Growth Model

Now aiming for 200 community schools, city unveils a plan to get there

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Schools Chancellor Carmen FariƱa

As a mayoral candidate, Bill de Blasio promised to fill 100 schools with extra social services and wellness programs by the end of his first term.

Before the end of his first year in office, Mayor de Blasio was already set to outdo that goal, committing to transform 128 schools that have struggled with low attendance, poor academics, or both, into service hubs.

Now, the administration is looking to expand that “community school” model even further, according to a strategic plan the city released Monday, by spreading it to new schools and letting other interested schools apply for help getting started. The hope is that more than 200 schools could meet the city’s definition of a community school by 2017, the plan says, partly by expanding the program to include schools that have tried the approach for years with limited assistance from the city.

“We think there’s an opportunity to grow this work” even beyond the 128 new community schools, Deputy Mayor Richard Buery said Monday at a Bronx high school that is part of the initiative.

The community-schools program will grow in a few ways, according to the plan. At the end of the next academic year, schools will be able to apply to join — including the roughly 60 schools that already work with groups like the Children’s Aid Society and the United Federation of Teachers to bring extra services into their buildings, officials said. Schools that are interested in the model but have not started to adopt it could apply too, they added.

The city will review the applicants to see if they have adopted extra learning time, medical and mental health services for students, or workshops and other supports for their families, among other factors the plan describes as “core elements” of a community school. Selected schools would then have access to “mini-grants” and other funding, as well resources like staff training and data-sharing tools.

Meanwhile, the education department will consider applying the community-school model to new schools, including some of the nine new elementary and middle schools set to open next year, according to the plan. The agency responsible for new school buildings is also studying how to incorporate the model into its school designs by, for example, setting aside school office space for service providers and rooms for parent workshops.

Fariña visited a classroom with Deputy Mayor Richard Buery (left) and Chris Caruso (center), who heads the education department's new community schools office.
PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Fariña visited a classroom with Deputy Mayor Richard Buery (left) and Chris Caruso (center), who heads the education department’s new community schools office.

The plan begins to address a complaint that bubbled up last year after de Blasio announced plans to use $52 million in state funds to turn 45 schools with poor attendance into service hubs, and another $150 million to transform 94 academically low-performing schools into community schools. (Because of overlap among the programs, the total number of new community schools is 128.) Some staffers and service providers at community schools that predated those programs grumbled that they were already carrying out the model, but because they were not struggling with attendance or academics, they did not qualify for the new funding and support.

The plan offers a way for such schools to benefit from the new attention and resources being devoted to the community-school model, which has long been endorsed by groups like the Children’s Aid Society and the teachers union but was not a focus of the Bloomberg administration.

“We’ve had good community schools in New York. What we have not had is a system to support them,” said Jane Quinn, director of the Children’s Aid Society’s National Center for Community Schools, who gave feedback on the plan as a member of the city’s community-schools advisory board. “Now, we’re really trying to wrap a system around all of these community schools.”

The plan also confronts a reality of those existing community schools: They vary greatly in their approach and the types of services they offer, the amount of funding they have secured, and their overall quality. “[M]any of these schools would not be considered fully developed Community Schools and may not currently fulfill all of the Core Elements,” the plan says, adding that the idea now is to “establish a high degree of alignment, equity, and collaboration” among the new and existing community schools.

The city faces several challenges as it tries to create high-quality community schools across the system, including data tracking and academics.

Experts agree that school staffers and outside service providers must plan and work together to pull off the community-school model, and that requires sharing data about individual students’ needs and their performance in class and after-school programs. The city piloted a data-sharing system in some of the new community schools this year, but officials said they must now evaluate how well the system worked and consider student privacy concerns before rolling it out to more schools.

Meanwhile, the question of whether more services will lead to better academic outcomes for students hangs over the plan. The plan lists “strong instruction” as a key ingredient for successful community schools and “improved academic performance” as an expected result, but says little about how the city will make sure that happens.


Colorado schools are getting a major bump in the state’s 2018-19 budget

Students waiting to enter their sixth-grade classroom at Kearney Middle School in Commerce City. (Photo by Craig Walker, The Denver Post)

Colorado’s strong economy has opened the door for state lawmakers to send a major cash infusion to the state’s public schools.

As they finalized the recommended budget for 2018-19, the Joint Budget Committee set aside $150 million, an additional $50 million beyond what Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper had asked for, to increase funding to schools.

“We believe this is the most significant reduction in what used to be called the negative factor since it was born,” said state Rep. Millie Hamner, the Dillon Democrat who chairs the Joint Budget Committee.

Colorado’s constitution calls for per pupil spending to increase at least by inflation every year, but the state hasn’t been able to meet that obligation since the Great Recession. The amount by which schools get shorted, officially called the budget stabilization factor, is $822 million in 2017-18. Under state law, this number isn’t supposed to get bigger from one year to the next, but in recent years, it hasn’t gotten much smaller either. 

But a booming economy coupled with more capacity in the state budget created by a historic compromise on hospital funding last year means Colorado has a lot more money to spend this year. In their March forecast, legislative economists told lawmakers they have an extra $1.3 billion to spend or save in 2018-19.

The recommended shortfall for next year is now just $672.4 million. That would bring average per-pupil spending above $8,100, compared to $7,662 this year.

Total program spending on K-12 education, after the budget stabilization factor is deducted, should be a little more than $7 billion, with the state picking up about $4.5 billion and the rest coming from local property taxes.

