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.”

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Sayonara, SESIS: New York City to scrap its beleaguered special education data system

PHOTO: Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat

New York City is scrapping a special education data system that has frustrated educators since it launched nearly a decade ago.

The troubles of SESIS, as the city’s Special Education Student Information System is called, are well known. Since its launch in 2011, the system — which required over $130 million to build — cost the city tens of millions of dollars in settlements, at times malfunctioned more than 800,000 times a day, and made it difficult to track whether students with disabilities are getting the services they need.

Education department officials said they have been able to “stabilize” the system in recent years. But they also have concluded that an entirely different system is needed. On Friday, they announced that they would phase SESIS out and replace it with something new — at a cost and on a timeline that is not yet clear.

The announcement comes on the eve of a City Council hearing set for Monday where council members say they will press for more transparency about special education.

“It was originally designed as a document management system,” Lauren Siciliano, the education department’s Deputy Chief Operating Officer, said about SESIS. “Think more of a filing cabinet right now as opposed to being able to follow a student through the process.”

Special education teachers often spent hours navigating a maze of drop-down menus — inputting data such as whether they met with a student and for how long — only to experience error messages that erased their answers.

Megan Moskop, a former special education teacher at M.S. 324 in Washington Heights, said she once encountered 41 error messages in two hours. What’s more, she said, the system didn’t reflect the experiences she had with her students.

“At the end of the day, I would be expected to go in, mark that they are present, mark whether they made progress toward a goal,” Moskop said. “It’s very standardized.”

It is not yet clear how quickly the education department will phase SESIS out. Officials said the city would begin a multistage process of identifying a vendor to create a new system by the end of March, then would ask for more detailed plans by the end of 2019. An official purchasing process would happen after that, Siciliano said, meaning that construction of  a new system will not begin for well over a year. Families and educators would be consulted throughout, officials said.

Linda Chen, the department’s chief academic officer, said a new system would lead to tangible improvements for students with disabilities.

“I do think that if we have clear and reliable visibility into the data it would absolutely allow us to better serve our students,” Chen said.

Flaws with SESIS have made it difficult to know how well the city is serving students with disabilities. Because the system was not set up to communicate with other city databases, city officials have had to manually tabulate data across systems. And the annual reports that show whether students are receiving required services may not be accurate because of the system’s flaws, officials have warned.

The system’s glitches also made the user experience so cumbersome that teachers had to spend time on nights and weekends entering data. An arbitrator eventually ordered the city to pay over $38 million in teacher overtime.

Additionally, the system has sparked legal action. Former Public Advocate Letitia James filed a lawsuit claiming that SESIS was to blame for some children not receiving services as well as lost Medicaid payments. Between 2012 and 2015, according to the IBO, the city collected $373 million less in Medicaid reimbursements than officials projected.

Some advocates said that given SESIS’s troubled history, it makes sense to find alternatives.

“There has to be a strong data system in place,” said Maggie Moroff, a disability policy expert at Advocates for Children, a nonprofit advocacy organization. “We are eager to see a better system to be put in place, but are really worried about that transition period.”

Advocates have also pushed the city to make the data SESIS tracks directly available to parents.

“We will absolutely be looking at that,” Siciliano said.

next steps

Charter schools racing to find new buildings as district ends their leases

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Escuela Avancemos will move to a new building.

At least two Detroit charter schools are racing against the clock to find new buildings for more than 500 students next fall after the city district decided not to renew their leases.

It’s the latest move in an ongoing effort by the Detroit Public Schools Community District to get out of the charter business, and it means another bout of uncertainty for schools that enroll hundreds of children in Detroit.

Leaders of GEE-Edmonson Academy and GEE-White Academy face the daunting challenge of finding new buildings before the start of the next school year. Another school, Escuela Avancemos, already found a new building. More schools, including Rutherford Winans Academy, have leases that expire this year, but their representatives did not return requests for comment on whether their lease was renewed.

Most students at the two schools run by Global Educational Excellence (GEE) walk every day, Superintendent Michael Conran said. If a new building can’t be found in those neighborhoods, the school’s would face new transportation challenges, casting doubt on their ability to maintain their enrollment.

“We were clearly not anticipating that the leases would not be renewed,” Conran said. “That news came pretty late, I believe it was after the New Year. That’s quite a notification to the boards in such a short period of time.”

The challenges for these schools don’t end there. The district could also decline to renew their charters for the GEE schools when they expire in June, potentially forcing them to find new backers as well as new buildings.

More than one charter school has already jumped ship. Escuela Avancemos, a small school in southwest Detroit, will begin the coming year in a new building and with a new authorizer, Central Michigan University. Officials had begun searching for a new building even before they were notified last month that their lease would not be renewed.

“For the protection of our school, we’ve had to take matters into our own hands to guarantee our future,” said Sean Townsin, principal at Escuela Avancemos.

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti made clear soon after he took the helm of the district in 2017 that he believed the district’s resources should be channeled toward its own students, not toward charter schools.

He reiterated that position last year when the district severed its ties with a three-school network of charter schools, forcing it to scramble to find new buildings and a new charter. Parents were forced to choose between an extraordinarily long commute to the new site and making an unwanted switch to another school. Enrollment was cut in half.

Supporters of the move pointed out at the time that those schools had been district schools until they were spun off by state-appointed emergency managers. In a city with lots of school options and few quality schools, they argued, some consolidation is necessary.

Most charters in Detroit are overseen by Michigan’s public universities, but 10 schools are supervised by the Detroit district.

A handful of those schools also rent their school buildings from the district, putting them in a particularly vulnerable position should the district decide that it would rather not support charter schools — its chief competitors for students and state funding.

In a statement about those schools, Chrystal Wilson, a spokeswoman for the district, said the the charter schools could eventually be replaced with district schools.

“Now that we have the leadership to rebuild the district, we need to review and maximize our property assets. This means possibly re-using currently leased schools for new DPSCD schools, replacing older buildings with high repair costs, or adding a school in an area where facility usage and class sizes are high where another traditional public school does not exist. We understand and accept if district charters are leaving for other authorizers.”

No matter the district’s plans, Conran said the Global Educational Excellence schools would continue trying to serve students.

But he asked for transparency from the district and time to plan.

“I’m just simply waiting to hear from DPS any decisions they anticipate making in as timely a manner as we need to make sure we can continue to support these students and their families,” he said.