Feature stories

United Community Schools showcase

‘We’re building whole children’

Alford (left) moderated a panel discussion that included (from second left) PS/I Miller Photography

Alford (left) moderated a panel discussion that included (from second left) PS/IS 184 Principal Lisa Linder, Community School Director Wanda Speede, librarian and Chapter Leader Denise Huggins, social worker Tamika Abdullah, literacy coach and advisory board member Nathaly Warner, and Green Generations Executive Director Adrienne Heim.

UFT Vice President for Elementary Schools Karen Alford (left) chats with teacher

UFT Vice President for Elementary Schools Karen Alford (left) chats with teacher Doreen Green, a co-chair of the PS 156 advisory board at PS 156 in Brooklyn.

United Community Schools Executive Director Doug Friedlander addresses those in

United Community Schools Executive Director Doug Friedlander addresses those in attendance.

Initiative gets new name

The UFT’s United Community Schools initiative has a new name, new branding and an expanded mission. The former NYC Community Learning Schools Initiative started in 2012 with six city public schools. It’s now serving 20,000 students in 31 schools — which would make it the third largest school district in the state. The percentage of students in United Community Schools that have disabilities, live in transitional housing, are English language learners or otherwise need extra support far exceeds the citywide average. The program provides that extra support by identifying “strengths and assets that already exist in a school community and asking how we can leverage them,” said Wanda Speede, the community school director at PS/IS 184 in Brooklyn.

Starting this year, the United Community Schools initiative will begin offering to create high-quality professional development and technical assistance for schools outside its network. UCS schools are “engines of innovation that enable us to identify community schools’ best practices,” said Executive Director Doug Friedlander. Now, when schools outside the network want to implement a community school model, they’ll have access to those best practices.

“We’ll keep increasing graduation rates and test scores and building whole, strong children,” said Karen Alford, the UFT vice president for elementary schools who also serves on the board of the United Community Schools initiative.

At the showcase, Alford beamed with pride at the program’s accomplishments and expressed optimism for its future. “We’re pushing ourselves to be bigger, better and brighter,” she said.

“Let’s build communities, not walls,” a kindergartner cried out to a packed auditorium at PS/IS 184 in Brownsville, Brooklyn, on March 21. The closing words of the young oratory contest winner were met with thunderous applause from the nearly 200 people in attendance at the annual showcase designed to promote the accomplishments of the newly renamed UFT United Community Schools initiative.

“We’re bringing academically grounded, evidence-based approaches,” said UFT Vice President Karen Alford, who has shepherded the initiative since its inception. “We’re building whole children and strengthening whole communities.”

United Community Schools Executive Director Doug Friedlander said PS/IS 184 is an exemplar of both the challenges the 31 schools in the initiative face and what the program can achieve. PS/IS 184, he said, has “overcome tremendous obstacles,” including the task of supporting a substantial population of students in temporary housing.

“Parents are talking with their feet,” said Friedlander, by enrolling their children in ever-greater numbers. “The richness of school culture, offerings and outcomes are illustrated by the fact that parents want their kids to come here,” he said.

Four grade-level winners of the school’s annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day oratory contest, who wrote and delivered speeches inspired by the civil rights leader, were featured at the event, as was a rousing performance by the school’s drum line.

The presentations represented just a few examples of the impressive programs at PS/IS 184 that include music and dance classes, vision and dental services and more.

Principal Lisa Linder pointed out that as many as 90 percent of the programs didn’t exist before the school joined the initiative.

“Seventeen years ago, when I started at PS/IS 184, we weren’t equipped to meet the students’ needs,” said Denise Huggins, the school librarian and the UFT chapter leader. Now, the school’s suspension rate is lower and 55 percent of the students living in transitional housing have perfect attendance, according to school data.

These encouraging numbers are due in part to “phenomenal” teacher support, Huggins said, with coordinated, schoolwide literacy and crisis intervention programs.

One 7th-grader said attending PS/IS 184 is a great experience because he gets to “learn new things and make new friends.” A 6th-grader was proud to call the school “a no-bully zone.”

United Community Schools social worker Tamika Abdullah spearheaded the anti-bullying initiative. It included an anti-bullying pledge that students and teachers signed, and poster boards designed by each class. It was one of several projects the school’s support staff took on once Abdullah was on board.

The PS/IS 184 mascot keeps the beat for the school’s drum line.The PS/IS 184 mascot keeps the beat for the school’s drum line.

“We work together as clinicians,” she said, so “kids get the help they need before things escalate to a crisis.”

PS/IS 184 Community School Director Wanda Speede says she treats every student as if they will be an agent of change and accomplishment.

“Not knowing what greatness will come from them,” she said, “if we give all students what they deserve, then we help them find what drives them.’’

See more photos of the showcase in the photo gallery »

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