Enough Basic Staffing and More Community Schools: Two Important but Different Issues

The NY TimesDana Goldstein published a story last week about the Chicago teachers’ strike. While Goldstein should be commended for supporting the efforts of the teachers in the nation’s third largest school district to bargain around their students’ needs for smaller classes, more counselors, school psychologists, nurses, and librarians, her article is misleading.

Goldstein conflates two important but separate issues when she writes: “These demands have risen as activists promote a broader mission for educators: a vision of schools as community centers that offer an array of health and social services to children, especially those from low income families. In Chicago, it has become clear that teacher pay is not the primary sticking point in the negotiations; after all, the city has already agreed to a raise. The Chicago Teachers Union is asking that the district enshrine in its contract a promise to hire more counselors, health workers and librarians, and to free them from tasks outside of their core duties.”

Yes, the Chicago Teachers Union has demanded that the union contract cover students’ learning conditions.  But the teachers’ primary goal in Chicago has been to rectify years of neglect for their students’ basic needs.  The union’s central focus was not for a newer—and also very important—idea for wraparound Community Schools.

Here are the two issues Goldstein conflates:

  • First, in many underfunded public school districts today—especially in urban school districts with extreme concentrations of student poverty and in isolated rural school districts without significant local taxing capacity—there is an acute shortage of he most basic services needed for schools to operate smoothly. Staffing and services in many public schools have been seriously curtailed since, decades ago, many of us attended schools where we took for granted the presence of the librarian or the school nurse, or enough counselors to serve the hundreds of adolescents in most any high school. Financial shortages were exacerbated during the 2008 recession when state and local tax revenues dropped precipitously in many places. And these problems have intensified in states where tax cuts have been the policy of choice.
  • Second, in an important development, in communities where family poverty is concentrated, pressure has been growing over the past decade to turn schools into community centers where families can access necessary social services and medical services and other supports. The movement to turn public schools into what have been termed “Community Schools” has been building up steam.

Teachers and their students need basic support staff.

Restoring funding for the most basic services—the kind of staffing by nurses, certified school librarians, certified school counselors, and school psychologists is essential, along with the restoration of manageable class size. The restoration of essential school services has been at the heart of the teachers’ strikes in the past couple of years in West Virginia, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Arizona, Los Angeles, Oakland, and most recently Chicago. The teachers in these strikes have been demanding a basic level of the kind of public school support staffing students simply take for granted in more affluent communities.

In Chicago, the site of the most recent teachers’ strike, the problem has been made worse by more than two decades of disruptive reform.  The district operates with widespread public school choice along with the expansion of charter schools.  School choice in Chicago operates in combination with student-based budgeting, whose damaging consequences were recently documented by researchers at Roosevelt University. It is a toxic combination, because students exiting to another public school or a charter school carry away funding.  At a school, for example, where two classes of second graders fall from 25 students to 23, the principal might possibly create one class of 46, or perhaps the principal could keep two second grades at 23 students if the librarian or the nurse or a counselor were let go. As services diminish due to the loss of funding, the school becomes less and less attractive to school choosers, thereby establishing a downward spiral, until, in Chicago, the school would close because it would be identified as “under-utilized.”

What does it mean for a school when essential staff are eliminated?  When a counselor must serve hundreds of students, the counselor’s work may be reduced to making presentations about college applications, or in a district like Chicago, explaining high school choice options to hundreds of students or simply handling students’ requests for schedule changes and other necessary but routine functions. When there are too few school psychologists, the job becomes reduced to testing students who are being referred for special education, sitting on on committees making Individual Education Plans for special education students, and handling a few crisis situations when students act out.

It is common these days for school nurses to rotate across several schools despite that school nurses are needed to administer injections, to help with diabetic and chronically ill students, and to deal with a wide range of medical issues too frequently handled these days by the office secretary.

Chicago teachers also made school libraries and the presence of school librarians an issue in their contract negotiations. In many schools, the library door has been locked or if the library is open, it is staffed by volunteers.  The presence of a certified school librarian can be transformative for a school’s literacy program and can infuse the best children’s literature into the lives of all the children in a school.  Last year, for Education Week, Sara Sparks and Alex Harwin reported: “Chicago public schools have gone from more than 450 librarians staffing libraries and media centers at more than 600 schools to fewer than 150 in a four year period, according to South Side high school librarian Sara Sayigh, whose positions at the historic DuSable High School and later the Bronzeville Scholastic Institute and Daniel Hale Williams Prep School of Medicine have been cut four times in the last 14 years.”

Community Schools are an important idea.

What about the growing cry for more wraparound Community Schools—the other issue mentioned in Goldstein’s recent story?  In some of their strikes across states and school districts, teachers have also bargained for the expansion of full-service, Community Schools.  Here is the definition of a Community School according to New York City’s Children’s Aid Society, currently the lead partner in many of New York City’s Community Schools: “The foundations for community schools can be conceptualized as a Developmental Triangle that places children at the center, surrounded by families and communities.  Because students’ educational success, health and well-being are the focus of every community school, the legs of the triangle consist of 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 the products of explicit partnerships between the school and other community resources… Nearly all models of community schools employ a site-coordinator, whose role involves joint planning with school staff and subsequent recruitment, management and coordination of partners.”

I was once privileged to visit a Community School in New York City. The school was a collaboration of the public school district and the Children’s Aid Society.  I could feel the way this school and its staff, teachers and medical and social service personnel alike, embraced the children, their families and the community.  It was a chilly autumn day, and we had to walk quite a distance from the subway to get to the school, but inside, the atmosphere was warm and sunny.  Parents were around in the hallways, and it all felt very welcoming.

As visitors we were greeted in a room used for parent education programs—English as a Second Language and various job training classes. There were huge commercial sewing machines there, for example. We visited the early Head Start (for toddlers) right in the building. We also visited the Head Start classes for preschoolers located there. Again, right in the school building, we visited the dental clinic, where a child was having a tooth filled. We visited a medical clinic, where students receive vaccinations, where they have eye exams, and, where someone checks sick children for strep throat and ear infections. We stood outside the room used for the mental health clinic, where both children and parents can get help. We visited a huge 21st Century Learning Center afterschool program where some children were engaged in folk dancing, some were working in a school garden that had been funded by a grant from the Bette Midler Foundation, and others were cooking with ingredients they had harvested from their school garden. Many of the children in the school participate every summer in an enrichment day camp. All this was in addition to a well-staffed academic program, where class size is reasonable.

Two important issues: ensuring necessary school staffing and expanding Community Schools. It is important to recognize that neither one can substitute for the other. Community Schools, where family medical and social services and extended learning opportunities for children are located in the school building, are now enriching communities across the United States.  But this month’s strike by teachers in Chicago has been primarily to demand that the most basic services—once provided in most every U.S. public school, but now lost in many places—will be restored in the Chicago Public Schools.

