renewed questions

Three big questions as de Blasio’s school turnaround program approaches the three-year mark

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Mayor Bill de Blasio

When Mayor Bill de Blasio announced his high-profile turnaround plan for 94 of the city’s lowest-performing schools, he promised to flood them with hundreds of millions of dollars worth of social services and academic support so they could meet an ambitious goal: “fast and intense” improvement within three years.

This week, as the so-called Renewal initiative approaches the end of its third year, education officials proposed to close or merge nine schools in the program, after previously closing or consolidating eight others. Those decisions, and uneven progress at many of the remaining Renewal schools, reopens longstanding questions about how the program is working, how it should be judged — and what its future looks like.

Here are three of the biggest ones:

Is the program working as intended?

De Blasio’s Renewal schools are arguably the country’s biggest bet on the “community schools” model, which treats external barriers to learning as something schools can address. In New York City, the approach has involved extending the school day, adding social services like mental health counseling and dental clinics, and partnering with community organizations (whose contracts extend through next year).

One benefit of the community schools approach is that many of the resources schools are getting don’t depend on external validation. If students are getting mental health screenings or eyeglasses, for instance, the program is working.

But answering bigger questions about whether schools are being transformed academically is more complicated.

There are some positive signs. Individual schools have reported that the extra resources — such as coaches who help teachers adopt a more rigorous curriculum — are having an effect. And the city says attendance and school climate in Renewal schools are improving.

But roughly half the schools in the program aren’t meeting most of the city’s benchmarks, many of which were modest to begin with. And the program has so far not stemmed the tide of students who continue to leave the city’s bottom-performing schools. Roughly 86 percent of Renewal schools enroll fewer students than they did when the program launched in 2014.

If the program yields mixed results, how will the city continue to justify it?

De Blasio’s promise that the program would offer fast improvements within three years is at odds with what many experts and advocates — and even Department of Education officials — say: School turnarounds, when they work, can take years longer.

“Shifting [school] culture takes more than two years; it probably takes five to 10 years,” said Jeremy Kaplan, a director of community education at Phipps Neighborhoods, a community organization working in several Renewal schools. “I think there’s a sense of urgency connected to a mayoral promise.”

But having made that initial three-year pledge leaves de Blasio, now campaigning for reelection, in the difficult position of figuring out how to articulate a theory of change around an expensive program that may, in the short-term, show only small gains. Meanwhile, the mayor’s critics will continue to argue the slow pace of change harms students in those schools, which should be closed instead.

“Once the city starts down the road of closing schools I think there will be more pressure to close more of them,” said Aaron Pallas, a professor at Teachers College. “It becomes harder to sustain the argument to continue a Renewal-type program if it appears not to be working.”

What will be different for Renewal schools after year three?

Since its inception, the education department has explicitly said that Renewal is a three-year program, but always acted as if it would continue beyond that point. Overall, the city has budgeted nearly $850 million for the program through 2019, according to the Independent Budget Office.

“I would think that, over time, [community schools] will stay no matter what,” Chancellor Carmen Fariña told Chalkbeat in August. “If schools have a certain amount of budget, we don’t take it away from them the next year, regardless of what it is.”

But whether there will be significant changes after year three is still unclear. Will the education department add features or nix others based on what has worked over the last three years? And how will the city’s big bet on community schools ultimately be judged?

“A lack of progress is clearly an indicator that things aren’t working,” said Pallas. “But what’s the threshold for deciding if the growth is sufficient? I don’t have the answer.”

future funding

Trump’s education budget could be bad news for New York City’s ‘community schools’ expansion

PHOTO: RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post

The Trump administration has proposed eliminating the sole source of funding for New York City’s dramatic expansion of its community schools program, according to budget documents released Tuesday.

Less than two weeks ago, city officials announced its community schools program would expand to 69 new schools this fall, financed entirely by $25.5 million per year of funding earmarked for 21st Century Community Learning Centers — a $1.2 billion federal program which Trump is again proposing to eliminate.

The community schools program is a central feature of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s strategy for high-need schools — a model he called a “game-changer” earlier this month. It is designed to help schools address the physical health and emotional issues that can impede student learning, in part by pairing them with nonprofit organizations that offer a range of services, such as mental health counseling, vision screenings, or dental checkups.

