Testimony regarding oversight of community schools and Renewal Schools and Intro 262

Testimony of UFT Vice President for Elementary Schools Karen Alford before the New York City Council Committee on Education

Good morning. My name is Karen Alford, and I am the United Federation of Teachers’ vice president for elementary schools. On behalf of the union’s 185,000 members, I would like to thank Chairman Mark Treyger and the Committee on Education for holding today’s hearing.

First, we congratulate you on assuming the leadership of the Education Committee. As a former classroom teacher, we know your experience will serve you well as you seek to make a difference in the lives of our 1.1 million public school children.

We deeply appreciate the City Council’s support for the UFT’s Community Learning Schools Initiative, as demonstrated by your generous appropriations in the city’s expense budget and by individual council members, who through their discretionary budgets, fund CLS projects in their districts. We must also acknowledge that when we launched CLS in 2012, the New York City Council was one of the three anchor funders.

Chairman Treyger, we always value your committee’s call for greater accountability from the Department of Education. We therefore welcome your oversight of New York City’s community school models — particularly with an emphasis on the UFT’s signature community learning schools — and its best practices. We also recognize the importance of reviewing the challenges and opportunities facing schools in the city’s renewal school initiative. Finally, as your committee reviews school-level data reporting for students receiving special education services, we offer support for Council member Donovan Richards’ bill, Intro 262. Council member Richards has CLS schools Queens High School for Information, Research, and Technology (QIRT) and PS 52 in his district.

Significant challenges and opportunities facing NYC renewal schools

As you know, the UFT strongly supports efforts to ensure that our schools which face the greatest challenges have the resources and supports they need to effectively serve their students, and the district’s renewal program has seen some successes in addressing these critical needs. Like you, we want to ensure that schools meeting their growth targets do not lose the very funding and supports which have played a role in their growth, especially since the schools in the program consistently enroll a higher proportion of students with high needs than the average district school. 

When a skillful principal brings the staff together to work collaboratively, the students perform better and the schools experience greater success. The renewal program needs improvement; that’s not in dispute. These school communities deserve effective leadership, as well as on-going support and resources so all students receive a quality education.   

Community schools models, a distinction and a difference  

What makes our UFT community learning schools stand apart? It’s three-fold. First, it’s the level and the quality of the support we provide to help make the schools self-sufficient. Without relying on the DOE school-based budgets, our support enables schools in the CLS initiative to withstand political and funding fluctuations and sustain their programs.  Second, we emphasize the effectiveness and the impact of CLS services and interventions. For instance we make sure that the sign-ups for our school-based health clinics meet a high percentage of the students. In our role as community school directors and program managers rather than select the services for the school teams, we help them maximize the effectiveness — so students and families get the right supports from the right staffers. Finally, we provide the ongoing professional learning and system support for the advisory boards and school teams that ultimately reinforces their strong programming and sound decision making.

Many approaches are labeled community schools and the common denominator typically centers on wrap-around services, although not exclusively, to students in high poverty district schools. We understand the confusion in our own city where the DOE has designated the schools in its renewal program as community schools; yet, the model is distinct from the UFT’s 29-school CLS initiative. For instance, the school selection process: the administration targeted persistently low-performing schools, prescribing a model where programs and services are delivered by a single anchor community-based organization (CBO) embedded in the school building, led by a director who manages the resources. In the UFT model, our schools self-select for the CLS designation, voluntarily entering a multi-layered application and vetting process.

We’re not here to compare our approaches. After all, our union has long maintained the position that one-size does not fit all. We came to champion what we believe works well in many, but not all schools and to illustrate the best practices from our initiative that are removing barriers to learning and helping our students achieve at higher levels. Equally important, while our schools weren’t chosen based on a performance threshold please know our CLS team walks into some challenging school environments. These schools serve some of the highest needs students. Yet, our union’s CLS schools are improving faster than the city’s district schools, even though they have more students in poverty, more English language learners and more students with disabilities.

Understanding our UFT community learning school model centered on collaboration and professional support

Collaborative school communities that give voice to educators, parents and community members together with the school administration exemplify our community learning schools. This takes shape in a number of ways. In our model, the community school director (CSD) serves as the key point person responsible for integrating the programs and services and managing the partnerships within each commu­nity learning school. CSDs annually conduct a needs assessment, with the aim of strategically aligning programs and services to meet the particular needs of their school community. While the central CLS team vets candidates for these positions, each school team interviews and selects its own CSD, reinforcing an authentic school-based point of view.

Each school forms its own advisory board of internal and external stakeholders to serve as the decision-making body for the CLS initiative. The advisory board crafts the school’s vision and is accountable for executing that plan.