Why Full Service, Wraparound Community Schools?

I once had the extraordinary experience of visiting a full-service, wraparound Community School. The school was in the Washington Heights section of Manhattan and part of a network of public schools operating in partnership with the Children’s Aid Society of New York City, an agency which also houses the National Center for Community Schools.

My group visited this school right at the end of the school day, when children had transitioned to a marvelous after-school program funded by a federal 21st Century Community Learning Centers grant. There was a community garden at the school, and some groups of children were working in the garden, while others were chopping vegetables from the garden as part of a cooking project.  Another large group of children were creating a dance program. Right in the school building were a medical clinic where children could get immunizations, and next door a dental clinic and a mental health clinic—all this funded by Medicaid. Federally funded Head Start and Early Head Start were housed right in the school, along with classrooms—one filled with commercial sewing machines and walls of thread—housing equipment used by parents for job training. The school also boasted a fine summer program that served a majority of the school’s students.

The advantages of all this, located right in the same building as a public elementary school, were so obvious that I find it hard to enumerate them.  An easy transition from school to after-school care.  Advantages for busy parents who can find medical assistance for their children without taking the day off work. Advantages for parents whose school-age children and pre-school children have services in the same building. Advantages for kids who become comfortable in a school and know the teachers and administrators from the time they are toddlers and just smoothly move on up through the grades. And in New York City in particular—where parents can’t let their children be outside without supervision while parents are at work—a welcoming, enriching alternative to kids locked alone in apartments watching TV after school.

Lots of people seem to find it hard to document the advantages. Last week Christopher Edley, Jr., a civil rights advocate and professor at the University of California College of Law and Linda Darling-Hammond, the Stanford education professor tried, but I don’t think they quite capture the epiphany that I experienced a decade ago on that New York afternoon, though Edley and Darling-Hammond do a good job of defining a Community School’s four pillars: “The promise of Community Schools is in how they prioritize the education and enrichment of vulnerable students and how they integrate services with systems of governance, professional support, and ongoing community-level dialogue.  Comprehensive community schools represent a powerful equity strategy because they are designed to identify and address inequitable practices, disrupt the systems that perpetuate educational and economic disparities, and increase opportunities for all through partnerships among all of the actors who shape children’s opportunities… (T)hese schools share four key features, or pillars: (1) providing students and families with meaningful access to needed services and supports; (2) strengthening and sustaining family and community engagement; (3) offering expanded learning time and opportunities; and (4) supporting collaborative leadership and shared decision making within the school and with community partners… Developing instructional strategies around this kind of whole child approach reflects what we know about the science of learning and the cognitive impacts of trauma and poverty as well as what we know about creating and sustaining equitable social change.”

Such language is, of course, accurate. It is important as well these days, when school districts submit proposals to philanthropies and to federal programs.  Grants depend on providing research evidence to show that if we fill a public school with the services busy parents desperately need and if we make school a comfortable place for families, children will do better at school.

A recent article in The American Educator is a little more specific about what a school district would need to do to transform a neighborhood school into a wraparound Community School. Anna Maier, Julia Daniel, Jeannie Oakes and Livia Lam explain: “Increasing economic inequality and residential segregation have triggered a resurgence of interest in Community Schools—a century-old approach to making schools places where children can learn and thrive, even in underresourced and underserved neighborhoods. Community schools represent a place-based strategy in which schools partner with community agencies and allocate resources to integrate a focus on academics, health and social services, and youth and community development, and also foster community engagement.  Many operate on all-day and year-round schedules, and serve both children and adults… (C)ommunity schools focus simultaneously on providing high-quality instruction and addressing out-of-school barriers to students’ engagement and learning.”

The President and CEO of Communities in Schools, an organization that helps school districts develop Community Schools, believes these schools help children by strengthening relationships. Dale Erquiaga writes that young people in communities where there is extreme poverty—where families may be homeless or a large number of children may be in the child welfare system—desperately need strong relationships: “The challenge now is ensuring there are programmatic responses available to all kids that foster developmental relationships.  Social-emotional skill building is part of this. So is having fully-trained adults who act as buffers of adverse childhood experiences.”

The National Center for Community Schools at NYC’s Children’s Aid Society reports that the number of Community Schools across the United States is growing: “Reliable estimates from the Coalition for Community Schools indicate that there may be more than 5,000 Community Schools in this country. Several cities have adopted community schools as a preferred reform strategy: New York City and Chicago now have more than 150 Community Schools each; Portland (Oregon) has 84… Baltimore has 52; and Lincoln (Nebraska) has 25.”

It is important to end this report by turning attention back to what happens at a Community School.  Last February in the Kappan, staff from the Coalition for Community SchoolsReuben Jacobson, Lisa Villarreal, José Muñoz, and Robert Mahaffey describe a typical morning in a Community School:  “(S)tudents start their day by meeting with local mentors over breakfast. During third period, a student must be excused for her annual checkup, but instead of leaving school to go to the doctor, she sees a pediatrician at the school-based health clinic and then returns to class. When the traditional school day ends, a dozen volunteers come to the school to lead after-school activities that students have asked for, including robotics, music, and athletics. Later that evening, students and their parents come to the school for a regularly scheduled community dinner provided by the district, where teachers are on hand to help students with homework, and parents receive guidance on registering for health insurance and connecting to needed social services…  The…  school is a Community School, one of a growing number of schools that provide both the familiar K-12 curriculum and a much broader range of supports to students and families — high-quality academic instruction, and mentoring, health care, college and career counseling, financial advising, and much more. In many cases, the community school serves as a neighborhood hub, bringing together educators, families, business leaders, elected officials, and many other local partners to ensure that students have real opportunities to succeed in school and in life.”

Heartless Administration Proposes Government Overhaul; Defines Education as Workforce Prep

People my age remember that before there was a U.S. Department of Education, the work relating to education was located in the Department of Health, Education and Welfare. Now the Trump Administration has proposed collapsing the Department of Education and the Department of Labor into one agency. Where you locate a department in the organizational chart says something about how you understand that agency’s purpose.

When President Jimmy Carter established the Department of Education in 1979, the dominant view was that government had an obligation on behalf of society to protect the welfare of children and had a responsibility to our poorest citizens. The Washington Post‘s Lisa Rein reports that yesterday’s proposed government restructure was designed by Mick Mulvaney, who leads the Office of Management and Budget, to reflect President Donald Trump’s view that the federal government is bloated. But in advance of the White House’s announcement, the Washington Post‘s Lisa Rein and Damian Paletta added: “The plan is also expected to include major changes to the way the government provides benefits for low-income Americans, an area that conservatives have long targeted as excessive, by consolidating safety-net programs that are administered through multiple agencies.”

