Growth Model

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

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña

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.

Mixed messages

Is the Board of Regents hostile to charter schools? Depends upon whom you ask.

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Regent Collins and Regent Johnson engage in a discussion after a Board of Regents meeting.

When the Board of Regents took the unprecedented step of rejecting two new charter schools last week, it sent shudders through the charter school sector.

Even before the meeting last Monday, the Regents had been making charters “nervous,” said Andrea Rogers, the New York State Director for the Northeast Charter Schools Network. The rejections only heightened the anxiety.

“I think these denials skyrocketed the issue to the front of people’s minds,” she said.  

And yet, during the same meeting, the board praised and signed off on the opening of five other charter schools, which brings the number of new schools approved this year to more than any year since 2013.

The meeting was emblematic of the mixed signals that this Board of Regents have been sending over the last few months, feeding different interpretations among both those who advocate for charter schools and those who champion traditional schools

The board’s willingness to criticize and question charters have many believing the Regents are, at best, skeptics and, at worst, opposed to the publicly funded, privately run schools that they authorize and oversee.

At the same time, the Regents have not been without praise for charters, and some charters say they have appreciated the support of the body and the state’s support staff.

Chancellor Betty Rosa said the Regents’ decisions are evidence of nuance, not rigid ideology or partisanship.

“I think there’s too many times when people want to simply say ‘you’re for’ or ‘you’re against.’ It’s so much more complicated than that,” Rosa told Chalkbeat in an interview Wednesday. “To me, if it’s a wonderful opportunity for kids — you got me. If it’s not, I’m probably going to be your worst enemy.”

As an authorizer, the Board of Regents has the power to approve new schools and decide which of its 87 schools should remain open. In addition to deciding the fate of individual schools, the board is rethinking how it evaluates all of its schools   and whether they should take a closer look at measures like surveys or chronic absenteeism.

With several new members and a relatively new leader, the Regents’ actions have been under particular scrutiny for signs of partisanship. Some have seized on recent events, such as critical statements made by some Regents as charter schools have come before the board for approval or renewal.

One Regent suggested that charter schools achieve high test scores by pushing out students; another suggested a charter school in Brooklyn is contributing to segregation.

Rosa has fiercely opposed a proposal that would allow some charter schools to certify their own teachers, calling the idea  “insulting.” The board also rejected a batch of Success Academy renewals, arguing that their authorizer attempted to renew the high-performing but controversial charter schools too soon. (The move had little practical effect, since their authorizer, SUNY, can override the board’s decision.)

Rosa said the sum of these decisions does not mean either she or the board is anti-charter. Her opposition to the teacher certification proposal had nothing to do with the source of the proposal — a charter authorizer — but because, she said, she believes the idea is an affront to the teaching profession and will allow unqualified teachers to enter classrooms.

The Success Academy renewals, she said, were returned based on legal requirements — and were not an appraisal of the charter network.

But taken together, observers of different educational ideologies have concluded that the board is more likely to probe problems with charter schools than in the past.

“It is quite a change from a couple years ago, and it does show greater misgivings about charter schools than what we saw under the board as it was previously constructed,” said Bob Lowry, deputy director of the New York State Council of School Superintendents. (Lowry said he appreciates that the board is paying more attention to how charter schools will affect the funding of surrounding school districts.)

The state’s teachers union has picked up on the change and praised the board for providing more oversight of charter schools, while calling on them to do more.

“The Regents, at this point, are providing much overdue scrutiny of the charter sector,” said NYSUT spokesman Carl Korn. “We believe that the Regents and the state education department need to do more, but this is a good step.”

Charter school advocates agree, seeing the Board of Regents’ actions as worrying. Since the board’s philosophy is hard to pin down, schools are starting to wonder if they can switch authorizers, Rogers said.

Yet there are signs that charters’ fear are based on conclusions that are far too sweeping. As the board rejected two schools outside of New York City, they also lauded applications for schools opening in the city a fact that may suggest differences in how the Regents assess schools in different areas of the state.

Regent Christine Cea welcomed a new school in Staten Island, saying she is “totally in favor of it.” Rosa expressed excitement about a new KIPP school in the Bronx, saying the community has “tremendous support” for its opening.

Rosa said Regents are more thoughtful and involved in reviewing schools now. She suggested that there are educational innovations that can be learned from charter schools, but also offered some critiques. At the top of her list, she worries that charter schools are not well-equipped to serve students with the most severe disabilities.

Several schools that are currently authorized by the board expressed their appreciation for the Board of Regents and those in the state education department’s charter school office who provide technical assistance to schools and create charter school recommendations for the board.

“On our quest to better serve scholars with learning differences, we have found no better ally,” said Eric Tucker, who is a co-founder of Brooklyn Laboratory Charter School. “Through technical assistance and oversight, the Regents push public schools like ours to continually improve to better serve the needs of all students, all days.”

Still, said Bob Bellafiore, an education consultant who works with charter schools, several Regents come from district school backgrounds, and so their default attitude is to question charter schools and support the traditional school model.

“They’re much more district school system people,” Bellafiore said.

What's Your Education Story?

Tips for teaching poetry in a women’s prison. ‘Remember, you are not allowed to hug anyone.’

PHOTO: Lwp Kommunikáció, Flickr CC
Inmates at the Indiana Women's Prison.

Adam Henze was one of seven educators who participated in a story slam sponsored by Chalkbeat, Teachers Lounge Indy, WFYI Public Media and the Indianapolis Public Library on Sept. 5. Every teacher shared stories about their challenges and triumphs in Circle City classrooms.

A poet and educator, Henze read a poem about a day in his life as a poetry instructor at the Indiana Women’s Prison. Henze recounts the painful struggle to reconcile his experiences with the crimes for which his students were serving time — some life sentences for murder

It’s a story full of darkness, but it also offers hope that, as Henze said, “we are the sum of the things that we have done, but we’re also the sum of the things that we have yet to do.”

Check out the video below to hear Henze’s story.

You can find more stories from educators, students and parents here.