City officials downplayed the threat of the cuts, noting the Republican-controlled congress increased funding for the program in a recent spending agreement and that similar funding cuts have been threatened in the past.

“This program has bipartisan support and has fought back the threat of cuts for over a decade,” a city education official wrote in an email.

Still, some nonprofit providers are nervous this time will be different.

“I’m not confident that the funding will continue given the federal political climate,” said Jeremy Kaplan, director of community education at Phipps Neighborhoods, an organization that will offer services in three of the city’s new community schools this fall. Even though the first year of funding is guaranteed, he said, the future of the program is unclear.

“It’s not clear to [community-based] providers what the outlook would be after year one.”

City officials did not respond to a question about whether they have contingency plans to ensure the 69 new community schools would not lose the additional support, equivalent to roughly $350,000 per school each year.

“Community schools are an essential part of Equity and Excellence and we will do everything on our power to ensure continuation of funding,” education department spokeswoman Toya Holness wrote in an email.

New York state receives over $88 million in 21st Century funding, which it distributes to local school districts. State education officials did not immediately respond to questions about how they would react if the funding is ultimately cut.

“President Trump’s proposed budget includes a sweeping and irresponsible slashing of the U.S. Department of Education’s budget,” state officials wrote in a press release. “If these proposed cuts become reality, gaps and inequity in education will grow.”

community effort

New York City set to expand ‘community schools’ program to include 215 schools

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Mayor Bill de Blasio, flanked by schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña and UFT chief Michael Mulgrew announced an expansion of the city's community schools program at Brooklyn’s I.S. 155.

New York City is significantly expanding a program that infuses high-need schools with extra resources, including partnerships with social service providers, city officials announced Thursday.

Starting this September, 69 additional schools will officially enter the city’s “community schools” program, which is designed to help under-resourced schools address the physical health and emotional issues that can impede student learning.

The expansion brings the total number of community schools to 215, serving just over 100,000 students, making New York City’s program the largest in the nation, officials said.

“This is a model that is a game-changer,” Mayor Bill de Blasio, flanked by top union leaders, said during a press conference at Brooklyn’s I.S. 155, one of the schools that will be added to the program. “New York City is starting to be the national leader because we’re going farther and faster than any school system.”

Every community school uses a slightly different combination of resources, but they all create an hour of extra learning time, conduct outreach to families to boost attendance, and receive an extra staff member to help coordinate the program.

The schools also all partner with nonprofit organizations that offer a range of services, such as mental health counseling, vision screenings, or dental checkups. The latest expansion will cost $25.5 million per year, and will be financed by federal dollars distributed by the state through grants.

The approach, favored by the city’s teachers and principals unions, involves flooding schools with additional resources instead of closing them (the preferred strategy of de Blasio predecessor Michael Bloomberg).

But it’s unclear whether de Blasio’s big bet on community schools — which launched more than two years ago — is likely to pay off and how the city plans to measure its success.

Chris Caruso, who runs the community schools program, pointed out that chronic absenteeism has fallen an average of 7.2 percent across all community schools over the past two years, and graduation rates have increased 4.8 percent. But he stressed that the program is “not a school turnaround strategy.”

In the city’s lowest-performing “Renewal” schools, which are also part of the community schools program, and which de Blasio claimed would see “fast and intense” improvements, the results have been mixed — even according to the city’s own benchmarks.

Caruso noted a wider study is in the works: The city is working with the Rand Corporation to evaluate how effectively the community schools program has been rolled out. That study is scheduled to be released this fall. However, a more comprehensive look at whether the program is leading to better student outcomes isn’t expected for at least a year after that, Caruso said.

One of the mayor’s fiercest critics, the pro-charter group Families for Excellent Schools, immediately criticized the program’s expansion.

“Thanks to Mayor de Blasio and his friends at the [United Federation of Teachers], there are now roughly an equal number of students in community schools as there are in public charter schools,” the organization’s CEO, Jeremiah Kittredge, wrote in a statement immediately after the city’s announcement. “But the results for kids couldn’t be further apart — public charter students are twice as likely to read and do math on grade level.”

You can find a full list of the city’s new community schools here.