Under the new plan, the Education and Labor departments would be merged into a new Department of Education and the Workforce.  The Department of Health and Human Services would absorb services from several other departments and would now be called the Department of Health and Public Welfare. The new plan cannot be imposed without Congressional approval, and experts warn that it is unlikely Congress will vote to endorse the plan particularly in an election year.

The NY TimesGlenn Thrush and Erica Green elaborate on what the new plan would mean for social service programs like foodstamps (now called SNAP): “The plan… includes relocating many social safety net programs into a new megadepartment, which would replace the Department of Health and Human Services…. Mr. Trump and his budget director, Mick Mulvaney, the architect of the plan, have sought to redefine as welfare subsistence benefit programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP, and housing aid.  It is part of a rebranding effort, championed by conservative think tanks and House Republicans, to link them to unpopular direct-cash assistance programs that have been traditionally called welfare… At the heart of the plan is an attempt to shift SNAP, which serves more than 42 million poor and working-class Americans, to the new agency from the Agriculture Department.  Conservative think tanks, including the Heritage Foundation and Koch-related entities, have long sought to de-link food aid from agriculture in hopes of cutting costs.” The Trump administration has already allowed states to add work requirements to two programs serving the poor—SNAP and Medicaid, requirements which are eliminating from the rolls many who otherwise qualify for benefits.

Why propose combining the Departments of Education and Labor into a new Department of Education and the Workforce? The Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss explains concisely what the change reflects about the Trump administration’s understanding of the purpose of education: “The proposal would underscore the belief held by Trump and DeVos that the first purpose of education is to create skilled workers for America’s workforce. The Trump-DeVos theory of education contrasts with other purposes of education propounded by educators and philosophers, including the notion that public education is meant to help young people develop into active citizens who can participate and contribute to the democratic process and American society.  In another view, philosopher and education reformer John Dewey once wrote: ‘The educational process has no end beyond itself; it is its own end.'”

POLITICO‘s Caitlin Emma and Michael Stratford report, for example, that, “(T)he plan calls for redirecting funding for the Labor Department’s adult and dislocated worker programs into expanding Pell grants, run by the Education Department, for short-term training programs. It also proposes sending H-1B visa fees that are currently used by the Labor Department for short-term job training programs to the Education Department to make competitive grants to ‘education and business partnerships’ to boost high school science, technology, engineering, and math education.”

Remember that two of the primary functions of the Department of Education are not mentioned in the restructure. Enforcement of civil rights protections for students has already been undermined by Secretary DeVos through staffing and policy changes that weaken investigations. The Title I formula program is the department’s largest grant program, directing federal funding, by formula, to school districts serving concentrations of very poor children.  The purpose is to assist these districts in serving children who bring overwhelming challenges to school. While Title I could not disappear or be reduced without a huge fight in Congress, the fact that it is not emphasized as a key departmental purpose is significant. Researchers have for decades documented that standardized testing, the metric we use to measure school quality, is instead primarily a measure of family and neighborhood economic wellbeing.

Contrast the vision embedded in the proposed government restructure with the vision of Dr. James Comer, a child psychiatrist who led the Yale University Child Study Center for his entire career. In a prophetic assessment twenty years before Donald Trump became president, Comer wrote: “At the core of our culture stands the belief that a life outcome is determined by the individual alone. The fact that this belief is so widely held speaks to the power of the pioneer ethos. But it is a myth. When you need two keys to open a bank box and you only have one, you don’t get in. The individual is one key. The opportunity structure that the society provides is the second.” (Waiting for a Miracle, p. 77)  Comer defines three networks that must be present to support normal human development and, of course, academic success for children: the primary network including family, extended family, friends, and institutions like places of worship; a secondary network including services and opportunities like the workplace, health care, recreation and schools; and a tertiary network including the policymakers at the local regional and federal level as well as business, social, and religious leaders.  Examining our society in 1997, long before the Trump administration and the House Freedom Caucus began attempting to dismantle an already frayed safety net, Comer reported: “(D)ifferences in the opportunity structure created by policies and behaviors in all three networks affect outcomes. Mainstream young people are favored in every way, and this failure to support the development of other young people hurts society. Some who are the products of favorable conditions in all three networks feel they made it on their own, or are more entitled anyway. As the myth of intelligence-and-motivation continues to be passed on from one generation to the next, it becomes more and more difficult to recreate the opportunity structures needed by all.” (Waiting for a Miracle, p. 100)

Today, we must be grateful that education and social service experts on the ground are working tirelessly, despite heartless federal policy, to support our society’s poorest families and children. Writing for the Phi Delta Kappan, David Jacobson describes a growing model being adopted by more and more school districts across the United States—the full-service, wraparound Community School.  Jacobson features model Community Schools in Cincinnati and Oregon’s Multnomah County, along with wraparound early childhood centers in Omaha and Chicago.  All of these are designed to weave medical services, family social service supports, and after-school enrichment into schools or to wrap these services around schools right in the neighborhood. Jacobson explains: “All of the above examples are responses to a persistent set of problems that characterize early childhood and early elementary education and care in the United States. Most low-income children experience inconsistent education quality, gaps in learning and support, and a lack of coordination at each state of development…. Community schools and other wraparound models address the fragmentation that characterizes our education, health, and social service systems in important ways, especially by connecting K-12 students to the noneducational services and supports students and their families need. Head Start is an example of a program that provides comprehensive services for younger children.” Such programs are: “premised on the idea that multifaceted problems require multifaceted responses. Addressing the needs of low-income children requires not only improving teaching and learning in schools and preschools, and not only improving health and social services for young children and their families, but improving education, health, and social services in a coordinated fashion.”

Although the Trump administration cannot impose a restructure of the government without approval by Congress, one must pay attention, nonetheless, to the proposal announced yesterday and even to the meaning of the language in which the proposed restructure is framed—education defined as workforce preparation, for example, and the return of the word “welfare,’ now a pejorative in conservative political circles, to make it easier for politicians to slash funding by the federal government.

What is being proposed lacks compassion for children. The new plan is designed by officials impervious to what is well known about healthy child development. The proposed restructure reflects the kind of heartlessness we’ve been watching as Trump administration officials callously separate babies and toddlers from their parents at the border, lock tiny, bewildered children in closed-Walmart orphanages, or send them on airplanes to social agencies or foster parents in far-off cities.

Laurene Powell Jobs’ Glitzy Projects versus School Reform that Is Basic and Essential

Here are two fascinating and radically contrasting articles on the subject of school reform. They tell us about the different ways people think about school reform, about the factors that determine which reforms begin to permeate the public mind, about what does or doesn’t seem to matter to reformers prescribing particular ideas, and about the long term political effects the language and framing by which policies are sold.

