Getting NYC Community Schools Off the Ground

  In the second half of 2014, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio not only made community schools a significant piece of his education strategy, but also the centerpiece of his efforts to improve failing schools. In June 2014 de Blasio announced the city would spend $52 million in state funds - specifically, the Attendance Improvement and Dropout Prevention (AIDP) grant administered by the United Way of New York City - to convert more than 40 schools into community schools with services for children and their families. In early November he upped the ante with the announcement the city would, as part of its School Renewal Plan, spend $150 million to make an additional 94 struggling schools into Community Schools. Each school would be “matched” with a community-based organization (CBO) and the work organized through a full-time Resource Coordinator, based in the school but hired and supervised by the partner CBO. While the first round of schools applied to become community schools, the second round of schools have been ordered by the DOE to participate in the initiative. By school year 2016-17 these 94 struggling schools “must demonstrate significant academic achievement” or face the consequences, including possibly changes in leadership or school reorganization.

            For those not familiar with the term, community schools are partnership-focused schools organized around the principle that by providing children and their families with increased access to academic and extra-academic services (through the conduit of the school, where children spend a good chunk of the day), barriers to learning are reduced and student outcomes improve. For almost a century the community schools model is one way New York City has tried to address the wide range of issues children and families that live in the poorest neighborhoods grapple with. But never on such a scale as Mayor de Blasio is attempting. This school year 128 community schools will be launched.

            de Blasio has positioned his community schools strategy as part of the DOE’s “commit(ment) to working collaboratively with parents, families, educators and communities”, and hence a strong departure from previous mayor Michael Bloomberg’s approach to improving struggling schools. Bloomberg granted schools greater autonomy in exchange for greater accountability, and focused on the creation of charters and small schools - dividing struggling, large schools into small ones or even creating different “academies” in a single school. School closure was a consequence for failure to meet accountability requirements (Bloomberg opened 656 schools and closed 157 during his tenure, including some of the small schools he opened). In contrast, de Blasio’s approach, and that of his Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña, has to-date focused on empowering schools through additional supports, provided either directly from central (e.g., pre-K, renewed authority for superintendents, extended learning time) or indirectly (e.g., community schools, after-school).  

            de Blasio's community schools strategy goes to the heart of what staff working in high-poverty schools have consistently argued students must have to succeed - and believe Bloomberg’s policies ignored - services that address student needs outside school, needs that have a huge impact on their ability to learn. These include health, mental health, family incarceration or death, homelessness, involvement with the juvenile justice system and/or children’s services, immigration status, and food insecurity.

            It’s common knowledge in education circles, informed by an extensive body of research, that poverty has an impact on childhood development, with ramifications for academic performance and other life outcomes. Staff in high-poverty schools push back against the notion they can and should be responsible for addressing all the socioeconomic concerns students bring to the table, even as the bar is raised for what students are expected to demonstrate academic competency in. So yes, administrators and teachers often need and want support services; they ask for social workers, behavioral interventions, after-school programs, health/mental health services, academic remediation, family outreach, and family programs.

            But just as school staff push back against being primarily responsible for meeting students’ non-academic needs, community school partners feel they should not be held primarily responsible for meeting students’ academic needs, particularly in such a high profile initiative as de Blasio’s. Soon after the Mayor announced his Renewal Schools plan, advocates voiced concerns about two elements of his plan: i) compelling struggling schools to participate; and ii) making rapid academic gains an accountability requirement, particularly when the instructional support component of the plan is not yet in place; while the Renewal Schools summary mentions the possibility of instructional support for schools, for example via Master Teachers, no details are provided. Though I’m not familiar with all the Renewal Schools, I have worked in several of them. And I’d venture a very high percentage have received community-based services in the past. Why will this reform effort succeed, when these schools have received instructional and extra-instructional support for years, is a valid question, and one that makes community school proponents quite anxious.

            These larger, outcome focused issues shouldn’t, however, obscure the fact that just getting CBO-school partnerships off the ground is a significant challenge. For the last couple of years I’ve been working with schools to improve how they organize resources, including relationships with CBOs and non-profits. Before that I spent six years doing program development and evaluation for a non-profit that provided student support and instructional services to high-poverty schools in New York City, Washington, D.C. and New Jersey.  I’ve had ample opportunity to learn how partnerships with schools are developed and sustained; see the work, on-site and off-site, that goes into providing school-based services; and understand what tends to go right and what tends to go wrong - on both the school side and the CBO/non-profit side - in these partnerships.

            Based on these experiences, there are three school-based factors that, particularly in the early stages, community school stakeholders must be aware of.

·     CBOs are trying to address complicated issues (on an individual child as well as group basis) while working in an institution they don’t manage, that is in session approximately half the year, and has its own set of priorities, which don’t always match those of its partner(s);

·    Implementation and management of school-CBO partnerships rests heavily on one individual – a Resource Coordinator – who is expected to have an unreasonably wide and deep set of skills and experience.

·    Schools want their CBOs to tackle a range of needs, ones that are not always part of the original partnership agreements.

            These are the issues that, if ignored, start partnerships off on the wrong foot, sometimes never to recover. I’m going to spend my next couple of posts describing these issues in more depth and discussing how they can be successfully addressed.