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.”

Follow the money

Groups with a stake in Colorado’s school board elections raise $1.5 million to influence them

The nation's second largest teachers union is spending $300,000 to support a slate of candidates running for the Douglas County school board. Those candidates posed for pictures at their campaign kick-off event are from left, Krista Holtzmann, Anthony Graziano, Chris Schor, and Kevin Leung. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Union committees and various political groups have raised nearly $1.5 million so far to influence the outcome of school board elections across the state, according to new campaign finance reports.

The Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, and organizations such as Democrats for Education Reform, a political nonprofit, are spending big in an effort to help elect school board members that represent their positions.

It’s become a common storyline in school board elections in Colorado and across the country: On one side, teachers unions hoping to elect members that will improve working conditions and teacher pay, among other things. On the other, education reformers who generally back candidates who support expanding school choice for families, more autonomy for schools and accountability systems that measure school quality, usually based on test scores.

The complete fundraising and spending picture, however, is often murky and incomplete.

State law lays out different rules and disclosure requirements for different types of political committees. The most prevalent this election year appears to be independent expenditure committee, which can raise and spend an unlimited amount of money but are forbidden from coordinating with candidates. (Campaign finance reports for the candidates’ campaigns are due at midnight Tuesday).

Other groups such as Americans For Prosperity work outside the reporting requirements altogether by spending money on “social welfare issues,” rather than candidates. The conservative political nonprofit, which champions charter schools and other school reforms, pledged to spend more than six-figures for “a sweeping outreach effort to parents” to promote school choice policies in Douglas County. The fight over charter schools and vouchers, which use tax dollars to send students to private schools, has been a key debate in school board races there.

Both the union and reform groups operate independent committees. Those committees must report donations and expenditures to the secretary of state. But the donations captured in campaign finance reports are often huge lump sums from parent organizations, which aren’t required to disclose their donations under federal law. (Dues collected out of teachers’ paychecks are often the source for political contributions from unions.)

Several groups are spending money in Denver, where four of the seven school board seats are up for election. The ten candidates vying for those four seats include incumbents who agree with the district’s direction and challengers who do not. The Denver teachers union has endorsed candidates pushing for change.

The Every Student Succeeds group, which has raised almost $300,000 in union donations, is spending the most on one Denver candidate, Xóchitl “Sochi” Gaytán, who is running for a seat in southwest Denver, and on a slate of four Aurora school board candidates endorsed by Aurora’s teachers union.

The group’s largest donations came from the Colorado Fund for Children and Public Education, a fund from the Colorado Education Association. Aurora’s teachers union contributed $35,000 to the committee. The DCTA Fund, a fund created by Denver’s teachers union, also contributed $85,000 to the committee.

Some of the group’s union money is also going to a slate of school board candidates in Mesa County and another in Brighton.

The Students for Education Reform Action Committee has spent equal amounts on two Denver candidates. One, Angela Cobián, is running in Denver’s District 2 against Gaytán and has been endorsed by incumbent Rosemary Rodriguez, who isn’t running again. The other is Rachele Espiritu, an incumbent running in northeast Denver’s District 4. The funds, which were collected during a previous campaign cycle and carried over into this one, have gone toward phone banking, T-shirts and campaign literature.

The group has endorsed Cobián, Espiritu and incumbent Barbara O’Brien, who holds an at-large seat. It did not endorse a candidate in the central-east Denver District 3 race, explaining that it prioritizes “working with communities that reflect the backgrounds and experiences of our members, which are typically low-income and students of color.”

Better Schools for a Stronger Colorado, a committee affiliated with the pro-reform Stand for Children organization, has spent a sizable portion of the more than $100,000 it’s raised thus far on online advertisements and mailers for O’Brien. It has also spent money on mailers for incumbent Mike Johnson, who represents District 3.

Stand for Children has endorsed O’Brien, Johnson and Cobián. The group chose not to endorse in the three-person District 4 race, explaining that both incumbent Espiritu and challenger Jennifer Bacon had surpassed its “threshold for endorsement.”