The first is David Montgomery’s Washington Post profile of Laurene Powell Jobs, her philanthropy—the Emerson Collective, and several of the Emerson Collective’s projects, including the XQ Institute and College Track. Laurene Powell Jobs is Steve Jobs’ widow, and among America’s tech-multi-billionaire philanthropists. Montgomery describes the way Powell Jobs has structured her philanthropy: “She set up the collective as a limited liability company rather than a foundation, not unlike the three-year-old Chan Zuckerberg Initiative established by Priscilla Chan and Mark Zuckerberg. This gives flexibility to do more than just make grants to nonprofit groups… Emerson invests in private companies, Powell Jobs said, not because the goal is to make money but because Silicon Valley has shown her that ‘amazing entrepreneurs who… are 100 percent aligned with our mission’ can find solutions that might not occur to a nonprofit. Emerson is also able to back advocacy groups, launch its own activist campaigns and contribute to political organizations… The LLC structure also means Emerson need not disclose details of its assets and spending… For the crew Powell Jobs has assembled, being tapped to join the collective was like being called to a mission.  In early 2016, shortly after he had left the Obama administration, Arne Duncan mentioned to Powell Jobs his idea for a novel experiment to confront the gun carnage in his home town of Chicago.” She also hired Russlynn Ali, Duncan’s assistant education secretary, to run the XQ Institute.

Like other mega-philanthropists, Powell Jobs is leveraging her voice through the media, though she insists that her money is not driving the content. “(L)ast year, Powell Jobs unleashed a series of dramatic moves across a three-dimensional chessboard of American culture. In July, Emerson Collective purchased a majority stake in The Atlantic, a 161-year-old pillar of the journalistic establishment. In September, an arm of the Collective and Hollywood’s Entertainment Industry Foundation co-opted the four major networks in prime time to simultaneously present an hour of live television, featuring dozens of celebrities inviting the nation to reconceive high school.  Over the following weeks, the Collective partnered with the French artist JR to create two monumental pieces of guerrilla art on either side of the U.S.-Mexico border that went viral on social media as satirical critiques of the border wall. In October, she bought the second-largest stake—about 20 percent—in the estimated $2.5 billion holding company that owns the NBA’s Wizards, the NHL’s Capitals, Capital One Arena and several other ventures… In February, Golden State Warriors star Kevin Durant announced he was committing $10 million to help create a Washington-area branch of a program that Powell Jobs had co-founded, which supports students to and through college in nine cities.”

The second article is featured in the Summer 2018 Issue of American Educator, the journal of the American Federation of Teachers. The piece is written by scholars at Stanford University’s Learning Policy Institute and the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado. In Community Schools: A Promising Foundation for Progress, Anna Maier, Julia Daniel, Jeannie Oakes and Livia Lam present the well-researched case for bringing full-service, wraparound Community Schools to support children and families, particularly in the public schools in our society’s poorest neighborhoods.

What is a Community School?  “Community schools represent a place-based strategy in which schools partner with community agencies and allocate resources to integrate a focus on academics, health and social services, and youth and community development, and also foster community engagement. Many operate on all-day and year-around schedules, and serve both children and adults.  Although this strategy is appropriate for students of all backgrounds, many community schools arise in neighborhoods where structural forces linked to racism and poverty shape the experiences of young people and erect barriers to learning and school success. These are communities where families have few resources to supplement what typical schools provide.”

The article outlines the four conceptual pillars of Community Schools:

  • Patch together resources to bring integrated student supports—medical, dental and mental health and social services inside the school;
  • Expand learning time and opportunity with after-school, weekend and summer programs, and added individualized learning opportunities;
  • Bring parents and other community members into the school for enrichment and shared decision making regarding the school.
  • Build collaboration among all partners led by a community-school coordinator who brings together the academic program with medical, social service, extracurricular, and parental support programming.

The authors summarize the evidence from 143 research studies and conclude: “Community schools cannot overcome all problems facing poor neighborhoods—that would require substantial investments in job training, housing, and social safety net infrastructures, and other poverty alleviation measures. However, they have a long history of connecting children and families to resources, opportunities and supports that foster healthy development and help offset the harms of poverty. A health clinic can deliver medical and psychological treatment, as well as glasses to myopic children, dental care to those who need it, and inhalers for asthma sufferers.  Extending the school day and remaining open during the summer enable the school to offer additional academic help and activities, such as sports and music, which can entice youngsters who might otherwise drop out.”

The contrast between Powell Jobs’ philanthropy and the movement for Community Schools is not about the purpose or worthiness of Powell Jobs’ projects versus the value of Community Schools.  Montgomery describes how Powell Jobs, by creating an LLC instead of a philanthropy, can engage in political advocacy, including an effort to get some kind of Dream Act passed to protect students in the threatened DACA program.  In several cities the Emerson Collective is paying for programs to help high school students apply to college and providing non-financial supports to help them stay there and graduate. And in Chicago, under Arne Duncan’s direction, the Emerson Collective is working to connect young adults with work.

Here is what is different.  The authors of the American Educator‘s article on Community Schools represent major academic institutions—the National Education Policy Center and Stanford’s Learning Policy Institute. And the article is published in the journal of one of the two largest organizations representing the primary practitioners of education—schoolteachers. It’s purpose is to make the case, documented by the kind of research required in the academy, that Community Schools represent an innovative and at the same time responsible investment of tax dollars. Such schools, defined loosely enough to be locally adaptable from place to place, have been proven a worthwhile public investment.

In contrast: With $20 billion to invest, and the freedom from any kind of oversight (by government or any outside agency), Powell Jobs can experiment. With so much money involved—and so many celebrities assembled—her experiment has a glitzy profile.  Her four-network TV special on high school disruption typifies her way of operating.  Montgomery describes: “The long list of storytellers in acting and song who participated in last fall’s prime-time education reform special—from Tom Hanks and Viola Davis to Lin-Manuel Miranda and Andra Day—(who) did a good job of selling Emerson’s approach to reimagining high school. The XQ Institute, Emerson’s independent education arm, has pledged $115 million to 18 schools across the country pursuing their own innovative approaches…. Without prescribing exact models, the group wants to focus on the competence a student achieves in a given subject more than the number of hours she sits in that class. There’s an emphasis on knowledge relevant to employers of the future. However, some reviews of the televised special were skeptical: ‘Encouraging such tinkering is a fine use of philanthropic dollars,’ Jack Schneider, assistant professor of education at College of the Holy Cross wrote in the Washington Post. ‘But that isn’t what the XQ project is promoting.  Instead it is publicizing a historically uninformed message that today’s technologies demand something new of us as human beings and that our unchanging high schools are failing at the task.'”

