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.

Starting young

New York City child care centers are serving more infants, but for poor families seats are scarce

PHOTO: Logan Zabel

Yvette Cora, who works at an East New York day care center, turns down a steady stream of parents asking to enroll their babies.

The center where she works, St. Malachy Child Development Center in East New York, has a contract from New York City to care for babies and toddlers from low-income families. But most won’t get offered a spot until their child is at least 18 months old — it takes six months to a year to get off the baby room waitlist.

“I refer them to home providers, and sometimes after they go visit those homes they come back here and say they prefer it here,” said Cora.

It’s an increasingly common experience for day care providers who work with the city. As interest in early childhood education has grown in the city, more families are seeking spots in day care programs for their babies — but the programs for poor children are actually losing capacity, even as programs that serve more affluent families grow.

With the upcoming transition of the city’s subsidized child care system to the Department of Education (DOE), it remains to be seen how the DOE will prioritize infant care, and whether the agency will find a way to increase the capacity for this age group in centers.

In the past two years, the number of slots for children under 2 years old increased by 10 percent in licensed early education centers citywide — from 9,853 spots in 2015 to 10,806 in 2017, even as total capacity in centers has grown by only 2 percent. That’s according to the Center for New York City Affairs’s analysis of data provided by the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, which issues licenses to the centers.

At the same time, the child care centers that contract with the city to serve low-income families have been losing their capacity to take in infants and toddlers. The number of openings for children under 2 years old in those centers fell by 8 percent during the same time period, amounting to about 100 lost slots for young children.

The shift means that while Bright Horizons, one for-profit day care provider that charges up to $40,000 per year for full-time care, is growing, there are fewer spots for families whose total annual income is less than that.

“The capacity has grown, but not for poor people,” said Kathleen Hopkins, vice president of the Family Health Centers at NYU Langone Department of Community Programs that oversees two centers that provide infant care. “There are still not a lot of options for poor families.”

The scarcity of choice for poor families with infants is largely driven by cost. Infants and toddlers are the most expensive age group to serve in child care centers. Most babies in the subsidized child care system are placed in the far less-expensive but also less-regulated subsidized family child care programs, where women get paid meager wages to look after neighborhood kids in their homes, often their living rooms.

But studies nationwide have found family child care programs to be, on average, of lower quality than center-based care, and there’s been a growing interest in increasing the number of slots for infants and toddlers in subsidized New York City child care centers.

Some say that Mayor Bill de Blasio’s universal pre-K expansion and public awareness campaigns such as “Talk to Your Baby” added urgency to this discussion by raising awareness of the importance of receiving high-quality care during the first few years of life.

Staff at the city’s child care resource and referral agencies say they now see a growing number of parents from all backgrounds who believe that early education centers are better equipped than informal arrangements with friends and family to provide quality care and prepare young kids for school. “It’s a trend of the last five years,” says Nancy Kolben, executive director of the child care resource and referral agency Center for Children’s Initiatives.

Early childhood centers that enroll only families who can pay without public subsidies have responded by charging parents more money to offset the high costs inherent in baby care, including expensive sprinkler systems, ground floor classrooms, and that babies be cared for in small groups.

But at subsidized child care centers, rising rents combined with flat city funding have made infant care elusive, despite efforts from ACS to encourage growth.

“Everything we have seen says it’s a money-losing proposition to do [infant care] as a center-based facility because of the infrastructure you need,” said James Matison, executive director of Brooklyn Kindergarten Society, which oversees five early education centers that serve low-income families.

“We lose a lot [of space] if we try to incorporate cribs and changing tables, and enrollment numbers go down,” says Maria Contreras-Collier, executive director of Cypress Hills Child Care Corporation.
Some directors say that serving infants is easier at large child care centers that can dedicate a few rooms to babies without cutting back on overall enrollment.

Hanover Place Child Care, a center in Downtown Brooklyn, is a case in point. A large school with a total capacity for over 300 children, it accepts more vouchers to care for infants than any other center in the city. In recent years, as surrounding neighborhoods gentrified, it has begun attracting families who pay privately.

But after a special-education preschool it shared its building and some staff with closed, Hanover Place lost a security guard, art teacher and a nurse. Meanwhile, rents in the neighborhood skyrocketed as new construction crept closer and closer.

Some local parents fear it is only a matter of time before the Brooklyn real estate boom will lead the center to close its doors entirely, or at least close doors to families unable to pay the tuition necessary to keep them open.

This story is adapted from a policy brief from the New School’s Center for New York City Affairs.

Charter growth

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 also used five 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.