t adequately serve the general school population. In some needy neighborhoods, the education department provides additional counselors through its Single Shepherd initiative.

School-based health clinics, meanwhile, are facing budget cuts due to changes in how they are funded.

In an emailed statement, the education department disputed some of the study’s findings. Spokesman Michael Aciman wrote that evaluations of school sites show that not every campus needs a dedicated mental health clinic, and the current system allows targeted supports where and when they’re necessary.

“Under this administration, we have made unprecedented investments in mental health resources and, for the first time, made mental health supports and services available to every city school,” Aciman wrote. “We know kids can’t learn if they are facing an unaddressed mental health challenge.”

The borough president’s report calls on the city to change the way social workers are funded, waive certain permit fees for school-based health clinics and study the effectiveness of ThriveNYC in schools. At the state level, the report recommends changes in the way clinics are funded and how they bill for services.