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.”

Community Schools: The Basic and Radical Way to Address Child Poverty

Trip Gabriel’s story in this morning’s NY Times, 50 Years Into the War on Poverty, Hardship Hits Back, describes tiny towns left behind by years of jobs lost in the coal mines, the ravages of meth addition, and families bereft of opportunity in McDowell County— West Virginia’s poorest county.  Education has long been one of the sole paths for escape from the towns and villages of Appalachia, but the fact that those who can make it do leave has only compounded rural isolation and poverty.

Toward the end of Gabriel’s article, however, we learn about a Community School effort being developed to coordinate social services and family supports with the public schools: “Reconnecting McDowell, led by the American Federation of Teachers…  is working to turn schools into community centers offering health care, adult literacy classes and other services.  Its leaders hope to convert an abandoned furniture store in Welch to apartments in order to attract teachers. ‘Someone from Indiana or Pennsylvania, they’re not going to come to McDowell County and live in a house trailer on top of a mountain,’ said Bob Brown, a union official.”

On May 18, 2013, Reconnecting McDowell was approved by the state board of education of West Virginia.  In West Virginia, according to a press release from the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) the Community Schools plan became possible in 2012 after the state legislature established “collective innovation zones.”  Commenting on the formation of Reconnecting McDowell, AFT President Randi Weingarten declared, “The evidence is clear that Community Schools greatly improve disadvantaged children’s chances of success because the services and programs help overcome the ravages of poverty that affect academic achievement.”

In McDowell County, the Community School collaboration will include the West Virginia Healthy Kids and Families Coalition to visit homes of new parents, IBM to increase the number of computers at school, Shentel Communications to reduce internet rates for families with children at school, and several job expansion efforts including a National Guard materials-repair program and a retraining effort of the United Mine Workers.  A Community Schools “vision” reflects the reality that parents’ employment helps children thrive.

According to the National Center for Community Schools, a division of New York City’s Children’s Aid Society, Community Schools are defined by three “interconnected support systems: a strong core instructional program designed to help all students meet high academic standards; expanded learning opportunities designed to enrich the learning environment for students and their families; and a full range of health, mental health and social services designed to promote children’s well-being and remove barriers to learning.” Community Schools are formal contractual arrangements among agency partners.  Usually a lead partner coordinates the services that surround the academic program and that secures and coordinates the funding streams that support all this activity.  Community Schools are open before and after school, on weekends, and during the summer with expanded learning experiences; they set out to engage the family in myriad ways.

In early April, the Washington, D.C.–based Coalition for Community Schools held its national forum in Cincinnati, Ohio, a school district that has worked closely with AFT to transform local schools into what Cincinnati calls Community Learning Centers.  (In Ohio, the legislature chose an Orwellian term for privatized charter schools—community schools—which has caused the Community Schools movement thriving today in Cincinnati to choose the name Community Learning Centers instead of the name used in the rest of the country for full-service, wrap-around schools.)  In a Cincinnati Enquirer column, Marty Blank, director of the Coalition for Community Schools, describes what has been quietly happening in Cincinnati: “During the 2012-13 academic year, 34 Community Learning Centers in Cincinnati mobilized more than 445 community partners to provide support to 17,898 students.  Extra personalized supports have gone to 3,290 students who demonstrated one or more risk factors, such as chronic absence, behavior problems or poor academic performance.”

Blank describes what he understands to be the core mission of the Community Schools movement: “provide a focal point for states, counties, cities, and private-sector agencies to work together with school districts to use resources more effectively, coordinate fragmented services, and break bureaucratic silos and gridlock to help children and youth succeed.”

Last Saturday in the Washington Post, Valerie Strauss reprinted a fascinating column by Brock Cohen, a California teacher and researcher who participated in the recent Cincinnati national forum on Community Schools.  “As a doctoral student and former Los Angeles high school English teacher, I had already become aware of the ways in which a child’s learning trajectory is acutely impacted by social, emotional, and environmental factors.  Seeing the intentionality with which schools in high-poverty rural and urban communities were leveraging partnerships to cultivate programs and interventions for children gave me hope.”  Cohen doesn’t underestimate the challenges, however: “But working with schools across a tumultuous urban school district as an academic coach has given me a broader view of the systems and attitudes that impede positive change and, thus, threaten to undermine the movement.”

