Building Better Schools

Best of 2014: Expanding program links students to social services

Most classrooms at Nashville’s Warner Enhanced Option Elementary School feature a small tent in the corner — but it’s not for fun and games.

Although the school sits on an East Nashville street lined with Victorian houses of ever-increasing value, more than half of Warner’s students come from the James A. Cayce public housing complex, half a mile away. Many Warner students are frequently witness violence, on the street or within their own homes. Some have experienced bouts of homelessness.

When Marianna Merritt first began working at Warner two years ago, she commonly had to deal with students who would not get out from underneath teachers’ desks. Students need a place to feel safe, she explains. Thus, the tents.

Merritt is the Communities in Schools site coordinator at Warner Elementary. She assesses the needs of students and figures out how to meet them, through creative measures like the tents, more traditional services like counseling, and by recruiting help from local non-profits.

Communities in Schools is a national organization currently operating in five schools in Nashville and, for the first time this year, two schools in the Achievement School District: MLK Prep and Westside Achievement Middle School in Memphis.

It is part of a larger movement for “community schools,” based on the idea that school buildings should serve as a community hub, providing not only academic services, but through partnerships with local organizations, health and social services as well.

Not all community schools follow the same model. What makes Communities in Schools different from other community schools models, according to its proponents, are site coordinators like Merritt, who identify students’ needs and work with people within the school and from the community to meet them.

At any given time, Merritt works with up to 10 percent of the student body directly, meeting with kids and their parents to discuss anything from immediate crises — an illness or death in the family — to ongoing behavioral problems. Students are usually referred to her because of grades, attendance or behavior, but sometimes they refer themselves.

“I can just walk into the cafeteria and someone will say, ‘My friend told me he talks to you when he’s sad,” she said.

Community schools are as old as education reform itself, and like any reform, have had mixed results. Jane Addams operated Hull House, a kind of full-service school in Chicago at the turn of the 20th century, but the idea has gained momentum in the past ten years. The Harlem Children’s Zone  in New York City, perhaps the most ambitious and comprehensive program of this type, has been lifted up as an example of education and community reform by the Obama administration.

Earlier this month, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio  announced that he was committing $150 million to the establishment of more community schools in the city.

Some people argue that to raise the academic achievement of poor students, society must first attack poverty. Others counter that poverty  shouldn’t be used as an excuse for failing schools. In reality of course, it’s not that black and white. Few educators truly fall into one camp or another. Community schools, too, straddle the line: They address poverty’s multifaceted symptoms, rather than just low test scores, while also focusing on academic goals.

Nashville has community schools that predate the higher-profile school reforms like charter school expansion. In the late 1990s, hoping to prevent the widening of achievement gaps following the end of desegregation efforts, Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools established Enhanced Option schools in its poorest neighborhoods.

Today, all of those schools have smaller classes than the other schools in the district, as well as extra guidance counselors and social workers. Many also have Family Resource Centers to connect parents with health and social services.

In 2004, the Nashville Chamber of Commerce formed an organization called Alignment Nashville to funnel existing direct service programs into the city’s public schools. Since 2008, Alignment Nashville has helped connect the school system with non-profits. Alignment Nashville also helps operate school-level teams at 14 schools through an initiative called Community Achieves, which is in its second year. School-based services provided through Community Achieves range from health care to coat closets where students without the resources to buy a winter coat can pick one up.

Community school advocates say the Nashville programs have been successful, and point to several examples. When Nashville’s Glencliff High School adopted a community schools model in 2007, the graduation rate was 66 percent; now, it’s 76 percent. Warner Enhanced Option became one of the fastest improving schools in the state following the addition of Merritt to its staff two years ago. (Some Community Achieves schools have seen academic gains, but district officials say it is too early to attribute them to the community schools model.)

Communities in Schools has also had shown positive results at sites across the country, and studies show that it reduces drop-out rates when implemented fully. However, it’s difficult to tell how dramatic its impact is from Communities in Schools’ self-reported numbers. The organization only collects data like test scores and post-college plans from the students it case manages, making meaningful comparisons between those students and those at schools without case managers impossible.

And yet, despite the extra resources, students attending enhanced option schools still have some of the lowest test scores in Tennessee. Despite the financial backing of Wall Street’s wealthiest, schools in the Harlem Children’s Zone have regularly scored in the bottom half of charter schools in New York City.

