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.”

eyes on NYC

New York City’s community schools guru on the program’s massive expansion and why the schools are ‘here to stay’

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder
Chancellor Carmen Fariña (middle) and Chris Caruso (right) visited East Flatbush Community Research School in 2016.

Chris Caruso is running one of the biggest education experiments in New York City.

The executive director of New York City’s community schools program, Caruso is responsible for delivering on one of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s core education promises: rapidly transforming hundreds of schools into community hubs with extra social services, additional learning time — and even washing machines.

It’s a model that has quickly gained steam. By September, 215 schools serving just over 100,000 students will be part of the city’s community schools initiative, which also encompasses de Blasio’s Renewal turnaround program. New York’s community schools program is considered a key national test case of whether the approach will pay off.

The responsibility to make sure it does rests partly with Caruso, who began working as a program director in a community school in Washington Heights nearly two decades ago. Chalkbeat caught up with him recently to talk about how he measures community schools’ success, what the program’s future looks like, and the challenges of quickly scaling up social services for thousands of students.

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Chalkbeat: This is the largest community schools program of its kind. Do you feel a lot of pressure to make sure it is seen by the public as a success?

Caruso: I think anytime you work on public policy change in New York City, eyes are on you. So we’ve done pre-K at a scale that no one else has done, we’ve done after-school on a scale that no one else has done, and that’s part of the territory.

So yes, you feel that. But for me, and my team, and this administration, I think it brings us energy and drives us to show the potential of the success.

The program has obviously scaled up really quickly. Do you feel like there are tradeoffs in expanding that fast?

I think doing something at a large scale really positions you to have a number of people going through a similar experience at the same time, and we’ve seen real value in schools and partners in learning from one another.

If you were to pilot something in a handful of schools, you have the ability to really be involved and direct day-to-day operations, but you lose the ability to create this learning community, a diverse learning community, and so that’s something that we’ve really seen gain traction.

So now that this program has been off the ground for three years, what are the big problems you’re trying to address as the program moves into its next phase?

I think [one] of the things that we’re looking at for next year is how do we ensure a high level of service and quality across all the schools?

We’ve had principal transitions, we’ve had some [community-based organization] transitions, we’ve had community school directors change, and so we have a diverse pool in terms of where people are at in the stages of development of being a community school.

That’s something that as a system we need to be able to adapt and meet the needs of those schools. A specific thing that we’re doing around that is in our first two years of operation, we held a monthly conference where all the community school directors would come together and we’d do group learning, we’d do individual things, we’d have seminars.

Next year, we’re going to be changing that model and doing more cohorts based on where those schools are at, based more on geography. Getting 215 schools together is a lot harder than 150, but this will allow us to really differentiate our support in a more meaningful way.

You’ve said before that community schools shouldn’t be thought of as a turnaround strategy — something [former U.S. Education Secretary] John King agrees with. Does that mean that providing these extra social services, partnerships and programs is worthwhile, regardless of whether it produces academic gains?

This is an equity strategy. There are neighborhoods in this city where kids have access to far fewer resources, whether those are healthcare resources, learning experiences, relationship resources. And so community schools are a strategy to level that playing field. There’s evidence to back that up. A long-term investment in [services] leads to higher rates of attendance, lower rates of chronic absenteeism, greater connectedness to school — and all those things lead to better academic performance.

It sounds like you’re saying that these supports help create the conditions necessary for a long-term academic boost. Does that mean you’re not paying a lot of attention to [whether] test scores go up this year or next year?

I think it’s impossible not to pay attention to that. That’s the reality and we have that data. We’re looking extremely closely at chronic absenteeism and average daily attendance. And you know we’ve seen a decrease in chronic absenteeism of almost 7.5 percent since the program started. Citywide, [the decrease in schools is] less than 2 percent, so we’ve been really pleased with that progress.

We’re looking at school culture and climate and so we’re looking at the number of suspensions and incidents and seeing decreases there. And we’re very much looking at graduation rates and how students are doing. We’re seeing positive movement there and we expect that we will continue and that will deepen as the school culture changes, as kids feel more connected to adults and to their peers, and as they can see better and they’re healthier and they’re ready to learn.

Many of those [measures] are getting better citywide so it’s hard to know to what extent that is caused by community schools versus some of these broader trends. How do you try to separate that out?

One way we do that is you look at the schools in our portfolio and these are schools that are disproportionately serving children living in poverty, serving English language learners and students with disabilities, and you kind of look at growth among a cohort compared to citywide growth. And that’s one way that you can measure the differences between a particular intervention and the general progress that a district or a system is making.

You’ve said before that strong instructional practices are a key element of community schools. What percentage of your time is spent on thinking about that part of what schools do?

Strong instruction is what schools need to be doing, and so we have an infrastructure in the Department of Education through our superintendents and our Division of Teaching and Learning to support that. That’s not part of my core responsibility.

My role in my team is to help schools integrate partnership resources, and many times schools are looking to partner to support instruction. So that might be: How do you take a momentary break in the middle of a literacy lesson to get kids to be able to focus again? That’s an instructional practice, but that’s not about how you help kids get phonemic awareness. There are elements of kind of being present on managing emotions, on the social emotional skills, that we spend more of our time thinking about. I’m not writing math or ELA curriculum.

