community effort

Five takeaways from a new study of New York City’s massive ‘community schools’ program

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Community school director Fiorella Guevara, left, looks at student writing samples with a bilingual teacher at M.S. 50 in Williamsburg.

In the largest effort of its kind, Mayor Bill de Blasio has stocked over 200 high-needs schools with an array of social services that he hopes can overcome the effects of poverty and improve student learning.

The initiative has cost the city hundreds of millions of dollars and attracted the attention of districts across the country that are interested in so-called “community schools.”

So how is this costly and complex experiment working?

Pretty well — despite some ongoing challenges, according to a Rand Corporation study released Wednesday, the first attempt to answer that high-stakes question.

The city-commissioned report focuses on 118 community schools over the previous two school years and includes 88 schools that are also part of the city’s “Renewal” program — a high-profile effort to use the community-school model to revamp chronically low-performing schools.

The 115-page report does not assess whether the community schools are improving outcomes for students, which will be the subject of a follow-up study set to be released in 2019. But Wednesday’s report, which offers a mostly positive view of the effort, does provide a glimpse into the ways in which the city’s massive investment is spurring change in schools.

Here are five takeaways — you can read the report in full here.

The schools are finding new ways to help students.

All community schools are expected to lengthen their day by an hour, make sure students who repeatedly miss school don’t slip through the cracks, and work with nonprofit organizations to offer a range of social services for students and their families.

For the most part, that’s what’s happening, the report found.

Over 90 percent of schools in the study have used the extra time to offer programs ranging from film clubs to test prep, compared with 59 percent before the program gained steam. Seventy-eight percent of community schools have deployed mentors to prevent students from becoming chronically absent (up from 41 percent before the program), and 80 percent of school leaders said they had successfully partnered with outside groups.

Principals are forming new partnerships — but those take a lot of time.

While most school leaders said they enjoyed strong relationships with their nonprofit partners and the “community school directors” who coordinate the new services, some worried that managing those partnerships distracts from their core duty: overseeing classroom instruction.

“The most-cited challenge that schools reported facing,” the report says, “was pressure from competing priorities for time and effort.”

The researchers found that things got even worse when there was a “lack of trust” between the principal and community school director. “Without a strong working relationship between these two leaders, both will likely find the roles more challenging,” the report says.

In one infamous clash, a principal tried to end a partnership with a nonprofit organization, effectively threatening to kick them out of the building.

Some partnerships suffer from staff turnover.

High turnover among school and nonprofit staff has undermined the new partnerships at some community schools, the report found. About half of schools said in a survey that turnover was a challenge.

“At some schools, relationships between school and [nonprofit] staff were strained mainly in situations where there was high staff turnover among the school and/or [nonprofit] staff,” the report says.

Turnover has been a particular challenge among the leadership at Renewal schools, where nearly 60 percent of schools have a new principal than when the program started three years ago.

Renewal schools are trying lots of new things — even as their principals juggle tons of mandates.

Community schools that are also in the high-stakes Renewal program tended to launch the most “interventions,” which range from mentoring programs to mental health referrals.

Several leaders of Renewal schools, which are under extra pressure to show academic gains, said their schools benefitted from participating in both programs.

But some principals also complained about unclear guidance from the education department and all the competing demands thrown their way.

“I think that there’s just a disconnect and there needs to be a real understanding of how much time do we have in a school day, in a school year,” said an anonymous school leader quoted in the report.We’re mandated to do a lot of different things and every mandate takes away from doing the things that you might want to do on the school level.”

Overall, the report paints an encouraging picture of the community schools program.

Though the authors note that it’s too early to draw conclusions about the program’s success, they generally say that it’s on the right track.

They also repeatedly cite school-level leaders who said they can see a real difference in their schools.

“The idea of supporting the entire family, as opposed to just looking at the child, it does so much,” one principal is quoted as saying. “It says to the family, we’re here to do whatever we can to work with you to improve your child’s academic success.”

Hello Again

Debora Scheffel chosen by acclamation to fill State Board of Ed vacancy

State Board of Education member Debora Scheffel at a campaign event in 2016. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

A Republican vacancy committee unanimously selected Debora Scheffel to fill the opening left by Pam Mazanec on the State Board of Education.

Mazanec, a staunch defender of parental rights and school choice who represented the 4th Congressional District, resigned at the end of January to focus on her other obligations. Scheffel previously represented the 6th Congressional District on the board but lost that seat in 2016 to Democrat Rebecca McClellan.

