The future of 'community schools'

‘Zero student achievement’: Fate of Newark’s $10M ‘community schools’ program is in doubt

PHOTO: Chalkbeat/Patrick Wall
Belmont Runyon is one of five South Ward schools in a program designed to infuse high-poverty schools with extra resources.

Three years ago, Newark unveiled a high-profile experiment: Rather than close low-performing schools in the city’s impoverished South Ward, the district would try to revive them with an infusion of extra services and staffers.

It was a major victory for Mayor Ras Baraka, who convinced the district’s state-appointed superintendent to devote $10 million in private funds to the effort, and for local activists and teachers unions who had long endorsed this “community-school” approach — transforming schools into service-rich hubs able to treat the many ailments, from hunger to asthma to mental-health crises, that can impede some students’ learning.

Now, with the program still in its infancy, Newark’s new superintendent — a homegrown educator who is close to the mayor, the union, and those same activists — is declaring it a failure.

“I have zero student achievement. I have poor attendance. And I have a lot of people who are getting money in their wallets,” Superintendent Roger León said at last month’s board meeting, before promising big changes. “I assure you the city will see what a true community school is when we move forward in actually bringing one about.”

Beyond those remarks, León has not spoken publicly about the South Ward community schools effort or his plans for an alternative approach. He declined to be interviewed for this story.

But people who have spoken with the superintendent, including Baraka, say León is dismayed by the program’s uneven implementation and disappointing early results for students, which even some community-school supporters acknowledge. Those familiar with León’s thinking say he envisions a broader, citywide effort that draws from an earlier community-school program called the “Newark Global Village School Zone,” which a previous superintendent abruptly ended.

It could be a risky move to try to create community schools throughout the city when the district has yet to sustain them on a small scale. To be successful, the district will need parents and educators to embrace the model and partner organizations to lend financial and technical assistance.

Baraka, the former principal of the high school that was the centerpiece of the “Global Village,” said he believes that León can garner the support of those groups — but first he must share his vision with the public.

“He needs to articulate that, tell people — and I told him that,” Baraka said, adding that local philanthropies, nonprofits, and universities are eager to aid León’s efforts. “What they need now is instruction. That’s where you get a lot of anxiety from people.”

Yet even if León reveals his plan and secures public support for it, he will still likely face the same challenges that have imperiled community-schools efforts in other districts, including high costs, the difficulty of improving schools’ academic programs while simultaneously rolling out new social services, and the pressure to show positive results quickly. And, as León himself may demonstrate, new district leaders have a tendency to overhaul or scrap their predecessors’ programs before they have had time to bear fruit.

“Roger’s got to learn from the past,” said Pedro Noguera, an education professor who previously helped run the Global Village. “There’s a lot of frustration with promises that have been made and not fulfilled.”

“Here’s some money. Run with it.”

The “South Ward Community Schools Initiative” kicked off in Dec. 2015 to great fanfare. It promised to strengthen the teaching at five low-achieving, high-poverty schools while also bringing in medical and mental-health services for students and involving their parents in decision making.

PHOTO: Newark Public Schools
Mayor Ras Baraka announced the South Ward Community Schools Initiative in Dec. 2015 alongside then-Superintendent Christopher Cerf and one of the program’s architects, Lauren Wells.

A three-year pilot program, it was billed as an alternative to closing troubled schools and opening charter schools — controversial policies that Baraka and local activists had railed against. In a coup for those critics, Superintendent Christopher Cerf agreed to fund the program with leftover money that Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and other private donors had supplied to bankroll the earlier reforms.

The effort was hobbled, however, by a chaotic launch, according to experts and current and former officials.

The program’s planning phase in early 2016 was rushed, and its leadership was muddled. An outside group hired to help oversee the effort, Strong Healthy Communities Initiative, left just as classes started that fall and was not replaced for several months. And the district and mayor’s office, which had joint control of the program, did not agree to a governance structure until 2017.

Most controversially, more than $6 million of the $10 million allocated to the program over three years was spent in year one, according to Ronald Chaluisán Batlle, executive director of the Newark Trust for Education, a nonprofit brought in to help manage the program beginning in 2017. Chaluisán Batlle said records he found after arriving indicated that about 30 teachers and other school workers had been hired in the first year. Experts strongly discourage schools from using grants to pay employees because the positions may prove unsustainable after the seed money runs out.