The budget debate this year has featured Republicans pressing for more ongoing money for transportation and Democrats resisting in the interest of spreading more money around to other needs. The positive March forecast reduced much of that tension, as a $500 million allocation for transportation allowed a compromise on roads funding in the Republican-controlled Senate. That compromise still needs the approval of the Democratic-controlled House, but suddenly a lot of things are seeming possible.

“We knew we were going to have more revenue than we’ve ever had to work with,” Hamner said of the status at the beginning of the session. But that presented its own challenges, as so many interest groups and constituencies sought to address long-standing needs.

“The fact that we’ve been able to reach such incredible compromises on transportation and K-12 funding, I think most members will be very pleased with this outcome,” Hamner said. “Where we ended up is a pretty good place.”

The big outstanding issue is proposed reforms to the Public Employees Retirement Association or PERA fund to address unfunded liabilities. A bill that is likely to see significant changes in the House is wending its way through the process. The Joint Budget Committee has set aside $225 million to deal with costs associated with that fix, which has major implications for teachers and school districts budgets.

The Joint Budget Committee has also set aside $30 million for rural schools, $10 million for programs to address teacher shortages, and $7 million for school safety grants.

The budget will be introduced in the House on Monday. Many of the school funding elements will appear in a separate school finance bill.

Going forward, there is a question about how sustainable these higher funding levels will be.

“It does put more pressure on the general fund,” Hamner said. “If we see a downturn in the economy, it’s going to be a challenge.”

outside the box

Program to bring back dropout students is one of 10 new ideas Jeffco is investing in

File photo of Wheat Ridge High School students. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Jeffco students who drop out will have another option for completing high school starting this fall, thanks to a program that is being started with money from a district “innovation fund.”

The new program would allow students, particularly those who are older and significantly behind on credits, to get district help to prepare for taking a high school equivalency test, such as the GED, while also taking college courses paid for by the district.

The idea for the program was pitched by Dave Kollar, who has worked for Jeffco Public Schools for almost 20 years, most recently as the district’s director of student engagement.

In part, Kollar’s idea is meant to give students hope and to allow them to see college as a possibility, instead of having to slowly walk back as they recover credits missing in their transcripts.

“For some kids, they look at you, and rightfully so, like ‘I’m going to be filling in holes for a year or two? This doesn’t seem realistic,’” Kollar said. “They’re kind of defeated by that. As a student, I’m constantly looking backwards at my failures. This is about giving kids something like a light at the end of the tunnel.”

Jeffco’s dropout rate has decreased in the last few years, like it has across the state. At 1.7 percent, the rate isn’t high, but still represents 731 students who dropped out last year.

Kollar’s was one of ten winning ideas announced earlier this month in the district’s first run at giving out mini-grants to kick-start innovative ideas. Kollar’s idea received $160,000 to get the program started and to recruit students who have dropped out and are willing to come back to school.

The other ideas that the district gave money to range from school building improvements to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act at Fletcher Miller Special School, from new school health centers to a new district position to help work on safety in schools. One school, Stott Elementary, will create a “tinker lab” where students will have space and supplies to work on projects as part of the school’s project-based learning model.

The Jeffco school board approved $1 million for the awards earlier this year. It was an idea proposed by Superintendent Jason Glass as a way of encouraging innovation in the district. This spring process is meant as a test run. The board will decide whether to continue investing in it once they see how the projects are going later this spring.

Officials say they learned a lot already. Tom McDermott, who oversaw the process, will present findings and recommendations to the board at a meeting next month.

If the board agrees to continue the innovation fund, McDermott wants to find different ways of supporting more of the ideas that educators present, even if there aren’t dollars for all of them.

That’s because in this first process — even though educators had short notice — teachers and other Jeffco staff still completed and submitted more than 100 proposals. Of those, 51 ideas scored high enough to move to the second round of the process in which the applicants were invited to pitch their ideas to a committee made up of Jeffco educators.

“We’re extremely proud of the 10,” McDermott said, but added, “we want to be more supportive of more of the ideas.”

McDermott said he thinks another positive change might be to create tiers so that smaller requests compete with each other in one category, and larger or broader asks compete with one another in a separate category.

This year, the applicants also had a chance to request money over time, but those parts of the awards hang on the board allocating more money.

Kollar’s idea for the GED preparation program for instance, includes a request for $348,800 next year. In total, among the 10 awards already granted, an extra $601,487 would be needed to fund the projects in full over the next two years.

Awards for innovation fund. Provided by Jeffco Public Schools.

The projects are not meant to be sustained by the award in the long-term, and some are one-time asks.

Kollar said that if that second phase of money doesn’t come through for his program, it should still be able to move forward. School districts are funded per student, so by bringing more students back to the district, the program would at least get the district’s student-based budget based on however many students are enrolled.

A similar program started in Greeley this fall is funded with those dollars the state allocates to districts for each student. So far, eight students there already completed a GED certificate, and there are now 102 other students enrolled, according to a spokeswoman for the Greeley-Evans school district.

But, having Jeffco’s innovation money could help Kollar’s program provide additional services to the students, such as a case manager that can help connect students to food or housing resources if needed.

And right now Kollar is working on setting up systems to track data around how many students end up completing the program, earning a high school equivalency certificate, enrolling in a college or trade-school, or getting jobs.

Helping more students on a path toward a career is the gold standard, he said, and what makes the program innovative.

“It’s not just about if the student completes high school,” Kollar said. “It’s are we making sure we are intentionally bridging them into whatever the next pathway is?”