I’m curious how much has this model permeated the city more broadly? There are a lot of schools that have partnerships with community-based organizations but aren’t in the city’s official program.

There’s a cohort of schools out there that were implementing this model [before the official program launched]. One of the things we’ve tried to do in our scaling is to bring more of those schools into the fold so that they have access to the same types of supports as the other schools.

The number of schools that might not consider themselves community schools but that are looking at partnerships and that are looking at the whole child in a different way — I think that’s grown exponentially.

And so when Chancellor [Carmen] Fariña visits schools now and is asking a principal — regardless of whether they’re a community school or not — tell me about your [community based] partner, tell me about your after-school program, how are they helping meet the needs of your students, and how are you aligning your supports? That’s huge.

Does the city see this as similar to pre-K, where once you do it, it just becomes part of the system — a feature of New York City public schools?

Yeah, I think so. This mayor ran on that and we have a deputy mayor and a chancellor who have championed that. This is something, again, the fact that it’s not a solely a top-down approach, this is something that communities have been organizing around and advocating for for a while.

I think the depth of the roots of support are deep, and I think that we as a department now are organized around this. It intuitively makes better sense on how we align resources and support schools. So yeah, I think community schools are here to stay.

inputs and outcomes

Are we expecting too much from community schools? Former U.S. Education Secretary John King weighs in

PHOTO: Katherine Taylor/EWA
John King, former U.S. secretary of education in the Obama administration and current president and CEO of The Education Trust

New York City has made an enormous bet on transforming its highest-need schools into community hubs, pumping hundreds of millions of dollars into more than 130 of them over the last three years.

But it’s not entirely clear what types of improvements should follow from the heavy investments in things like extra medical care, social workers and guidance counselors. Higher attendance? Academic improvements? Changes in student behavior or school culture?

John King, a former U.S. secretary of education under Barack Obama and current president and CEO of The Education Trust, recently told Chalkbeat he believes in the approach as a way of addressing the barriers to learning often caused by poverty. But he cautioned against thinking of community schools as a broader academic turnaround strategy, and worries that political leaders are treating the model as a cure-all for struggling schools.

“I think it’s a good thing for kids to have access to wraparound services — full stop,” King said. “But I don’t think those services, in and of themselves, are going to produce huge academic gains.”

In fact, he said, they could crowd out other improvement efforts. “I worry that the politics are such that some folks approach community schools like, ‘Oh, now we’re done.’ What’s your turnaround strategy? ‘We’ll do the community school.’”

King’s comments highlight the box Mayor Bill de Blasio may find himself in as he tries to persuade the public that his $386 million “Renewal” school program — which uses the community school model to stoke improvements in the city’s lowest-performing schools — is paying off.

Some educators and officials have praised the program, and the extra academic support that comes with it. But results so far have been mixed, and a recent analysis conducted in partnership with Chalkbeat found that Renewal schools did not make bigger gains in graduation rates or test scores compared with demographically similar schools that didn’t receive extra resources. (The research from other districts that have deployed the model is mixed, and shows community schools don’t necessarily show academic gains.)

Still, the city is planning this fall to significantly expand its community schools program, the largest in the country, according to city officials.

We asked King whether community schools should produce clear academic gains or if improving access to social services is enough to justify the approach. Here’s what he said:

“I think it’s a good thing for kids to have access to wraparound services — full stop. I think about kids we had at Roxbury Prep — the charter school I founded in Boston — and the fact that we happened to be located in a nursing home. So we had a lot of access to nurses and therefore we had a nurse who could administer a nebulizer to kids; we had a nebulizer at school.

And so it meant that a kid who had asthma could get a nebulizer and get asthma dealt with at school and be back in class, as opposed to another school where I worked — kids would have an asthma attack, they’d go home, they wouldn’t get treated, and they’d end up in the emergency room for that. And they may end up in the hospital for a week.

In the long run, do I think community schools would make for somewhat better academic outcomes? Yes. Lots of kids need glasses and don’t have them. I was in a community school in Cincinnati — Oyler Elementary — they have an on-site vision center where kids can get their glasses at school. That’s great. In the long run, if you can’t see the board, that’s going to be a problem. So that’s going to help kids.

But I don’t think those services, in and of themselves, are going to produce huge academic gains. I think about the Roland Fryer study on Harlem Children’s Zone. They compared the kids who had just the academic benefit of the Harlem Children’s Zone charters versus the kids who had the benefit of the services in the zone. And I think Roland Fryer would argue that the evidence was the educational experience was the thing that mattered for educational outcomes. Kind of not surprising, right?

So to me, the community schools approach can certainly help, but if the school is terrible and the kids’ learning experience is terrible, it’s not going to, in and of itself, dramatically change academic outcomes. And so I worry that the politics are such that some folks approach community schools like, ‘Oh, now we’re done.’ What’s your turnaround strategy? ‘We’ll do the community school.’ That’s maybe necessary, particularly when you’re thinking about schools with extensive needs, like one in New York where 40 percent of their kids are homeless. There’s a way in which that may be necessary, but still not sufficient for good academic outcomes.”