“That first year, schools were essentially told, ‘Here’s some money. Run with it,” said Mateus Baptista, a former education policy advisor to the mayor, who blamed the district for the lax oversight. “There was no strategy, no intentionality.”

To some: “It’s working.” To others: It “has not been implemented.”

Despite the bumpy rollout, resources eventually began flowing to schools.

PHOTO: Chalkbeat/Patrick Wall
Antoinette Baskerville Richardson, the mayor’s chief education officer, spoke during a community-school forum in the South Ward in Dec. 2018.

Students got free dental exams and after-school tutoring. Teachers were trained on how to help students cope with trauma. Parents attended weekend workshops and, at Belmont Runyon School, picked up fresh fruit and vegetables from a community food pantry.

Attendance workers were hired to closely monitor chronically absent students — a widespread problem at the pilot schools — and Rutgers University partnered with Malcolm X Shabazz High School to provide additional support. The district also successfully applied for more than $23 million in federal school-improvement grants, which paid for extra staffers and training to improve the culture at the five schools.

Charity Haygood, principal of Avon Avenue School, said she has been able to hire a full-time social worker, who has counseled students dealing with the loss of a parent or thoughts of suicide. The attendance counselors, who live in the neighborhood, have worked with parents to make sure their children had uniforms and a way to get to school, she said. As a result, fewer students are regularly absent.

“It’s working,” Haygood said. “There’s an impact.”

However, it’s hard to discern an impact at all the schools. Apart from Avon, they continue to suffer from above-average absenteeism rates for the district, according to November attendance figures. And only Avon and Shabazz saw modest gains in their English and math test scores last year; the other three schools saw declines in one or both subjects.

Experts warn that it’s too soon to expect significant results, and that a more sophisticated data analysis is needed to isolate the program’s effects. An outside evaluator, Metis Associates, has been hired to conduct such an analysis this school year — though Superintendent León does not appear to be waiting for that assessment to come to his own conclusions.

In August, Metis completed an initial evaluation based on interviews and site visits, which contained both good and bad news for the program. The evaluators said it had made “significant progress” since launching. But they also catalogued a number of remaining obstacles, including the lack of a data system to track the services provided and outcomes achieved; a need for more training and resources, according to school staffers; and “tensions and a lack of clarity” about the role of the district, the mayor’s office, and the program’s nonprofit partners.

Even some community-school proponents believe the South Ward effort has not lived up to its potential.

Viva White, a social worker whose son is in the fifth grade at Belmont Runyon, said the school has offered some new services such as free haircuts, vision screenings, and the family food pantry. But she has not seen the sort of systematic changes — revamped classroom materials that better reflect students’ experiences, discipline policies centered on conflict resolution and peer mediation, parental input in key school decisions — that researchers say are hallmarks of successful community schools.

“I believe it can work and turn around academic achievement, behavior problems, morale,” White said. However, so far, she added, “The model has not been implemented the way it needs to be.”

The district declined to authorize Belmont Runyon’s principal to be interviewed for this story.

“A 10-year effort, not a two or three-year project”

The question that close observers are asking now is whether Superintendent León will try to shore up and build on the South Ward community schools program or scrap it and start his own effort from scratch.

PHOTO: Chalkbeat/Patrick Wall
Supt. Roger León spoke at a South Ward back-to-school event in Aug. 2018 at Shabazz High School.

Experts, who note the enormous health and academic challenges faced by many students at the five schools, say that community-school programs typically require an extended period to take root. It would be a waste, these experts say, to abandon the initiative — a fate that has befallen similar initiatives in Newark before.

“They need to see this as a 10-year effort, not a two or three-year project,” said Jane Quinn, the former director of the Children’s Aid National Center for Community Schools, which has provided technical support to the South Ward program.

León has already provided signs that he is skeptical of extending the program.

The top district officials who were overseeing it — including the program director, Brooke Tippens, the chief academic officer, and two assistant superintendents — have all been ousted, reassigned, or quit. León or his deputies did not meet with them before their departure to be briefed on the program, according to three former officials. And their replacements have often been absent from leadership meetings with the mayor’s office and the Newark Trust for Education.