When someone’s so-called philanthropy is big enough to purchase TV time and the participation of a cast of celebrities, it is easy to forget that Powell Jobs has not really confessed that her XQ Institute is a mere experiment: pouring $115 into 18 high schools just to watch how the money might transform them. Like the Gates Foundation’s failed experiment to replace comprehensive high schools with small high schools or Gates’ other failed experiment with evaluating teachers by students’ scores and offering incentive pay, Powell Jobs’ experiment may never come to anything helpful. But, as Schneider explains, there is political content—trumpeted by celebrities on TV—to the whole endeavor: to discredit America’s high schools in some vague, undefined way.  We’ve been watching the creation of a similar stereotype for several decades: America’s so-called “failing schools.”

I think it is far more worthwhile to pay attention to the American Educator‘s report on full-service, wraparound Community Schools. There is a political agenda in the movement to expand Community Schools, but it is explicitly stated and the method carefully defined. The political goal is to patch together social service, Medicaid, and education dollars to create full service institutions in America’s poorest communities. Evidence has been amassed to document that such wraparound institutions support children and their families, and that where teachers, social workers, counselors, doctors, dentists and Head Start teachers work together, children thrive and do better in school.

I wish Laurene Powell Jobs’ Emerson Collective would invest its vast resources in an already well known reform. Research has documented that the expansion of Community Schools would support the children enrolled in our nation’s most vulnerable public schools.

Noticing and Helping Our Poorest Children and Their Public Schools

If you take a driving vacation and you use a laptop instead of a smartphone, you soon learn that the best place to find Wi-Fi in little towns is in the parking lot of the public library.  You don’t have to arrive during the hours when the library is open, and you can even sit in your car to check your e-mail or the news as long as you park very near the building, because the library’s Wi-Fi service is accessible beyond the walls of the building. I know this from long experience looking at e-mail in public library parking lots from Pittsfield, Massachusetts to Red Lodge, Montana, to Laurelville, Ohio.  In our family, of course, we have broadband service at home and we need to use the library parking lot only on special occasions. But what about the people who lack this basic service?

In the New York Times last week, Anthony Marx, president of the New York Public Library wrote about internet access as a necessity. He explains that last year, the Federal Communications Commission declared: “Access to broadband is necessary to be a productive member of society. In June, a federal appeals court upheld the commission’s authority to regulate the internet as a public utility.”  But Marx, writing from New York City, describes what life is like for children in families who cannot afford the internet: “Here in the world’s information capital, New Yorkers are still scrounging for a few bars of web access, dropped like crumbs from a table. With broadband costing on average $55 per month, 25 percent of all households and 50 percent of those making less than $20,000 lack this service at home.”  Marx describes New York City’s children from his perspective at the library: “All summer, kids have been hanging out in front of the Morris Park Library in the Bronx, before opening hours and after closing.  They bring their computers to pick up the Wi-Fi signal that is leaking out of the building, because they can’t afford internet access at home. They’re there during the school year, too, even during the winter—it’s the only way they can complete their online math homework… People line up, sometimes for hours, to use the library system’s free computers. Go into any library in the nation and you’ll most likely see the same thing. They come to do what so many of us take for granted: apply for government services, study or do research, talk with family or friends, inform themselves as voters, and just participate in our society and culture—so much of which now takes place online.”

I thought about Marx’s column in conjunction with two other articles in the New York Times last week.  In The Millions of Americans Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton Barely Mention: The Poor,  Binyamin Appelbaum explains that the presidential candidates’ “platforms are markedly different in details and emphasis, (but) the candidates have this in common: Both promise to help Americans find jobs; neither has said much about helping people while they are not working.”  Appelbaum quotes Harvard sociologist Matthew Desmond: “We aren’t having in our presidential debate right now a serious conversation about the fact that we are the richest democracy in the world, with the most poverty. It should be at the very top of the agenda.”

Then there was Susan Dynarski’s piece that explores the way our society uses imprecise data to measure poverty among students at school: “A closer look reveals that the standard measure of economic disadvantage—whether a child is eligible for a free or reduced-price lunch in school masks the magnitude of the learning gap between the richest and poorest children.  Nearly half of students nationwide are eligible for a subsidized meal in school. Children whose families earn less than 185 percent of the poverty threshold are eligible for a reduced-price lunch, while those below 130 percent get a free lunch. For a family of four, the cutoffs are $32,000 for a free lunch and $45,000 for a reduced price one. By way of comparison, median household income in the United States was about $54,000 in 2014… The National Assessment of Education Progress, often called the Nation’s Report Card, publishes students’ scores by eligibility for subsidized meals. Under the federal No Child Left Behind Act and its successor, the Every Student Succeeds Act, districts have reported scores separately for disadvantaged children, with eligibility for subsidized meals serving as the standard measure of disadvantage.”

Dynarski is a professor at the University of Michigan, and she describes student poverty in her state: “In Michigan, as in the rest of the country, about half of eighth graders in public schools receive a free or reduced-price lunch. But when we look more closely, we see that just 14 percent have been eligible for subsidized meals every year since kindergarten. These children are the poorest of the poor—the persistently disadvantaged… (I)n fact, there is a nearly linear, negative relationship between the number of years of economic disadvantage and math scores in eighth grade… It appears that years spent eligible for subsidized school meals serves as a good proxy for the depth of disadvantage. When we look back on the early childhood of persistently disadvantaged eighth graders, we see that by kindergarten they were already far poorer than their classmates.” Dynarkski recommends that we find a more accurate way to identify the children whose needs are greatest.

In his introduction to an issue of the  Russell Sage Foundation Journal of the Social Sciences that focuses on severe deprivation in America, Matthew Desmond aims to be more precise in defining degrees of poverty in our society: “Poverty is qualitatively different from ‘deep poverty’ (half below the poverty line), which in turn is a world apart from ‘extreme poverty’ (living on $2 a day)… There is poverty and then there is poverty… By ‘severe deprivation,’ we mean economic hardship that is (1) acute, (2) compounded, and (3) persistent.” Desmond adds that most of our public policy to address poverty was developed so long ago that it fails to address today’s realities: “Most research is rooted in theories now a few decades old…. developed before the United States began incarcerating more of its citizens than any other nation; before urban rents soared and poor families began dedicating the majority of their income to housing; before welfare reform caused caseloads to plummet….  In recent years, the very nature of poverty in America has changed, especially at the very bottom.”

