Drema Brown

First Person

New York

Vigorous effort yields high-need students for new charter school

When leaders of the Children's Aid Society set out to develop a charter school with wraparound social services for the Bronx's neediest elementary school students, they understood the challenges before them. Putting the social services in place would be complicated but in reach for the nonprofit group, which has connected service providers and offered its own programs for more than 150 years. And Drema Brown, the CAS official leading the project, would draw on her experience as a school principal to develop the school's academic program. But making sure that the Children's Aid Society Community Charter School enrolled the highest-needs students would be a taller order — even though the school promised after-school programming, a longer school year, and a wealth of counselors that would be particularly helpful for them. A major reason is that charter schools' admissions rules favor families with the stability and savvy to enter a lottery that takes place more than five months before the start of school. “It is no secret that charter schools are having to deal with the idea that there is a selection process which would seem to prevent the kids who need it most from getting into the schools,” Gregory Morris, the assistant to CAS's president, said earlier this year. “We’re going to use the foundations we’ve already laid to be certain that we’re going to increase the odds of kids who would be least likely to normally get into a school like this.” So the group placed ads in bilingual publications and deployed staff who work with families around the Bronx to spread the word about the new school. Bilingual CAS social workers, canvassers, and caseworkers worked together to reach families who otherwise might have missed the chance to try for the charter school option. Now, with less than a week to go until the school's application deadline, it looks like CAS has gotten what it set out for. Of just over 300 applications the school has already received, 70 percent are from English language learners, nearly 70 percent are from single-parent households, and more than 20 percent are in the child welfare system, according to Brown.
New York

Panel: To serve poor children, a need to go beyond academics

To help poor students do better in school, what comes first: tackling out-of-school factors tied to poverty, like health care or housing, or boosting academic offerings at school? A panel yesterday offered a novel answer: Neither. Supports should target students in school, through teachers, they said, but they shouldn't be purely academic. Those supports, panel members said, range from teaching students skills to calm down during a rage to helping parents access social services they might not even know they are eligible for. The panel featured leaders from three city organizations devoted to providing these supports: Drema Brown, the vice president of education at the Children's Aid Society, Pamela Cantor, president of the non-profit Turnaround for Children, and Robert Hughes, president of New Visions for Public Schools, as well as James Shelton, the Obama administration official who heads up innovation efforts. In the past, “Words like ‘social and emotional development’ of children were in the margins, nice to do, but not essential,” Cantor said. “A conversation is being framed today that we all can get behind, that a high-performing, high-poverty school has to do a lot—a lot more than is asked of schools to do." At one point, a person in the audience praised the direction of the conversation but asked the panel why their topic — students' social and emotional needs — gets short shrift in the education debate. "Well, our communications strategy sucks!" Shelton responded, to laughter from the audience. 
New York

Venerable social services group wades into school management

As a Bronx elementary school principal, Drema Brown routinely encountered students who were struggling to complete schoolwork without adequate health care, a stable address, or even electricity. Challenges like those held Brown back from boosting academic achievement. Even worse, she said, she couldn't solve the problems wrought by poverty, either. “I might take it for granted that I can just take my daughter to an eye doctor’s appointment and I have insurance that is going to get her that $300, $400 pair of glasses. But sometimes in a school something as simple as that could languish for an entire school year,” said Brown, who headed P.S. 230 in the South Bronx's District 9 from 2003 to 2007. Now a top official at the Children's Aid Society, the 158-year-old social services provider, Brown is leading an experiment in integrating health and social services into a school setting. Children's Aid is set to open its charter school in the Morrisania section of the Bronx next fall. The Board of Regents formally approved the school's charter earlier today. Plans for the school have been in the works since 2009, when Richard Buery became Children's Aid's president and CEO. Buery, who has a background in law and education non-profit management, asked CAS staff who worked with community schools to think about how a community school operated by CAS could have a longer-term impact than the agency’s usual school partnerships. The group already works with city schools to deliver social services and connect after-school programs. And since 2000 the group has run a full clinic in Morrisania, offering preventive services and a meeting place for families whose children are in foster care. But the new project marks Children's Aid's first venture into school management. The clinic “is a visible presence in the community with lots of welcoming faces," Brown said. "Our mission now is to a establish a school that feels the same way for kids and their families so that education becomes more attractive and a welcoming experience." That's a sentiment that hasn't always been present in the South Bronx, which has a longstanding reputation for poverty, crime and lackluster public schools.