To some backers of community schools, the test scores are, if not beside the point, a small part of the point. After all, they say, the goals of community schools go beyond academics.

Ansel Sanders works for the Achievement School District, and helped bring Communities in Schools site coordinators to some of the district’s schools this year. He says that while ASD officials are well-aware of the pressure to raise scores, test scores are ultimately not why they want to help students be healthy and safe.

“Whether or not it raises reading scores, […] it’s the right thing to do,” he said.

Merritt said that, although it possible to have a community school without a site coordinator, it’s helpful for students and teachers to know that connecting them with help is her number one priority.

“The ability to be present is really powerful,” she said. “When [someone] needs something [they] know that […] we’re going to figure it out, as opposed to, you’re going to call a case manager, you’re going to leave a voicemail, they’re going to say they’ll return the call in 24 hours, and then I’ll schedule something two weeks out.”

Merritt said that it can be hard to measure her work in numbers — “this work is kind of the work of the heart,” she said — but it’s part of the Communities in Schools model to try, so that the organization can track progress and make data-informed decisions.

She sets individual goals for each student she works with, sometimes about their grades and test scores, sometimes using another measure, like attendance or stints in in-school suspension. She evaluates goals quarterly with the students and families. Merritt said parents are almost willing to work with her.

“People are really open to someone championing their child,” she said.

Although her work is to champion students, they often see her as a friend. Merritt keeps extra belts in her office in case a student forgets to wear one (they are part of Warner’s dress code.) On the Monday Chalkbeat visited Warner,  a student came into the office for a belt, and started to explain how hectic her morning was: Mom was running late for work; her brother kept hiding things. She mentioned that she was cold.

Merritt gave the student the cardigan off of her back, and the girl’s face broke into a smile.

“Now I look just like you,” she said.

smaller cohort

Smaller cohort of charter schools to open in Memphis in 2018

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Daphnè Robinson, director of charter schools for Shelby County Schools, offers recommendations to the school board.

With charter schools comprising a fourth of Shelby County Schools, district leaders say they’re setting a higher bar for opening new ones in Memphis.

The school board approved only three out of 14 applications on Tuesday night, just months after the district overhauled its charter school office to strengthen oversight of the growing sector.

Opening in 2018 will be Believe Memphis Academy, Freedom Preparatory Academy, and Perea Elementary. The approvals mean the district will oversee 55 charter schools, easily the largest number of any district in Tennessee.

But it’s significantly less than last year, when the board green-lighted seven applicants. Since then, Shelby County Schools has doubled the size of its charter oversight office and stepped up scrutiny of applications.

“We want to strengthen the process every school year because, when it comes down to it, the lives of our kids are at stake and millions of dollars in taxpayer money,” said Brad Leon, chief of strategy and performance management.

This year, the district hired a new leader and new staff for its charter office. It’s also using several application reviewers from the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, the group that last year recommended a slew of changes for opening, managing and closing charter schools.

But even with all the changes, the school board didn’t follow all of the staff’s recommendations. Perea’s application had been recommended for denial but, after much discussion, the board voted 7-2 to let the group open an elementary school inside the recently closed Klondike Elementary building. Board members pointed to Perea’s long record of success in operating a preschool at Klondike.

The other two approvals were in line with staff recommendations. Believe Memphis Academy will be a literacy-focused college preparatory school serving students in grades 4-8 in the city’s medical district. Memphis-based Freedom Prep will open its fifth school, which eventually will serve grades 6-12 in the Whitehaven and Nonconnah communities.

Board member Teresa Jones expressed concern about deviating from staff recommendations on Perea.

“We have a process. And by all accounts, it’s not a perfect process, but it’s been applied to everyone,” she said.

But Billy Orgel, another board member, said the charter office should have taken into account the long-standing preschool’s performance, even though it’s never operated an elementary school.

“There is a track record with the funders. There is a track record with the school,” he said, adding that “no process is perfect.”

Groups vying for approval this year wanted to open schools that range from an all-girls program to a sports academy to several focused on science, technology, engineering and math.

