policy pressure

As city acts on their cause, community school advocates carve out a new role

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Community school proponents rallied in front of education department headquarters Tuesday.

Armed with orange and blue balloons, a throng of parents and children converged on the education department headquarters this week chanting, “We want, we need, a community school policy.”

Within minutes, a top city official approached the crowd, borrowed an organizer’s bullhorn, and said the city had heard their demand: The policy was on its way.

Though it appeared spontaneous, the announcement had been carefully choreographed.

The rally’s organizers had told the city in advance about Tuesday’s event, which would center on their demand for the city to adopt a formal definition of a “community school,” something advocates had been calling for since December. The city could either unveil those guidelines at the event or explain to parents why none existed. Ahead of the rally, the organizers received word that Deputy Mayor Richard Buery would stop by the event to announce the guidelines.

“We support the mayor, we support this agenda, but we’re an advocacy group,” said Zakiyah Ansari, advocacy director of the Alliance for Quality Education, one of the groups at the rally.

Such is the intricate dance between advocates who for years fought for funding to fill schools with support services for students and their families, and an administration that has adopted that “community schools” approach as one of its central education initiatives.

For the advocates, the challenge is to back Mayor Bill de Blasio’s ambitious plan to transform nearly 130 schools into community schools, while also ensuring that those changes are made with public input and result in service-filled schools that outlive this mayoral administration. For de Blasio’s side, the trick is to move quickly enough that the public sees an immediate return on its expensive investment while ensuring the continued support of advocates.

The guidelines will become increasingly important as the administration promises to keep creating more of the schools — a plan attracting national attention — and as critics begin assessing their success.

“It’s very important that we are clear about what a community school is, what the standards of implementation are,” Buery told the receptive crowd. “We don’t want a situation where you are not engaging parents, you are not providing services, but you’re still calling it a community school.”

The guidelines that Buery announced Tuesday have not yet been publicly released, but they were sent to the city’s education oversight panel to vote on by the end of the year, a spokesman said. They will become education department guidelines, similar to those around social-media use and student grade promotion.

They are modeled on a framework produced by advocates that listed three core components of these schools — strong academics, support services, and parent participation — along with essential features like a full-time coordinator and dedicated space in the schools for partner organizations.

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Deputy Mayor Richard Buery and Christopher Caruso, who heads the education department’s community schools office.

The guidelines get at a peculiar feature of community schools. Unlike a standardized math program, for instance, which should look similar in every classroom, the services and strategies in each community school should spring from the particular needs of local students and their families.

Therefore, Buery explained, the city’s guidelines are “mostly about being clear on the purpose and the strategy, more than a sort of checklist of what you’ll see in every building.”

They also will help address another challenge for the city: creating some consistency across the wide variety of schools using the community schools approach. This year, those include schools with attendance problems that applied for funding to become community schools; low-performing schools in the city’s “Renewal” turnaround program that were required to adopt the approach; and schools that have been using this approach for years without formal support from the city.

Still, community school proponents have concerns about the city’s efforts that are unlikely to be resolved by the brief guidelines.

Most prominently, they have repeatedly said that in addition to giving schools new services, the city must also aggressively address the schools’ academics. While the Renewal program includes an academic component, it is unclear how the city will make similar changes at the other community schools.

Christopher Caruso, who heads the education department’s new community schools office and also stopped by the rally, said that all city schools get academic support and that “strong instructional practices” are a key part of community schools. Other officials have said that community schools’ exciting extracurricular programs and support services will get more students showing up to class ready to learn, which is the first step toward academic gains.

But advocates insist that programs meant to improve student attendance and wellness must be paired with changes in the classroom.

“You can’t get kids to come to school if their classes suck,” said one advocate, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid straining ties with the administration.

Even if the academics question remains unsettled, the new community schools are already seeing other early signs of progress, parents and educators said.

At Brooklyn Gardens Elementary School, which won one of the community school grants, students now have access to free glasses, dental screenings, and a food pantry, said Afton Vermeer, the school’s social work director. They have started to go on monthly field trips to hiking trails and apple orchards, and staffers have helped students’ families move from homeless shelters to permanent housing.

Vermeer, who works in the school through the nonprofit Partnership With Children, said she supports the community school approach because she has seen what happens when schools lack those services.

“I see kids who don’t have breakfast, or who don’t have stability at home, and don’t have any emotional stability,” she said, “and of course they don’t learn.”

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”

 

Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”

 

Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”

 

Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”

 

Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”

 

Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”

moving forward

After Confederate flag dispute at Colorado football game, schools pledge to bring students together

PHOTO: Marc Piscotty
Manual High students.

Acknowledging “we may never have a conclusive picture of what happened,” two Colorado school districts sought to move past a controversy over whether a Confederate flag was displayed at a football game and open a conversation between the two school communities.

The principal of Manual High, Nick Dawkins, wrote in a community letter over the weekend that the visiting Weld Central High School team “displayed a Confederate flag during the first quarter of the (Friday night) game, offending many members of the Manual community.”

Officials from Denver Public Schools and Weld County School District Re-3J released a joint letter Tuesday saying that based “on what we have learned to date, however, the Weld Central team did not display the Confederate flag.” At the same time, it said, multiple Manual eyewitnesses “reported seeing spectators who attempted to bring a Confederate flag into the game and clothing with flag images.”

Going forward, students from the two schools — one rural and one urban — will participate in a student leadership exchange that has student leaders visit each other’s schools and communities to “share ideas and perspectives,” the letter says.

“At a time in our country when so many are divided, we want our students instead to come together, share ideas and learn together,” says the letter, which is signed by the principals of both schools and the superintendents of both school districts.

The alleged incident took place at a time when issues of race, social injustice, politics and sports are colliding in the United States, making for tough conversations, including in classrooms.

Weld Central’s mascot is a Rebel. Manual, whose mascot is the Thunderbolts, is located in one of Denver’s historically African-American neighborhoods.

Dawkins in his initial community letter also said “the tension created by the flag led to conflict on and off the playing field,” and that three Manual players were injured, including one who went to the hospital with a leg injury. He also said some Manual players reported that Weld Central players “taunted them with racial slurs.”

Weld Central officials vehemently denied that their team displayed the flag. In addition, they said in their own community letter they had “no evidence at this point that any of our student athletes displayed racially motivated inappropriate behavior.”

They said district officials “do not condone any form of racism,” including the Confederate flag.

Weld Central fans told the Greeley Tribune that they didn’t see any Confederate flag.

Read the full text below.