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.”

NEW MOMENT

Tennessee’s struggling state-run district just hired the ‘LeBron James’ of school turnaround work

PHOTO: Yalonda M. James/The Commercial Appeal
Sharon Griffin was the first chief of schools for Shelby County Schools. Starting in May, she will be the next leader of Tennessee's state-run district.

In hiring a Memphis native to save its most vulnerable schools, Tennessee is hedging its bets that she can finally get the job done.

Sharon Griffin’s new job is to fix the state’s struggling Achievement School District and use her experience to strengthen the relationships with local districts across the state.

But can she right the ship and make everyone happy?

“I know through my experience and the relationships I’ve built that we cannot only focus and prioritize our work, but strengthen the relationship [between local districts and the state] so all of our schools can be great places of learning,” Griffin said during a conference call this week.

Tennessee’s achievement district started out as the cornerstone of the state’s strategy to improve low performing schools in 2012. It promised to vault the state’s 5 percent of lowest-achieving schools to the top 25 percent within five years. But the district hasn’t produced large academic gains. It’s struggling to attract students and retain high-quality teachers. And local districts don’t like it because the state moved in and took over schools without input.

But as Tennessee works to make its state the national model of school achievement, naming a revered, longtime home-grown leader as point person for school turnaround is seen by many as a jolt of badly needed energy, and a savvy move in a state education system divided into many factions.

“I think it is a game-changer,” said Rep. Raumesh Akbari, D-Memphis, who has championed legislation to refine the achievement district. “The ASD badly needs a strong leader…. She definitely could be the bridge to bring us over troubled water in Tennessee.”


Read more about what Griffin’s hire means for the school district she is leaving behind. 


Education Commissioner Candice McQueen stressed during the call that Griffin’s appointment does not mean state-run schools will return to local control, even as she acknowledged that the district is at a turning point. It’s now the state’s tool of last resort.

“Whether that is transitioning a school back into the district when it is ready or whether it’s to intervene and move a school into the Achievement School District,” McQueen said. “This particular moment is about a person who can lead all of the state interventions as well as the specificity of the ASD.”

For Bobby White, the founder and CEO of a Memphis charter organization in the achievement district, the appointment signals a new chapter ahead. Griffin will directly oversee the district’s 30 charter schools in her new role.

He has been around for the highs and lows of Tennessee’s six-year experiment in state-run turnaround work.

“It feels like we got LeBron James, you know?” said White, who runs Frayser Community Schools. “It feels like she will have a vision and take us where we have been needing to go.”

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Frayser Community Schools CEO Bobby White has seen the highs and lows of the turnaround district.

Part of that vision will be finding new ways for charter schools and local districts to work together. In her roles as assistant commissioner of School Turnaround and chief of the Achievement School District, Griffin will oversee more than just the state-run district. She will have a hand in turnaround efforts across the state, such as a new partnership zone in Chattanooga. In the partnership zone, state and local leaders will work together to create mini-districts that are freed from many local rules.

Griffin stressed earlier this week that building relationships and fostering collaboration are among her top strengths — efforts that the state has failed in as local districts have sparred with state-runs schools over enrollment, facilities, and sharing student contact information.

“We have a level playing field now,” Griffin said. “I want to be clear, it’s not us against them. It’s a chance to learn not only from what ASD has been able to do alongside charter schools, but a chance to learn from each other as we move forward.”

Marcus Robinson, a former Indianapolis charter leader, said Griffin’s dynamic personality will be enough to get the job done.

“Dr. Griffin is magnetic,” said Robinson, who has helped raise money for Memphis schools through the Memphis Education Fund.

“She is the type of person who disarms people because she’s so authentic and genuine,” he said. “But she’s also experienced and wise and she knows school turnaround work.”

Griffin leaves behind a 25-year award-winning career with Shelby County Schools, the local district in Memphis. She has been a teacher and principal. She spearheaded the district’s turnaround work, and now serves as chief of schools. She will start her new role in May and will stay based in Memphis — something community members have long asked for.

Student at Frayser Achievement Academy.
PHOTO: Kyle Kurlick
A student walks through the hall of Frayser Achievement Elementary School, a state-run school.

Steve Lockwood has watched the state’s reform play out in his Memphis neighborhood of Frayser, whose schools were home to some of the first state takeovers.

When the state first started running schools in Frayser, it was with the promise that the academics and culture would improve, said Lockwood, who runs the Frayser Community Development Corporation.

“The ASD has struggled to deliver on their mission,” Lockwood said. “But the last few months have been modestly encouraging. The ASD has seemed willing to admit mistakes and shortcomings.”

Lockwood said he sees Griffin’s appointment as a commitment by the state to bettering relationships in Memphis — and added that he was surprised she signed up.

“It’s a tribute to the ASD that they have enough juice left to attract someone like Dr. Griffin,” Lockwood said.

Senior reporter Marta Aldrich contributed to this report.

unforced error

Mayor de Blasio says education department has culture of frivolous harassment complaints

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Mayor Bill de Blasio

A “hyper-complaint dynamic” within the city’s education department explains why so few of the harassment claims made against the agency are substantiated, Mayor Bill de Blasio said Wednesday.

“It’s pretty well known inside the education world of some people bringing complaints of one type or another for reasons that may not have to do with the specific issue — and this is not just about sexual harassment,” de Blasio said at a press conference.

“We have to investigate everything but it is a known fact that unfortunately there has been a bit of a hyper-complaint dynamic sometimes for the wrong reasons.”

The mayor’s comments come less than a week after the city released statistics that show nearly 500 education department employees filed sexual harassment complaints over the past four years — but just seven of the complaints were substantiated, according to the New York Times. That means only 2 percent of complaints were found to have merit — compared with nearly 17 percent at other agencies citywide.

During a question and answer session with reporters, de Blasio repeatedly said the education department has a cultural problem when it comes to reporting misconduct.

“I can’t parse out for you who was sincere and who was insincere and what type of offense,” de Blasio said. “I can’t get there. I can tell you the fact it’s unfortunately a part of the culture of an agency that is changing that we need to address.”

De Blasio quickly tried to walk back some of his comments on Twitter.

The mayor’s comments come as activists worldwide have raised awareness about sexual harassment, sparking the #MeToo movement. One element of that conversation has been the  importance of taking harassment claims seriously instead of dismissing them. More than three-quarters of the city’s teachers are women, according to the Independent Budget Office.

De Blasio’s responses drew sharp criticism from Michael Mulgrew, president of the city’s teachers union. “Our teachers have a tough enough job that they don’t have time to make frivolous claims,” he said in a statement.

Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza, who was accused of gender discrimination when he was a top school district official in San Francisco, said the education department has increased the number of investigators who look into such complaints.