Wraparound Community Schools Are Long Term Investment, Not Quick Turnaround

A little more than a year ago, New York’s Mayor Bill de Blasio launched a massive program of support for 94 public Renew Schools, identified as those where children’s test scores have been chronically low. All of the Renew Schools are neighborhood schools required to accept all the children who arrive at their doors. One of the strategies is to add extra time for children in school and provide additional training and support for parents. Another central part of the strategy is to turn these 94 schools into full-service Community Schools through formal contractual partnerships with a number of NYC social service, medical and child enrichment agencies. This week Elizabeth Harris in the NY Times offers an analysis one-year into this transformation. She notes that test scores haven’t yet significantly risen.

While I commend Harris for her attention to NYC’s effort to support its struggling schools, her story demonstrates what’s wrong with the way we judge schools—what’s wrong with the metric we use and what’s wrong with the time line.

To be fair, Harris examines more than the test scores at Urban Scholars, the Bronx public school she profiles: “Last year, a third of Urban Scholars students were chronically absent, showing up to school less than 90 percent of the time.  This school year, students who regularly miss school have been paired with an adult in the building who makes home visits and daily phone calls to encourage families to get their children to school, and to follow up when they do not.”

But Harris seems to assume that change will come, if not quickly at least in a steady and visible upward trajectory. She also seems to imagine it ought somehow to be visible in the students’ standardized test scores.

Part of the problem is a misunderstanding of the Community School model.  Here is how New York’s Children’s Aid Society (one of the partners de Blasio has tapped as part of his transformation of NYC’s 94 Renew Schools) and its National Center for Community Schools defines a Community School: “A Community School is… both a place and a set of partnerships between the school and other community resources. Its integrated focus on academics, services, supports and opportunities leads to improved student learning, stronger families and healthier communities. Schools become centers of the community and are open to everyone…. Most Children’s Aid Society schools are open all day and well into the evening, six days per week, year-round.”

In her NY Times piece earlier this week, Harris focuses on the problem of chronic absence.  Over the past decade, The New School’s Center for New York City Affairs, in two major reports here and here, has identified chronic absence as among the most serious barriers to learning in NYC.  In a recent column The Children’s Aid Society also examines this challenge: “Most transient students tend to be chronically absent, or chronically late, due to the challenges inherent in their condition: health issues such as asthma and allergies, often a result of stress or the poor sanitary conditions of the shelters; or because of the numerous, inflexible appointments required by the Department of Homeless Services in order for the families to keep their space at the shelter.”

Community School staff work in a parallel and collaborative way with the academic staff at a public school.  The role of the Community School Director who coordinates the school’s collaboration with community services parallels the principal’s role as the school’s academic leader.  In its recent column, the Children’s Aid Society describes Jeanette Then, the Director of the Community School partnership in a public school in East Harlem, where chronic absence has been a persistent problem.  Then explains additional reasons why homeless or “doubled up” children miss school: “At times children are absent because they don’t have the resources to get basic needs met, such as clean clothes or food.  Families often keep information from the school until they feel they can trust us.”

Jeanette Then’s job includes the expectation that she will coordinate formally with the Department of Education’s liaison at each of the East Harlem shelters in the neighborhood served by the school every time a family with children arrives at the shelter. “Based on these findings, my team and I (the Community School team at the school) devise a plan for how best to address and prioritize, as well as identify what available or additional resources can help the student get acclimated to the school.  Services may range from uniforms, school supplies, guidance, parent support, clothing, nutrition, health care….” It is also the responsibility of the Community School staff to identify and support students who are “doubled up”—homeless but living with relatives or friends instead of a shelter.

In her NY Times piece this week, Harris explains how the Community School she visited is working to break the cycle of chronic absence.  The Children’s Aid Society elaborates on this strategy: “To ensure attendance, the Community School partnership provides students with a success mentor, whose job is to promote attendance and discourage tardiness. Mentors develop a trusting relationship with the students and their families by doing daily in-person or phone check-ins and by greeting students as they arrive in school.  They also set goals with the students. Parents are part of the goal-setting process in order for adults to be aware and accountable for their children’s academic social, and emotional well being.  Each mentor is responsible for 15 children.”

Whether or not it will quickly raise test scores, the Community School model—when it is carefully and strategically implemented—is very likely to assist desperate families and coordinate medical and dental health services along with after-school enrichment for a wide range of children and families.  But such a strategy is a big gamble, because it isn’t guaranteed to raise test scores according to the quick “turnaround” time line our society has come to expect. And because it involves hiring staff to coordinate services and support families, it is very expensive.

Here is how the New School’s Center for New York City Affairs described the investment by the Children’s Aid Society in its original Community Schools back in 2014, before the mayor launched the rapid expansion of Community Schools in New York City: “Building a network of Community Schools requires significant money and manpower. The Children’s Aid Society spends between $1.2 and $2.7 million per year at each of its 16 schools in New York City. As much as 95 percent of these resources come from various pools of existing federal, state, and local funds, but raising the money and administering the programs comes at a cost. Children’s Aid employs more than a dozen people in its central office to do the grant writing, budgeting and contract management required to keep their Community Schools program afloat.”

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