Susan Dynarsky is not the first researcher to explore the importance of accurately measuring and addressing extreme poverty in public schools.  In the 2010 book, Organizing Schools for Improvement: Lessons from Chicago, Anthony Bryk and colleagues at the Consortium on Chicago School Research studied Chicago’s public schools to locate the particular schools that serve many children who are experiencing what Dynarski and Desmond describe as persistent and severe deprivation. Here are the characteristics of the 46 schools they identified in Chicago that were far more severely challenged than surrounding schools (many of which serve relatively poor neighborhoods). Truly disadvantaged schools were 90-100 percent African American. “These schools served neighborhoods characterized by extreme rates of poverty.  On average, 70 percent of residents living in the neighborhoods around these 46 schools had incomes below the poverty line, and the median family income in 1990 was only $9,480.  In 6 out of 10 of these schools, more than 50 percent of the students lived in pubic housing.” The schools featured what the researchers call a “consolidation of socioeconomic disadvantage and racial segregation.”  “Many confronted an extraordinary concentration of student needs, including students who were homeless, in foster care, or living in contexts of neglect, abuse, and domestic violence.” (Organizing Schools for Improvement, pp 23-24)

So… what are today’s federal prescriptions for such schools—the schools in every city that serve the very poorest children?  For the past two decades the demanded reforms have included closing the school and turning it over to a charter school or a management company, firing the principal and many teachers, and considering the students’ test scores as a good part of the formal teacher evaluation mechanism.  Many of these same punishments have become the accepted strategies for school reform across our big cities, and are likely to continue even though in the Every Student Succeeds Act the federal government is stepping back a bit from dictating mandatory prescriptions.

As Susan Dynarski explains, despite our capacity now days to make education data-driven, we haven’t even instituted a precise way to measure childhood poverty. And as Matthew Desmond points out, our public policies are not designed to address the real crisis of today’s childhood poverty.  A discussion of these very painful and controversial matters is not really part of the political agenda of either of our major political parties.

The Consortium on Chicago School Research outlines very concrete school improvement strategies to support the people working in the most stressed schools.  Many school districts are also expanding the number of full-service, wraparound Community Schools designed to house medical, dental, and mental health services, after school enrichment for children, job training for parents—social and medical services—right in the school building. We need to recognize that these are an excellent beginning.

But we also need to recognize that local institutions like public libraries and public elementary schools, middle schools, and high schools are struggling to support children trapped in a level of poverty invisible to many of us unless we happen to walk by a public library where, at 7 o’clock in the morning, children are sitting on the steps trying to finish their homework with the Wi-Fi access they can find right outside the library.

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.”

Gov. Christie and Legislature Fail to Fund School Formula, Create Crisis for Newark’s Schools

The Prize—Dale Russakoff’s book about the plan put in place by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and then Newark Mayor Cory Booker to charterize Newark’s schools and recruit Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg to pay for it—is listed by the NY Times as one of the top 100 books of the year.  It is a fascinating tale of political intrigue and the imposition of the ideology of “school disruption” on the public schools in a very poor community. In September, this blog covered The Prize here and here.

Russakoff’s book isn’t, however, as strong on the gritty fiscal realities for the Newark Public Schools, though the book does demonstrate many of the ways Christie’s overseer superintendent, Cami Anderson, squandered a lot of Zuckerberg’s money, nearly a quarter of it on expensive consultants. Right after Thanksgiving,  the Education Law Center released a report that clarifies the financial realities for the Newark School District that are harder to patch together from Russakoff’s book.

Mark Zuckerberg’s one-time gift of $100 million to underwrite the Christie-Booker charter school experiment pales compared to what the Education Law Center’s new report explains is a $132 million shortfall in state funding for the current school year due to Governor Chris Christie’s refusal to fund the state’s court-ordered school finance plan: “Newark last received the increases required by New Jersey’s school funding formula—the School Funding Reform Act… in 2011-12, when the State Supreme Court ordered Governor Christie to restore the $42 million cut from Newark’s budget in 2010.  Since then, the Governor has refused to fund the formula, resulting in an over $132 million shortfall in state aid to Newark Public Schools in 2015-2016.”

Complicating Newark Public Schools’ problems has been the rapid expansion of charter schools, the centerpiece of the Christie-Booker-Zuckerberg One Newark plan implemented by Cami Anderson.  The Education Law Center explains: “Under New Jersey’s charter law, Newark charter schools receive funding through payments from the Newark Public Schools budget.  Charters are funded on a per pupil basis and are entitled to 90% of the sum of the district’s local levy and State equalization aid…. Charters receive additional aid for enrollment growth even when the district’s overall funding does not increase…. Payments to charter schools have first priority in district spending—they cannot be reduced to address shortfalls in the district budget.”

The report continues with details about benefits for charter schools: “As noted above, Newark Public Schools has not received any increase in state aid since 2011-12… However, Newark Public Schools payments to charter schools have increased rapidly as the (state) Department of Education has allowed charter enrollment to expand each year.  In 2008-09, Newark Public Schools payments to charter schools totaled $60 million.  By 2015-16, Newark Public Schools charter school payments increased to $225 million, representing 27% of the Newark Public Schools operating budget.”

Meanwhile as charter schools have attracted students away from Newark Public Schools, the concentration of students with special education needs and of English language learners has grown in the public schools.  The percentage of special education students has increased from 14% to 17% since 2008-09, and the percentage of English language learners has grown during the same period from 9% to 11%.  These are students who cost more to educate.

What does all this mean for the average student in Newark’s public schools?  “Total spending dropped by 20% between 2008-09 and 2014-15, a $2,971 per pupil reduction.  Spending on regular instruction—teachers, curriculum, books, etc.—was cut 35% or $1,610 per pupil.  Support services were significantly reduced (-20%), with especially large cuts in media services/library, attendance and social work, and guidance. Spending for students with disabilities and those learning English was dramatically reduced… Newark Public Schools spending per pupil has declined rapidly relative to other districts in the state. In 2008-09 only 35% of districts spent more per pupil than Newark Public Schools.  By 2014-15, 87% of districts were outspending Newark Public Schools.”

When the Zuckerberg-funded plan was implemented in 2012, Newark Public Schools abandoned another school reform initiative that many people believed was showing great promise. Newark’s mayor Ras Baraka, then the principal of Central High School, recently described in a piece he wrote for the Hechinger Report the Newark Global Village School Zone. Baraka explains: “Global Village was a reform strategy based upon an expanded conception of education that addresses the importance of academic skills and knowledge, as well as the development of the whole child.  The Village brought social service agencies, community based organizations, business, universities, and families together to build partnerships that supported the instructional and educational goals of schools in the Global Village network.  Quitman Street School and Central High School, where I was principal, along with five other schools in Newark’s Central Ward, collaborated with New York University to develop the Global Village strategy from 2009 until the (Christie-Booker-Zuckerberg) Renew strategy was implemented in 2012. Community partnerships, school-based professional development and collaboration, academic enrichment, extended learning time, and integration of student supports were core to our improvement plans.”

Community Schools bring medical and social services right into the school to work with the families and the children.  Baraka seeks to return to the model in place before the grand disruption paid for by Zuckerberg and implemented by Cami Anderson: “A city-wide Community Schools strategy is vital to ensuring our schools develop the capacity needed to help every child…. We declare that Newark is Ground Zero for Community Schools. We must recover from our losses, and build upon our successes….”