“We haven’t had regular representation from the district,” said Chaluisán Batlle of the Trust. “We’ve been working to get that.”

Last month, representatives of city agencies, nonprofits, and universities that support the South Ward program met with the mayor and superintendent to discuss its progress. But León stunned some listeners when he described his vision for the district but did not mention the program, according to attendees.

“People in the room were like, ‘Oh, my God, he didn’t say anything about community schools,’” one person recalled.

Antoinette Baskerville Richardson, the mayor’s chief education officer, said she has no doubt that León will incorporate community-school tenets into his yet-to-be-revealed plans for the district. However, it is unclear whether the South Ward program will continue in its current form.

“Whether there will be community schools is not the question,” she said. “What this means for the South Ward Community Schools Initiative is the question.”

“We want a seat at the table.”

As León crafts a long-term strategy for the district, he has been looking back at the “Global Village” — an effort spearheaded by researchers from New York University in 2009 that focused on seven Central Ward schools, including Central High School, where Ras Baraka was principal.

Modeled on the famed Harlem Children’s Zone in New York City, the program was designed to improve schools in a single high-poverty neighborhood while also connecting students and their families with healthcare, healthy food, and affordable housing. Using public and private funds, the schools extended their hours, brought together their teachers for joint trainings, and made sure their courses were aligned so students could progress seamlessly from the elementary schools to the high school.

But, as is common in urban school systems, the program fell victim to a change in district leadership. In 2012, the new superintendent, Cami Anderson, pulled the plug on the Global Village and replaced it with her own school-improvement program. Now, Leon may be pursuing the same strategy, but with a twist: out with the old and in with the older.

Since becoming superintendent, León has reached out to people who were connected with the Global Village, including former principals and the program’s architects — Noguera, now a professor at University of California, Los Angeles, and Lauren Wells, a former NYU research director who became Baraka’s chief education advisor. Wells is now helping León develop his district plan.

According to Baraka, León has said that he wants to “replicate” the Global Village, but on a wider scale. In response to emailed questions asking whether León planned to continue the South Ward program or bring back elements of the Global Village, a district spokeswoman replied “yes” to both.

Wells, while declining to go into detail about León’s plans, said in an interview that she does not believe it is an “either-or” choice between the South Ward program or the Global Village, as both adopt a community-school approach. The key, she added, is to make sure schools work together using similar strategies.

“The city,” she said, “needs coherence and collaboration.”

As León and his advisors privately determine their next steps, some Newark residents are calling for more “community” in community schools. At a recent forum in the South Ward, Maggie Freeman, a local activist and political leader, said families should be involved in designing community schools and shaping their future.

“We want a seat at the table to determine what’s on the menu,” she said. “We don’t just want to be spoon-fed.”

NO DEAL

Talks collapse, Denver teachers to vote on strike

PHOTO: Erica Meltzer/Chalkbeat

The Denver teachers union will hold a vote on whether to strike after months of negotiations over pay ended in deadlock.

The bargaining team of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association and officials with Denver Public Schools met all day Friday and exchanged several proposals, but they could not close a gap of more than $8 million between the two sides.

Around 10:30 p.m., Superintendent Susana Cordova said the district’s analysis found the union’s latest proposal would actually widen the money gap between the two sides, but said the district wanted to keep talking.

“It’s late, but it’s not midnight,” she said, referring to the deadline to reach an agreement.

Rob Gould, a special education teacher and member of the bargaining team, ended the discussions at that point.

“We came here tonight in good faith,” he said. “We came to correct a longstanding problem in Denver. We made movement tonight, and we’re going to talk to our teachers tomorrow.”

The room packed with red-shirted teachers erupted in cheers. Some were also crying.

Becca Hendricks, a math teacher at Emily Griffith Technical College and a member of the bargaining unit, said she felt mixed emotions at the prospect of a strike: excited at the ability to make a big change for teachers and weighed down by the responsibility.

“It doesn’t feel good,” she said. “It impacts a lot of lives.”

Cordova said she was disappointed that the union called off talks.

“We’re not at the end of the day,” she said after the meeting broke up. “We were really willing to keep talking.”

For Hendricks, it didn’t seem like there was anywhere to go.