Consistency throughout the implementation of the community school model is a crucial element for the model’s success. The UFT adds significant value by ensuring with each cohort that we’ve added that there’s consistency and fidelity to the CLS implementation. The UFT’s support also brings additional resources, mentoring and best practices to these schools. Nine of our CLS schools have UFT Teacher Centers operating in their buildings, to provide quality, on-site, relevant professional development. Our CLS central support staff helps schools build internal capacity to turn their vision into reality. Two of the CLS central support staff are credentialed Teacher Center staff developers available to help all 29 schools.

Whole child education in action

Our schools face pervasive challenges, but our holistic approach to children and community sets the stage for them to thrive. When I speak of two community learning schools from our first cohort in the 2012-13 school year, Coney Island’s PS 188 and Community Health Academy of the Heights — commonly known as CHAH — Chairman Treyger and Council member Mark Levine can bear witness to our work. I can call out Ozone Park’s PS 65 and the International School for Liberal Arts in Kingsbridge — commonly known as ISLA — from our second cohort in the 2013-14 school year, and Council members Erich Ulrich and Andrew Cohen know first-hand how CLS has made a mark. Or we can look at Staten Island’s Curtis High School and the Gotham Professional Arts Academy in Bedford-Stuyvesant, where Council members Debi Rose and Alicka Ampry-Samuel can attest to the programs and services making a difference for children and families.

Through public and private partnerships, the Community Learning Schools Initiative transforms a school building into a true community hub.  From an initial, as well as on-going assessment of the needs, we align programs and services from six core pillars: health and wellness; educator support; academic support; expanded learning time; parent and family engagement and community engagement. Through these sustainable programs and services, our CLS model seeks to remove the barriers to learning while nurturing the whole child physically, emotionally and mentally. Again, let me underscore the critical role that our CSDs play in bringing the concept to life daily in the fabric of each school.

As a professional union engaged in this work, we have a unique proposition. Let me share some examples where our CLS public-private-union partnerships are making a difference.

PS 188 – Coney Island

Children from the high poverty neighborhoods surrounding Coney Island’s PS 188 faced a number of challenges when the school joined our first CLS cohort in the 2012-13 school year— worsened by Hurricane Sandy. The health and wellness barriers to learning quickly emerged as a top priority. Early collaboration with the Helen Keller International Child Sight Program provided glasses to children.  Now PS 188 boasts a school-based health center and will soon feature a state-of-the-art vision center, thanks to collaboration between the Lutheran Family Health Center, OneSight (the foundation affiliated with Luxotica-LensCrafters), the School Construction Authority, the Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, and of course with the support of Chairman Treyger. Its UFT Teacher Center helps our members devise strategies that help them to enhance instruction, and the UFT – DOE restorative justice partnership, the Professional Learning Collaborative, trains every staff member in the building, reducing behavior incidents and improving school climate.

Community Health Academy of the Heights (CHAH) – Washington Heights

CHAH, a school founded by healthcare, education and community partners for the overall health of its school community and to facilitate healthcare careers for its students, would naturally seek ways to enhance mental wellness. What followed demonstrates the power of comprehensive need assessments, a central aspect of the CLS model. School social worker, Kenia Jeanniton secured interns from graduate-level social work programs, enabling the school to screen all students in September. Plus, Jeanniton created an algorithm to use as a barometer of student mental wellness. So, in her words, “By December we know how to help and by the end of the school year, they're healthier.” We’re replicating this approach in four CLS schools and in East Harlem’s PS 30, where we’re paying an intern (without any impact to the school budget) to deliver socio-emotional supports to at-risk students.

International School for Liberal Arts (ISLA) - Kingsbridge

ISLA, a 6-12 school in the Bronx, has achieved success with student populations too often left behind. The school has the highest combination in New York City of English language learners, special education students and children living in temporary housing, yet its students are graduating high school at a rate 25 percentage points higher than comparable school and at rates higher than New York City as a whole. A consummate relationship builder, ISLA’s community school director has, in just the past two years, successfully leveraged nearly $770,000 in public and non-profit grants and services. These services range from its food pantry, to technology upgrades, to a SAVE room, library restoration, coats and holiday gifts for families in temporary housing, and much more.  The UFT’s community school directors build the connections between schools and elected officials, government agencies and others with available grants and in-kind services. The UFT invests approximately $100,000 in salary and benefits in each of its community school directors, who in turn, on average bring in $600,000 worth of programs and services to their school community.