At the conference Cohen comes to know Eddy Estrada—also from Los Angeles,  a student at a Community School, and in Cincinnati to speak about his own experience as part of a panel.  “Our conversations over a three-day span—2,000 miles away from our home—made me realize that Community Schools can be impactful in ways that are almost impossible to see…  Because of countless hardships and setbacks, both of Eddy Estrada’s parents were unable to progress beyond elementary school; nonetheless, Eddy will be attending Cal-State Northridge next fall, where he plans on majoring in music education…  Skeptics might dismiss Eddy’s story as yet another case of a gifted outlier defeating the odds, but he’s had a good deal of help along the way.  Specifically Torres (high school’s) Community Schools coordinator Christina Patricio, has been a nurturing, unwavering, force in Eddy’s life.”

I urge you to read this column to learn more about what Cohen believes are the almost intractable challenges for public schools in very poor communities and to explore with Cohen how Community Schools can help.

Community Schools Build Human Connection Lacking in Technocratic School “Reform”

Child Trends, an education policy group that conducts research on strategies to improve the lives of children, has just released a new report  (summary) on what are most often called community schools.  These schools are known for their wrap-around social and enrichment services.  They are sometimes called community schools, sometimes lighted school houses, sometimes wraparound schools.  Child Trends calls these schools with integrated community supports.

According to the National Center for Community Schools, a division of New York City’s Children’s Aid Society, community schools are defined by three “interconnected support systems: a strong core instructional program designed to help all students meet high academic standards; expanded learning opportunities designed to enrich the learning environment for students and their families; and a full range of health, mental health and social services designed to promote children’s well-being and remove barriers to learning.” (Emphasis added.)

Community schools are open before and after school, on weekends, and during the summer with expanded learning experiences; they set out to engage the family in myriad ways. They are defined by formal partnerships with other agencies in the community that can operate in and around the school to improve learning, attendance, health, family engagement, enriched school climate and safer neighborhoods.

All community schools have a lead partner that coordinates the services that surround the academic program and that secures and coordinates the funding streams that support all this activity.  The community school director works with the principal to coordinate the school’s academic life and social services.

In Child Trends’ new report we learn that community schools are still a relatively small education model.  These schools with integrated student supports serve one-and-a half million students nationally, out of the 50 million students educated in public schools today across America.  Child Trends counts three thousand schools with integrated student supports; 75 percent of the students they serve are Black and Hispanic.

Child Trends identifies the major providers of schools with integrated student supports: New York City’s Children’s Aid Society, the Comer School Development Program, Beacon Initiative, City Connects, Elev8, Say Yes to Education, School of the 21st Century, Turnaround for Children, University-Assisted Community Schools, and Communities in Schools—the largest provider with 2,200 schools.

One of the reasons the community school with integrated student supports has grown slowly (unlike other so-called “efficient,” top-down “school reforms” like school closure and charterization) is that these schools must be shaped by building human relationships and connections.  In the 2005, Oxford University Press published, Community Schools in Action: Lessons from a Decade of Practice, C. Warren Moses (then director of the Children’s Aid Society) describes the process the agency engaged for several years prior to launching its flagship Primary School 5 (PS5) in the Washington Heights neighborhood of northern Manhattan in 1993.

“The introduction of such a major change in the local schools and the dramatic expansion of CAS’s (Children’s Aid Society’s) activity in Washington Heights was a delicate process.  CAS took time and great care to make sure residents, students, teachers, administrators, the teachers’ union, other social agencies, and elected officials, including the mayor and the governor, understood the concept, the implementation plan, and CAS’s commitment to services for the children and families of Washington Heights.  As a demonstration of our willingness to use our resources and to act quickly, we bused 100 children from Washington Heights to the CAS day camp on Staten Island for eight weeks and assigned our mobile dental van to Washington Heights three days per week; the dental van served 50 children per week for several years, providing greatly needed care to immigrant children with serious dental needs.  We also worked with prominent community agencies to help expand their services and ability to work in local schools… CAS provided the resources, expertise, and supervision…” (p. 16)

Child psychiatrist James Comer’s School Development Program has created schools with integrated student supports by intentionally focusing the attention, energy, and expertise of all adults in and around the school on helping children develop along six critical pathways: physical, social-interactive, psychological-emotional, ethical, linguistic, and cognitive-intellectual. (Leave No Child Behind, p. 74)  Schools supported by the School Development Program form three teams: a governance-management team, a parents team, and a student and staff support team who together develop a comprehensive school plan that includes staff development, assessment, and ongoing modification.  In a Comer School decisions are made by consensus with no-fault problem solving.  As the teams work, School Development Program staff  persistently encourage all the adults in and around the school to overcome conflicts on behalf of the children.