“It became clear that the money was not a place they were going to move,” she said. “That’s a hard sticking point for us. We’ve had little to no increases for so many years, so it will take a lot of money to make up all the damage that has accrued.”

A strike requires a vote of two-thirds of the union members who cast votes, which represents about 64 percent of Denver teachers, according to the union. Teachers can join the union even on the day of the vote, which will occur on Saturday and Tuesday, but they must be members to vote.

Cordova said she would ask the state to intervene if there is a positive strike vote. The state could require the two sides to do mediation, use a fact-finder, or hold hearings to try to reach a resolution. But the state can also decline to intervene if officials don’t believe they can be productive. That intervention would delay a strike but not prevent one if the two sides still can’t agree.

The earliest that a strike could occur is Jan. 28.

Denver teachers are feeling emboldened by a surge in activism by their peers across the country that began last year and continues to build. The vote here comes as a teachers strike in Los Angeles enters its second week.

The Denver Classroom Teachers Association and Denver Public Schools are not negotiating their master contract — that deal was finalized in 2017 — but rather the ProComp system, which provides teachers bonuses for things like teaching in a high-poverty school, getting strong evaluations, having students who earn high test scores, or teaching in a high-performing school.

Denver voters approved a special tax to pay for these bonuses in 2005, which today generates around $33 million a year.

That system has been through several iterations but has been a source of frustration for many teachers because their pay was hard to understand and changed based on factors they could not control. District officials and the majority of the school board believe it is critical to keep bonuses for teachers who work in high-poverty schools as a way to retain those teachers. Turnover is a major problem in these schools and has big effects on students.

The average Denver teacher earns about $51,000 in base pay and $57,000 with incentives, according to data from the state education department and the district. That’s less than teachers in districts like Boulder Valley, Cherry Creek, and Littleton.

Both sides’ proposals moved teachers to much more predictable salary schedules that allowed for reliable raises if teachers stayed with the district and earned more education. The district proposal put an additional $20.5 million into teacher compensation, while the union’s last offer put an extra $28 million toward compensation.

The district spends about $436 million a year on teacher pay. The money for the raises would come from a combination of increased state funding and cuts to central office staff that Cordova described as deep and painful.

In addition to the total amount of money, the status of those high-poverty bonuses was a major sticking point. The district wants higher bonuses, and the union wants to put more of that money into base pay.

“To be able to bridge the gap between what is the difference in our two proposals is more than the $8 million that they were talking about because we were not willing to compromise on the need to recruit and retain teachers in our high poverty schools,” Cordova said. “We know for purposes of equity that it is so important to retain teachers in our schools that need them the most.”

But union members argued that a more reliable way to keep these teachers, who are often relatively early in their career, would be to offer them ways to more quickly increase their salary and have more stability in their economic situation. They said every other district in the region uses a reliable salary schedule, and Denver should, too.

That stance marks a major departure from some of the ideas in ProComp, among a suite of policies that have earned Denver a national reputation as an education reform hotbed over the last two decades, though both sides’ proposals met the letter of the ballot language.

Hendricks described driving a Lyft, delivering food, and tutoring to make ends meet, despite having 11 years of experience, a master’s degree, and working with at-risk students at the Emily Griffith campus. She had to move out of Denver and still has a roommate at 33 years old.

Hendricks said the union’s proposal offers higher lifetime earnings and the ability to earn raises more quickly. Cordova argues the district proposal is the stronger one for teachers, representing the largest single increase for teachers in district history and one that will give Denver teachers higher lifetime earners than those in any other metro area district.

Both sides will be trying to make their case over the next four days to teachers weighing their own compensation, the best interests of their colleagues and students, their savings accounts, and other factors in a strike vote.

More than 5,300 teachers and specialized service providers, such as social workers, psychologists, and speech language pathologists work in 147 district-managed schools. Roughly 71,000 students attend those schools.

Another 21,000 students attend Denver’s 60 charter schools.  Charter teachers are not union members, and those schools will not be affected by whatever happens next.

Cordova said she was committed to keeping schools open and providing a quality educational experience for students even if there is a strike. In Los Angeles, where teachers are also on strike, many students are watching movies and playing games during the school day. The district will offer higher pay to substitute teachers and deploy central office staff to classrooms with prepared lesson plans, she said.