Another big spender is Raising Colorado, a group reporting $300,000 in donations from New York’s Education Reform Now — the national affiliate of Democrats for Education Reform. That group is spending money on mailers and digital media for four candidates in Denver: Espiritu, Cobián, Johnson and O’Brien, as well as two candidates for Aurora’s school board: Gail Pough and Miguel In Suk Lovato.

In Douglas County, the American Federation of Teachers, the nation’s second largest teachers unions has pumped $300,000 into a committee backing a slate of candidates that opposes the current direction of the state’s third largest school district.

The committee, Douglas Schools for Douglas Kids, has spent most of its war chest on producing TV, digital and mail advertising by firms in Washington D.C., and San Francisco.

The Douglas County arm of AFT lost its collective bargaining agreement with the district in 2012.

A group of parents that also supports the union-backed slate have formed a committee, as well. So far it has raised $42,750, records show. Unlike the union donation, most donations to this committee were small donations, averaging about $50 per person.

The parent committee has spent about $28,000 on T-shirts, bumper stickers, postage and yard signs, records show.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include more information about Americans for Prosperity’s Douglas County plans. 

what is a good school?

New York policymakers are taking a closer look at how they evaluate charter schools

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder
Erica Murphy, school director of Brownsville Ascend Lower Charter School in New York, oversees students in a fourth-grade English class.

New York is rethinking how it judges whether charter schools are successful and deserve to remain open — a discussion that comes as some top education policymakers have asked tough questions about the privately managed schools.

The state education department currently decides which of the more than 70 charter schools it oversees can stay open based largely on their test scores and graduation rates, though other factors like family involvement and financial management are also reviewed. A set of changes now being considered could add additional performance measures, such as the share of students who are chronically absent and student survey results.

Policymakers also discussed whether to change how they calculate charter-school student enrollment and retention.

The move — which got its first public discussion Monday during a Board of Regents meeting and is expected to become a formal proposal in December — would bring charter schools in line with a shift underway in how the state judges district-run schools. Under the new federal education law, the board has moved away from using test scores as the main metric for evaluating schools and will begin to track absences and eventually suspensions.

Since the state’s current system for evaluating charter schools was last revised in 2015, the board has added several new members and elected a new leader, Betty Rosa. Several members at a previous board meeting questioned the enrollment practices at a charter school in Brooklyn.

At Monday’s meeting, some suggested the schools attain high test scores partly by serving fewer high-needs students — and that the system for evaluating charters should take this into account.  

For instance, Regent Kathleen Cashin implied at Monday’s meeting that some charter schools achieve high test scores by pushing out students. Their motivation, she said, “is not pedagogic, I’ll tell you that.” She suggested that, in addition to tracking how well charter schools retain students, the state should survey parents who leave those schools to find out why.

Meanwhile, Chancellor Rosa suggested Monday that it’s unfair to compare charter schools that serve few high-needs students to traditional schools.

Charter schools receive autonomy from many rules, but in return they agree to meet certain performance targets — or risk closure if they do not. The state judges charters based on a variety of metrics, everything from their enrollment figures to how they respond to parent concerns. However, test scores and graduation rates are “the most important factor when determining to renew or revoke a school’s charter,” according to state documents.

Even if the state adds new measures that move beyond test scores, those will still hold the most weight, according to state officials.

The state is also considering whether to change how it measures charter schools’ enrollment and retention targets. Currently, schools must set targets for students with disabilities, English learners, and those eligible for free and reduced-priced lunch. If they fail to meet those targets, they must show they are making yearly progress towards meeting that goal.

During the state’s presentation, officials also floated the idea of a “fiscal dashboard,” which would display charter schools’ financial information. They also said they may compare charter high school graduation rates and Regents exam scores with those of the districts where they’re located, instead of using only the state average or their targets as a comparison point.