Neither of these models nor any of the other community school efforts promises a quick fix for schools.  And because the overall community school movement remains small—serving 1.5 million children today—community schools don’t produce the massive data sets we demand today to demonstrate success with metrics. We have been taught that, for evaluation purposes, we should no longer trust what we can observe qualitatively. I think that is a tragedy.

Nearly five years ago I had an opportunity to visit PS5, the Children’s Aid Society Community School whose founding Moses describes in the passage quoted above.  Although my own children are grown, what I observed at PS5 spoke to me as a mother.  We began our visit in the parents’ resource room, where we had to arrange our chairs around huge commercial sewing machines that were being used in a job training class.  We visited Early Head Start, where the teachers, each one a trained Doula, described accompanying women as they gave birth to the children who would later enter this school.  We talked with Head Start teachers who lead the school’s large preschool program.  We visited the dental clinic where the children’s teeth are regularly cleaned and where cavities are filled.  The health clinic can efficiently provide the required immunizations that make so many young children start school late each fall because their parents have forgotten to get them immunized.  We listened as the psychologist in the mental health clinic explained that discipline problems have diminished as the clinic attends to family mental health.  We observed after school programs serving over 200 young people—dancing and gardening and cooking the food grown in the school garden.  The community school director told us about piecing together funding from Medicaid, Head Start, a federal “21st Century Learning Center After School Program” grant, along with funds from additional philanthropic sources.

We are in a hurry these days for quick-fix school “reform.” Maybe that is why we have led ourselves to believe that technocracy is some kind of replacement for the human bonds that can be built through painstaking effort in a community.  Also it seems  we have come to trust numbers but to distrust what our eyes see, our ears hear, and our hearts tell us is important.

NYC Rejects Charterization, Closure and Co-Location as School Reform Strategy

Bill DeBlasio’s victory in the New York City mayor’s race signifies a shift in that school district’s policies on public education.  While Mayor Bloomberg has been a leader and spokesperson of the national movement for “corporatized school reform”—rapid expansion of charter schools—extensive closures of traditional schools, especially comprehensive high schools—co-location of charter and public schools in the same buildings— DeBlasio has instead spoken firmly for improving traditional public school across the city.

According to the New York Times, “Mr. DeBlasio would significantly overhaul one of the Bloomberg administration’s principal legacies: the A-through-F grading system for schools.”  The New York Daily News reported that “De Blasio wants to focus on fixing traditional public schools and has proposed charging rent to charter schools located within those schools.”

On his campaign website, DeBlasio has identified a long list of public education priorities that include:

  • Increasing taxes for those earning $500,000 or more to pay for universal pre-Kindergarten and for enriched after-school programs for all middle school students.
  • Adding 100 full-service, wrap-around Community Schools such as the less than twenty now being modeled by the Children’s Aid Society.  These are the schools that house medical, dental, and mental health clinics, parent education and support programs, Head Starts, and extensive after-school programs and transform the public schools into family and community centers.
  • Seeking money owed New York City by the state under he Campaign for Fiscal Equity school funding remedy, to pay for reducing class size which has increased significantly in the past couple of years.
  • Supporting struggling schools with resources and technical assistance instead of rushing to close them.
  • Charging rent to charter schools according to their capacity to pay, especially the schools of the charter chains whose CEOs are paid annually in six figures.
  • Involving the community when charters and traditional charters are being co-located.
  • Providing state-mandated arts education taught by certified arts instructors for all children in the New York City Schools.

While the newly elected mayor does not oppose mayoral control of the public schools, he has said he would create new avenues to expand input from parents through the Community Education Councils and the Citywide Education Councils for particular issues such as high schools, special education, and English Language Learners.

What incoming Mayor DeBlasio has promised is a new direction for the public schools in New York City.  For the sake of the children of New York and as a harbinger of broader rejection of “portfolio school reform” and privatization, it will be important to monitor the new mayor’s capacity to implement the changes he has promised.