Students who get subsidized lunches will still be able to eat at school.

counter-point

Four takeaways from New York City’s response to discrimination charges in specialized high schools lawsuit

PHOTO: Flickr
Brooklyn Technical is one of the city's prestigious specialized high schools.

New York City lawyers are asking a judge to allow the education department to move forward with admissions changes aimed at better integrating the city’s elite specialized high schools, saying the tweaks are not meant to discriminate against Asian students.

Instead, lawyers for the city argue the changes serve the “most disadvantaged” students, leading to “greater geographic and socioeconomic diversity” in the schools, “which may in turn increase racial diversity.”

At issue: The city’s plan to expand the Discovery program, which offers admission to students who score below the cutoff on the exam that currently stands as the sole entrance criteria to eight specialized high schools. The city also wants to change who qualifies for the program, limiting Discovery to students who attend schools where at least 60 percent of their peers are economically needy. (Previously, eligibility was based only on each students’ individual need.)

In December, Asian-American parents and organizations sued the city, claiming the reforms would discriminate against their children. They asked for a preliminary injunction, which would prevent the changes from going forward until the court case is decided — and affect the current admissions cycle already underway for eighth-graders enrolling in high school next year.

Asian students make up 62 percent of enrollment in the specialized high schools, but only 16 percent of students citywide. Meanwhile, black and Hispanic students comprise just 10 percent of enrollment in the eight schools, but 70 percent of enrollment citywide.

The city’s lawyers make a number of arguments in defense of the admissions overhaul, claiming the plaintiffs can’t bring the case because they don’t have the proper legal standing, and that it’s in the government’s interest to promote school diversity.

We already know the suit is likely to cause a delay in when students receive their high school admissions offer letters — dragging out what is already a stressful process for many families. Here are four other takeaways from the city’s response, which you can read here.

We finally know how many students will be admitted through Discovery this year, if the expansion is allowed to move forward.

Enrollment through the Discovery programs is expected to grow to 13 percent of seats at specialized high schools this summer, city lawyers wrote. That would bring the total number of students admitted through Discovery to 528, more than double last summer’s class of 252.

City leaders have previously said Discovery would be expanded gradually to eventually account for 20 percent of seats by the 2020-2021 school year. But it had been unclear until now what this year’s expansion numbers would be.

It’s uncertain whether the expansion will work as city leaders hope.

The city projects that black and Hispanic enrollment at specialized high schools would increase only modestly under the full Discovery expansion: from 9 percent to 16 percent. But city lawyers called that a “rough prediction, unlikely to definitively predict the future ethnic and racial composition of the students.”

The city’s modeling didn’t account for how many students might turn down offers to enroll in Discovery, according to court filings.

Of course, it’s possible the city is playing up the uncertainty of demographic changes for the purposes of the court fight.

Years later, a federal civil rights investigation into the specialized high schools’ admissions process is still open.

In 2012, the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund and other organizations filed a civil rights complaint with the U.S. Department of Education over the lack of diversity at the city’s specialized high schools.

The complaint argued that the admissions test for the sought-after schools had a disparate impact on black and Hispanic students and also took aim at the city for letting the Discovery program wither. (By 2011, only four of the high schools participated in Discovery, according to court records.)

Although the complaint hasn’t made headlines in years, it’s still under investigation, city lawyers wrote.

The Office of Civil Rights “has requested and received from DOE numerous documents and had interviewed a number of witnesses,” according to court records.

Some light was shed on how the Discovery expansion was crafted behind the scenes.

For years, Mayor Bill de Blasio promised to tackle admissions reform for the specialized high schools — but he waited until his second term to announce the proposal that’s now being challenged in court. Now we know a little more about how the current proposal was drafted.

The plan to expand Discovery and change eligibility was developed by a “decision-making group” of unnamed officials and led by Deputy Chancellor Josh Wallack, according to a statement Wallack submitted to the court. The group, in turn, recommended the changes to the schools chancellor, Richard Carranza.

“I believe the decision-making group’s recommendation was decisive in the chancellor’s decision to expand the Discovery program and adopt the revised criteria,” Wallack’s statement says.