The Foundation for Newark’s Future, the philanthropy created in Newark to distribute Zuckerberg’s gift and the matching funds it attracted, is now almost out of money. The Associated Press recently reported, that to accomplish Baraka’s vision, “The Foundation for Newark’s Future will invest $1.2 million now and up to $12.5 million total on two initiatives…. The money to launch the South Ward Community Schools Initiative and Newark Opportunity Youth Network marks one of the final donations the foundation will make, five years after Zuckerberg committed the money.”

That what’s left of Zuckerberg’s money will be invested in Community Schools is a positive thing.  That Governor Christie and the legislature continue to cut state funding for Newark’s schools—despite that a court order mandates additional funds be distributed through the state’s funding formula—will, however, unquestionably leave Newark Public Schools short of needed money.

Youngstown Legislators Engage Community to Push Back Against Youngstown Takeover

Senator Joe Schiavoni, Ohio’s Senate Minority Leader, and State Representative Michele Lepore-Hagan spent the summer holding community meetings throughout Youngstown, Ohio to develop strategies to amend the Ohio legislature’s autocratically imposed Youngstown school takeover.  Their goal: develop political will in Youngstown to demand that the Youngstown plan be bent to support the needs of Youngstown’s children and families.  I had the privilege of talking with these two community leaders last week.

The new Youngstown takeover, which expands what has for 10 years been state involvement in the Youngstown City Schools, prescribes that the district be managed by an appointed Distress Commission instead of the local school board.  The takeover was sprung on an unsuspecting public at an afternoon hearing in late June when Senate Education Committee chair Peggy Lehner introduced a 66-page amendment to a bill with widespread popular support—to expand Community Learning Centers in Ohio. (“Community Learning Center” is Ohio’s term for what the rest of the country calls full-service, wraparound “Community Schools” that locate health and dental clinics, social service coordination, afterschool programs, Head Start and Early Head Start, and summer enrichment programs right in school buildings. Cincinnati has been experimenting very successfully with expanding the number of these schools. The Children’s Aid Society in New York City has been developing this model for 20 years now.)  When Senator Lehner introduced to the Community Learning Center bill her amendment  for the Youngstown takeover—along with the state takeover in the future of any school district with three years of “F” school ratings—the amendment had been written and polished for several months by staff in Governor John Kasich’s office and the Ohio Department of Education, working secretly with a handful of carefully selected community “leaders” from Youngstown.

The goal of the takeover was always to turn the district or particular schools over to a charter management organization.  Not coincidentally, the Youngstown takeover was the centerpiece of a charter school expansion grant proposal submitted by the Ohio Department of Education in July to the U.S. Department of Education and subsequently funded. The Youngstown takeover amendment states that an Academic Distress Commission, in consultation with the State Superintendent, may create an entity to act as a “high-quality school accelerator” to promote new charter schools.  The CEO of the Distress Commission may abrogate or renegotiate any contracts and collective bargaining agreements.

State takeovers always happen in very poor, often desperate communities—New Orleans, post Katrina—Detroit—Newark, New Jersey.  In his 2013 book The Unwinding, George Packer traces the story of Tammy Thomas, a proud Youngstown resident who describes what has happened to Youngstown during her lifetime: “I grew up in a place where you could sit on my front porch and you could smell the sulfur in the air… And everybody in that community was working.  We were a hundred fifty thousand people at that time… One day, the jobs left. September of ’77, the mills stopped working. We lost over fifty thousand jobs within a ten-year time frame.  I was fortunate enough as an adult that I was able to get a job at Packard (Electric). Eleven thousand jobs in its heyday, down to three thousand jobs, and when we all left it had less than six hundred jobs. I just want to let you know that story of Youngstown is the epitome of any older industrial city across the United States.” (p. 412)

In the most recent 2010 data I could locate, 86.68 percent of the students in Youngstown’s public schools qualify for the federal free lunch program. To qualify for free lunch, a child’s family must have annual earnings under 130 percent of the federal poverty level ($24,250 in 2015 for a family of four), less than $31,525.  The percentage of Youngstown’s school children qualifying for free-or-reduced-price lunch, 90.38 percent, is only slightly higher.  The fact that so many children fall into the free-lunch category means that Youngstown’s schools serve a student population living in highly concentrated poverty.  Last week Senator Schiavoni explained that Youngstown already has an open enrollment program that permits children to transfer to surrounding school districts or charter schools and Youngstown’s children qualify for Ohio’s private school vouchers.  He speculates that the Youngstown schools are serving approximately 50 percent of the children who live in Youngstown and that many of the children who have left are those whose parents are able to be most active advocates.  The children enrolled in Youngstown’s public schools are the city’s most vulnerable.

Although many poor children can and do thrive at school, the aggregate test scores in our nation’s poorest cities are primarily a reflection of the concentrated poverty of the residents.  In Closing the Opportunity Gap: What America Must Do to Give Every Child an Even Chance, Christopher Tienken and Yong Zhao explain: “(A)s a group, students labeled as economically disadvantaged or poor never score higher on standardized tests than their non-disadvantaged peers in any state on any grade level currently tested under NCLB.” (p. 112)  State takeovers that impose privatized school governance in impoverished communities ignore the correlation of test scores and family poverty and blame the schools and their teachers.

After the legislature’s sudden seizing of the governance of Youngstown’s schools, Senator Schiavoni and Representative Lepore-Hagan immediately set up a town hall to hear the community’s response to the state takeover and then scheduled meetings across the city during the remainder of the summer to listen to the needs of parents, students and residents of Youngstown.  Senator Schiavoni reports that, “One of the most common critiques from the stakeholder meetings was the disconnect in communication between parents, the community and the schools.  Parents want to be involved as partners as the plan moves forward.” Schavoni and Lepore-Hagan have introduced a bill (companion bills in the Ohio Senate and Ohio House) to amend and modify the plan.  Their bill demands transparency from the members of the Distress Commission that has just been appointed and from the CEO the Distress Commission will appoint.  Their proposed bill reflects parents’ wishes that promising existing practices not be thrown out as a new experiment is instituted—programs that pair Youngstown State University tutors with second graders, and model afterschool programming and community partnerships with churches, the United Way,  the YMCA, and the university.  Lepore-Hagan explains that the proposed amendment to improve the Youngstown Plan requires that the CEO meet personally each month with an eleven-member School Action Team from each of the city’s schools.

Schiavoni and Lepore-Hagan emphasize one provision of the takeover and the original bill to which it was amended—for wraparound Community Learning Centers.  Their proposed bill insists that at least one Community Learning Center (what the rest of the country calls  a Community School) be established in Youngstown.  “The CEO should implement a CLC model in at least one of the school buildings in the district.” “The CEO should work to expand much-needed mental health, drug treatment, dental, and physician services and other community programs…. The CEO should employ a Resource Coordinator for the District to assist in the development and coordination of programs and services for the District Community Learning Centers.”