Feeling flexible

How five Aurora schools in an “innovation zone” are making budget decisions to meet their own needs

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Crawford Elementary School Principal Jenny Passchier observed a writing lesson in October 2015.

When Aurora Public Schools went looking for ways to save money earlier this year, one casualty was a district-wide contract for a service that provides a translator on the phone when one is not available in person.

The decision could have hurt Crawford Elementary School, where students speak about 35 languages and the service is used at least weekly— more at the start of the school year.

But Principal Jenny Passchier was not without options. As one of five schools that comprise Aurora Public Schools’ year-old innovation zone, Crawford has greater autonomy from district rules and budgeting decisions.

So when school resumed a couple of weeks ago, families at the five innovation zone schools got phone calls they could understand because leaders of the schools chose to keep paying for the translation and drop other district services to make up the difference.

“It’s very critical that we have some way to get ahold of our families,” Passchier said. “Especially in maybe more informal situations. We don’t always have translators that are readily available in person, so that was a critical piece that we needed to keep.”

That decision provides a window into what autonomy looks like in Aurora’s innovation zone, Superintendent Rico Munn’s biggest reform bet to date to lift achievement in a district with a challenging student population and poor academic track record.

With the innovation zone, Aurora officials are turning to a school model that other districts across the state and country have tried, with mixed results. Innovation status provides schools charter school-like autonomy, but the schools are operated by the district instead of independently.

The five schools in northwest Aurora started rolling out their innovation plans last school year.

Taking advantage of the state’s innovation law, APS officials created the zone to give schools greater flexibility from some state laws, union or district policies so principals could govern things like curriculum, hiring practices, school calendars and budgets in ways that might improve achievement at their schools.

Last year, in the first year of innovation status, district officials worked with principals of the five schools in the zone to figure out what district services they could do without, and what extra services they wanted to pay for with the money they might have instead.

Principals started by looking at what their school needed help with and then district officials worked with them to analyze how well the existing services worked.

In the case of the TeleLanguage service, district officials calculated that the average district school used the translation service for about 909 minutes, or about 15 hours, per school year. But each of the five schools in the innovation zone used the service for about 2,978 minutes per school year — about three times as often as the average district school.

After the analysis, the five schools decided to drop several services, including cutting the district’s human resources department, and in exchange the schools were given about $500,000 extra in the 2017-18 budget.

How the money is being spent

  • Translation services, $14,000
  • Health Sciences Academy at Aurora Central, $30,000
  • College and career services, $30,000
  • Parent support budget for Student Engagement Advocate, $5,000
  • Talent acquisition and marketing budget, $40,000
  • Three full-time positions, $305,189
  • Individual school supports: Crawford, $20,000; Paris, $20,000; Boston K-8, $20,000; Aurora West, $30,000; Aurora Central, $36,000

“I led all five principals through the process of evaluating the needs of their schools,” said Lamont Browne, executive director of autonomous schools, including the innovation zone. “My approach was very much facilitating what ideas they had for who they were.”

As a zone, the five schools created three new positions with the extra $500,000. The schools hired a student engagement advocate to help communicate with families and improve student attendance (a position that would no longer exist at the district level); a director of instruction and leadership development; and a director of talent and acquisition to pick up some of the district HR department’s traditional duties.

The woman hired for that last role already has helped the five schools fill positions that still were open as school started.

Passchier described the budget redesign process as collaborative and said she spent a lot of time reflecting on her school’s needs.

“We were able to identify what are the zone-wide themes that we can support, but also what are unique things we need at the school level,” Browne said.

Each school made ia case for its own funding needs. For instance, Aurora Central High School hired an additional student engagement advocate that would be dedicated just to the 2,000-student high school. One of the staff person’s primary responsibilities: helping improve poor attendance.

Passchier said Crawford staff wanted to continue some reading work they’d done with a grant that was ending. The school is now using about $5,000 to continue work with a consultant the school found helpful in teaching students to read.

Officials say it’s too early to know how well the redesigned budget is working for the schools, but Passchier said she’s already seeing benefits two weeks into the school year.

The director of student engagement, who will work with the five schools to help them engage families and students with a goal of increasing attendance, already has been at Crawford several times, Passchier said.

Browne said that if principals find other district services they want to reconsider or analyze as the school year unfolds, the budget for the five schools may change.