McClellan’s narrow victory gave control of the board to Democrats for the first time in 46 years. Scheffel, who serves as dean of education at Colorado Christian University, moved to Douglas County, and ran unsuccessfully for school board there in 2017.

Scheffel’s selection does not change the balance of power on the state board because she replaces another Republican. Scheffel faced no opposition at the vacancy committee meeting, which took place Saturday in Limon.

Scheffel has said she wants to continue Mazanec’s work on behalf of rural schools and in support of parent and student choice, as well as work to protect student data privacy, a cause she previously championed on the board.

The district takes in all of the eastern Plains, as well as the cities of Longmont, Greeley, and Castle Rock.

Future of Schools

Indianapolis struggles to balance how much money schools need with what people will pay

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Lewis Ferebee

Without a massive influx of cash from taxpayers, Indianapolis’ largest school district could be in dire financial straits. But the fate of the referendums asking voters for more money is in limbo.

Even as the Indianapolis Public Schools board revealed plans to reduce how much money it is seeking from voters, the administration portrayed the district’s financial future as precarious. During a board discussion Thursday, officials underscored how critical it would be for the tax increase to pass. It’s unclear, however, whether the district will get the extra cash it needs to avoid making painful cuts.

Critics have suggested the request — $936 million over eight years — is too high and that the district has not offered enough detail on how the money raised would be spent. With only tepid support for the tax plan, district leaders appear poised to reduce the amount they are seeking. That move could win over new allies, but it could also undercut their efforts to gain support.

Next year, the administration is expecting spending could outpace income by more than $45 million. The plan for filling that gap hinges on raising more than $46 million from a referendum that will go before voters in May.

Without that extra money, Superintendent Lewis Ferebee said, the district would have to burn through its savings or make vast cuts that could include freezing teacher pay, cutting school budgets, and reducing transportation.

The district would need to begin making cuts immediately, said board member Kelly Bentley. “It’s just going to get worse the next year, and the next year,” she added.

The district’s future will look brighter if leaders are able to win public support for more funding, although it’s no longer clear how much money they will ask for. The original plan, which was approved by the board in December, includes two referendums to raise property taxes. One would ask voters to give the district as much as $92 million more per year for eight years for operating expenses such as teacher pay. Another measure, which the district is not expected to change, would pay for $200 million in improvements to buildings.

Ferebee said the amount he originally proposed was based on what the district needs rather than what would be politically feasible. In the face of community feedback, however, the district is crafting a plan that would have a lower price tag. Next, the district will need to explain what services will be cut to keep down costs, he said.

“I anticipate people will want to know, ‘what are the tradeoffs?’ ” Ferebee said. “We owe it to the community to provide that explanation, and we will.”

Indiana districts have pursued more than 160 property tax referendums since 2008, when state lawmakers created the current school funding system. About 60 percent of those referendums have been successful, according to data from Indiana University’s Center for Evaluation and Education Policy.

Stephen Hiller, who has been studying referendums with the center for nearly a decade, said that it’s likely that many districts have had to reconcile how much money they would ideally want with how much taxpayers might be willing to pay. But that conversation likely happens before a referendum is announced and approved by the board.

“I think IPS has it a little more difficult here that it’s happening in the open after they’ve approved it in a very public way,” he added.

School board president Michael O’Connor said that the district’s willingness to change the plan is a sign that local government works.

“We live in the community within which we serve, and all of us have heard pretty plainly and clearly, ‘we think that number might be too big,’ ” he said. “We are being responsive to our constituents.”

Reducing the referendum could be enough to win over many supporters. Several groups that have supported the current administration in the past have not yet taken a stand.

Tony Mason of the Indianapolis Urban League said in a statement that the district needs more money to pay high-quality teachers and meet the needs of its diverse students. But he raised concerns about the potential impact of the tax increase on residents with fixed- or low-incomes.

“IPS will still need to continue in its efforts to make the case for the substantial amount it is requesting,” Mason said. “The IUL is an avid supporter of education, particularly for urban schools that struggle with unique challenges.”

Chelsea Koehring, who taught in the district and now has two children at the Butler Lab School, shares the view that the district needs more money. But leaders have not offered enough details about how the money would be spent, she said, and changing the request raises red flags.

“People, you should’ve had this together before you asked,” she said. “Lowering it at this point — I don’t know that that’s going to instill confidence in anyone that they have any clue what they are doing.”

Correction: February 17, 2018: This story has been corrected to reflect that Indiana districts have pursued more than 160 property tax referendums since 2008. Some districts have held multiple referendums.