The flavor-of-the-day in school reform across so many statehouses is for autocratic takeover and charterization of the poorest school districts.  State takeovers have not succeeded anywhere they have been tried.  Ohio’s Senator Schiavoni and Representative Lepore-Hagan are pushing back with a plan that models democratic engagement.

Doing Things Differently These Days in NYC

While New York governor Andrew Cuomo is busy condemning teachers as incompetent and raging against “government monopoly” schools, New York City’s school chancellor, Carmen Farina, who has been on the job for only thirteen months, has been methodically instituting policies that, she insists, will improve the schools that struggle hardest and at the same time enhance the school day for all of the district’s 1.1 million students.  While critics say she may be trying to do too much too fast, Farina must be congratulated for substituting a school improvement philosophy for Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s long and intense test-and-punish, close-struggling-schools philosophy.

Farina has recently announced a new administrative accountability network, a plan for addressing child poverty right at school through new community schools, and major new strategies to enhance academics.  The challenge will be for Farina to coordinate and harmonize all of the changes and ensure that school achievement rises, dropout rates decline, and services support all children in the huge and potentially unwieldy New York City system.

A recent NY Times report summarizes: “In the little more than a year since Mayor Bill de Blasio appointed her to lead the city’s Education Department, Ms. Farina has presided over a methodical dismantling of the policies of Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s first and last chancellors, Joel I. Klein and Dennis M. Walcott. She inherited a department that tracked data closely and used it do decide schools’ fates, rating schools annually from A to F.  Principals, many of whom during Mr. Bloomberg’s tenure were drawn from the ranks of novice teachers and given managerial training, were given as much freedom as possible.  If their schools did not score high enough on an array of data points—graduation rates, attendance, the number of students passing classes and going to college—they were subject to being closed.  In 12 years, the Bloomberg administration either shut down or began to phase out 157 schools and opened 656 new, smaller schools.”

According to the NY Times‘ analysis, “Ms Farina, in contrast, believes that principals need both more experience and more supervision than they had during the Bloomberg years.  She increased the requirements for new principals’ teaching experience to seven years from three… And last month she re-established the importance of the system’s superintendents, whose role in overseeing principals had diminished during the Bloomberg years.  Rather than closing struggling schools, she has said she will support them with more guidance and an infusion of social services, from family counseling to optometry.  Shutting schools is to be a last resort.”

Earlier this year, Farnia eliminated Bloomberg’s A-F grades for schools. In a major policy address on January 22, Farina announced a new system for district-wide administrative accountability.  Farina has put in place 45 area superintendents with at least 10 years of teaching experience, including three years as a principal. “They will be my eyes and ears… Going forward, there will be consistency across and within the system.”  Farina announced she will eliminate 55 offices called Children First Networks, set up under Bloomberg’s school chancellors to support school improvement.  Farina explains: “Superintendents had the authority to rate and fire principals but they didn’t have the tools they needed to help principals improve.  Instead, that responsibility fell to 55 Children First Networks, which had access to resources designed to help schools improve.”  The Networks had long been criticized as ineffective.  Farina continues, “The leaders of these networks had the inverse of the problem facing the superintendents—despite working closely with principals, they had no authority to rate or fire them.”  Moving forward, Farina announced she will create seven geographically located Borough Field Support Centers that will, among other improvements, help coordinate and articulate programming across elementary, middle and high schools in particular areas of the city.

In her address, Farina described six characteristics that mark quality schools and schools moving toward improvement: rigorous instruction; collaborative teachers; a safe, orderly and respectful school climate; strong ties to family and community; effective leadership; and a climate of trusting relationships among administrators, teachers, and families.  These characteristics were identified by the Consortium on Chicago School Research, which has developed a survey tool by which schools and school districts can measure qualitative improvement in these six areas.  Farina said she is instituting use of the surveys as a way to track progress.  “We will be evaluating every school in terms of the six measures. We will target support to areas where a school is weak, and we will hold the school accountable for demonstrating improvement.”

In her address Farina announced plans to flood the district’s lowest achieving schools—94 schools Farina is calling Renewal Schools—with support.  All 94 Renewal Schools will become full service community schools that surround students—right at school—with health clinics, social services and parent support.  Community schools are formed through formal contractual  arrangements with the city’s organizations that currently provide medical and social services; the Community School becomes the central site for the massing of the services families need.  Some have criticized this aspect of Farina’s plan as overly ambitious.  Patrick Wall, writing for Chalkbeat New York, worries that the formal school-social service-medical partnerships are being undertaken in too many schools all at once:  “The turnaround plan, dubbed ‘school renewal’ will connect the schools with agencies that will bring in physical and mental health services for students, after-school programs, tutoring, and perhaps job training or housing assistance for parents.” “Unlike a smaller program de Blasio launched earlier this year that asked eager principals to apply for money to create community schools, the turnaround plan compels leaders of struggling schools to adopt that approach regardless of whether they appear willing or able.”

In her address, Farnia described additional academic changes at the district’s 94 struggling Renewal Schools.  Renewal Schools are being paired for collaboration with schools that are currently thriving. Each school will add an hour of extra instruction every day. Renewal Schools will receive extra support for more seats in the district’s expanded after school program.  Teachers in these schools will have added training with intensive coaching from experts.  Summer programs will be targeted to these schools.  School achievement at Renewal Schools will be tracked closely.  Schools whose test scores fail to rise over three years will, according to Wall, “face leadership changes or even closure.”

Major program changes have been underway all year.  In her recent address Farina reported that 53,000 four-year-olds are now enrolled in quality, full-day, pre-kindergarten.  The school district has broadly expanded after school programming for students in middle school.  Farina is asking Renewal schools to return to “balanced literacy” reading instruction which incorporates time at school for children to read for enjoyment books they choose and write  about their personal experiences.  “I think it was a misinterpretation that all reading has to have an end-goal that is a test,” said Farina recently about reading instruction that she believes focused far too much on close reading of short expository passages and writing responses to the prompts in the state’s standardized tests.  Farina is also launching 40 dual-language bilingual education programs that use New York City’s diversity and size to advantage.  “A vast majority of the programs will be in Spanish, but there will also be some in Japanese, Hebrew, Chinese, French and Haitian-Creole.”

Lots of people are watching to see if Farina and the New York City Schools will fail.  Are expectations too high and too fast?  I am going to be looking for the successes instead.  Bloomberg’s strategy—founded in competition by schools to raise their aggregate test scores— punished principals and teachers and created incentives for pushing struggling students to the schools that struggled themselves—ensuring that those schools would score lower and lower until they were closed.

I am going to assume it is possible to improve public schools by building accountability through a strong network of experienced superintendents and principals, creating geographically based support services, making medical care available for children and social services accessible for families right in school buildings, intensively training teachers, and adding after school programs, preschools, and new and enriched academics.  I’ll be looking for some exciting developments.

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.