PS 59 – Bedford-Stuyvesant

Some of our schools joined the initiative in the past school year. But their stories demonstrate what we’ve learned and how we’ve grown since launching the CLS initiative. We designed an orientation process so new community school directors shadow at least two experienced directors, including sitting in on advisory board meetings. While relatively new, the community school director at PS 59 marshalled her school team to participate in an intensive three-day comprehensive school improvement institute sponsored by our national union, the American Federation of Teachers. Part of that training included learning how to implement restorative practices and thereby improve school culture, plus how to better use school data to ensure services match student needs, and then using that understanding to design professional learning to boost student achievement.

Making gains over time

What the data bears out and what we know anecdotally is that over time, with sustained implementation of our CLS model, these schools make gains in academic achievement. The majority of elementary and middle schools in each cohort started their membership in CLS at a lower baseline of proficiency in English language arts (ELA) and math than for the city as a whole, and for comparison groups of students. In some cases, such as CHAH and PS 18 in the Bronx, the levels of proficiency, beginning in their first year as community learning schools, were substantially below the average for city as a whole.  Most community learning schools have subsequently improved in ELA and math performance. Gains in ELA in particular are greatest in those schools that have been in CLS for the longest.

Educators seek to decrease the number of students at the lowest proficiency levels and likewise increase the number of students at higher proficiency levels. We’re moving in the right direction. CLS schools in the first two cohorts have made the strongest gains, outpacing the city district schools, particularly in ELA.  In math the gains are more in line with district schools citywide, but CLS gains from the first two cohorts of schools are stronger. However, math achievement remains a stubborn proficiency issue for many schools across the city. At CLS we will seek to fine-tune our academic support to help boost achievement.

In 2017, researchers from the Learning Policy Institute in Palo Alto, California undertook a comprehensive review of the evidence on how community school models impact student outcomes. They reviewed over 140 studies of the components of a variety of community school models. While our CLS model was not specifically included, it compressed our six pillars into four essentially covering the same complement of programs and services. 1 It concluded that:

“…well-implemented community schools lead to improvement in student and school outcomes and contribute to meeting the educational needs of low-achieving students in high-poverty schools. Ample evidence is available to inform and guide policymakers, educators, and advocates interested in advancing community schools, and sufficient research exists to meet the ESSA standard for an evidence-based intervention.

How the City Council can help

As mentioned in our opening, the New York City Council helped establish our New York City Community Learning Schools Initiative as an anchor funder and we applaud and thank you for your annual support.

Our union leadership, together with its political action team, CLS community school directors, social workers and advocates, have diligently lobbied at the state level to ensure continued funding.  As we prepare for the financial impact from the federal government’s new tax policies and the U.S. Department of Education’s proposed cuts, your support for protecting public schools and the Community Learning Schools Initiative energizes our efforts and means so much.

While we work toward achieving innovative revenue generation solutions from the state budget, we seek your consideration and support for the following recommendations:

  1. Collecting and analyzing data on the academic, socio-emotional and enrichment supports makes a critical difference in fine-tuning supports and interventions at community schools. Currently, our schools utilize many different data systems, which are not always compatible.
    Urge the DOE to ensure that every community learning school, rise and renewal school align data collection systems to account for relevant data for community school programs and services, including those provided by partners and community-based organizations.
  2. Challenge the DOE to systemize parental consent for student-level data collection, enabling both internal and external evaluation of the CLS initiative.
  3. Encourage the DOE to maintain its supports for the schools emerging from the renewal school programs designated as rise schools. Incremental gains are real and recognizing the true challenges with adequate resources and supports remains essential.

Closing thoughts

The union’s Community Learning Schools Initiative addresses barriers to learning so our students, many of whom face the highest need, achieve academic and socio-emotional success. We educate the whole child. This integration of classroom instruction, services delivery, intervention and enrichment programs, together with family and community engagement, all operating seamlessly has proven to be both challenging and successful. Our vision for community learning schools emerges in the space where the day begins with breakfast even before the first a.m. bell rings and ends when the last program and services exit the building for the night.

This customized approach enhances instruction, lifting academic achievement and transforming school culture. If we want to address the needs, we must first properly identify them. It takes commitment and leadership. It takes consistency. It requires quality vetting and ongoing fine-tuning. Collaboration is not a feel good concept on paper — it must genuinely come to life among the educators and partners. Additionally, well-resourced and well-supported professional learning reinforce higher-quality instruction.

We believe in this work. We know you do, too. Thank you for listening. More importantly, thank you for helping.

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1 Maier, A., Daniel, J., Oakes, J., & Lam, L. (2017). Community schools as an effective school improvement strategy: A review of the evidence. Palo Alto, CA: Learning Policy Institute.

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