A grant to create community schools makes strange bedfellows

The last time he led a New York City project, Geoffrey Canada, the founder of Harlem Children’s Zone, had the teachers union as his opponent. Now the two are partnering on a grant proposal that would take struggling elementary schools and surround them with the support services that barely exist outside their doors.

Naturally, the two have a buffer: Good Shepherd Services and the Children’s Aid Society, which is the lead applicant for an Investing in Innovation Fund (i3) grant — money that was set aside as part of the federal stimulus package. The grant proposal calls for $30 million to be used over four years to reduce absenteeism in nine schools in low-income neighborhoods like Harlem, the South Bronx, and Central Brooklyn.

All of the schools that are eventually chosen for the grant will have low-performing students, but they must also have a large number of students who don’t attend class. At least 30 percent of their students must be chronically absent, meaning they miss a month or more of school, hence the grant’s name: “Attend, Achieve, Attain,” or “a3.”

The idea is to keep more children in school for longer by lengthening the school day, adding after-school and summer programs, and turning the school into a community center and medical clinic their parents will want to come to as well.

United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew said the group is currently vetting six schools and will pick three to begin working with next year once it’s clear whether they’ve won the funding.

Mulgrew said the plan to create more community schools in New York began long before the stimulus bill and the i3 grant, with a report the New School published on chronic absenteeism. After talking with Children’s Aid, Mulgrew met with Canada and the two agreed to partner.

“We were going to go to outside funders,” Mulgrew said. “We always had the idea that this group could attract a mix of funders.”

The group’s political diversity is likely to be attractive to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, but it’s not a perfect partnership.

A spokesman for the city’s Department of Education said they intend to sign on as a grant supporter, but that didn’t stop Mulgrew from suggesting the DOE was less than sincere.

“The chancellor talks about the obstacles that children who live in poverty face as being excuses,” Mulgrew said. “There is just a philosophical difference between us and them. We say children can perform as long as they recognize that they have additional obstacles.”

The DOE and the UFT plan to submit their own i3 grant proposals this month.

UFT to join with Harlem Children’s Zone, Children’s Aid Society, Good Shepherd Services in seeking federal funding to reduce chronic absenteeism

Program would provide medical and family assistance, along with afterschool instruction in schools open until 6 pm

The Harlem Children’s Zone, Children’s Aid Society and Good Shepherd Services will join with the United Federation of Teachers in seeking a $30 million federal grant for a program to reduce chronic student absenteeism at nine schools in Manhattan, Brooklyn and the Bronx.

The “community schools program,” to be announced Saturday at the UFT’s annual Spring Conference, could include medical, dental and vision services on site, along with a wide range of family and social services, from GED and English as a Second Language classes to financial planning, legal assistance for eviction and other emergencies.

UFT President Michael Mulgrew said, “We need to create schools as places for families, not just children.  Many of our kids struggle with a huge range of medical and social issues, and our schools should be where families turn for help with all the problems that might affect their children’s academic performance.”

Geoffrey Canada, President and CEO of the Harlem Children’s Zone, said, “I deeply believe that we must all work together to improve NYC’s students chances of graduating high school and continuing their post secondary education.  I’m pleased to be working with this team, the UFT, The Children’s Aid Society and Good Shepherd Services to accomplish this mission.”

Richard Buery, President and CEO of The Children’s Aid Society, said,  “The Children’s Aid Society is excited to submit an application for the i3 federal grant with our diverse group of partners. The grant will address two issues we’re all so concerned about:  chronic early absence and improving student achievement.  When schools are transformed into community schools, the combination of integrated student supports and high-quality, professional development will turn schools around, improve student outcomes and validate the benefits of a model that can be replicated across New York City and throughout the country.”

Sr. Paulette LoMonaco, Executive Director of Good Shepherd Services, said, “Good Shepherd Services is thrilled to join in this critically important effort to demonstrate the effectiveness of the community schools strategy in turning around struggling schools, reducing early chronic absenteeism, improving student achievement and ensuring that vulnerable children, and their families, have access to the full-range of preventive, intervention and enrichment opportunities that are critical to their educational and developmental success.”

One in five elementary school children missed a month of more of the 2007-2008 school year, a chronic absenteeism rate that is clustered in the lowest-achieving schools and districts in New York City.  The goal of the collaboration is to increase student achievement in the targeted schools by significantly increasing attendance rates, particularly in the early grades.

Under the proposal, the schools selected for the program would be eligible for federal Title 1 funds, have a chronic absenteeism rate for more than 30 percent, and would be in the bottom third of all city schools in terms of math and reading performance.  Three schools would be selected for the first year of the program, and six more would begin in the program’s second year.  Total funding would amount to $30 million from USDOE Investing in Innovation (i3) grants.

Harlem Children’s Zone is a non-profit organization that has created a comprehensive network of education, social-service and community-building programs within 97 blocks in Central Harlem. HCZ works to break the cycle of generational poverty by supporting children from birth through college and working to strengthen the families and communities around those children.

The Children’s Aid Society is an independent, not-for-profit organization established to serve the children of New York City.  Founded in 1853, it is one of the nation’s largest and most innovative non-sectarian agencies, serving New York’s neediest children in community schools, neighborhood centers, health clinics and camps.

Founded in 1857, Good Shepherd Services is a leading youth development and family service agency that serves over 23,000 program participants a year.  It provides comprehensive, integrated community- and school-based preventive and intervention programs which focus on positive family and youth development, including foster care and foster care prevention programs.

The agencies taking part will form a local advisory council whose membership will also include the Coalition for Educational Justice and the Center for NYC Affairs at the New School.

Final proposals must be submitted to the federal authorities on May 11; the collaboration’s goal is to start the program this fall.

first steps

Superintendent León secures leadership team, navigates evolving relationship with board

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Superintendent Roger León at Tuesday's school board meeting.

As Newark’s new superintendent prepares for the coming academic year, the school board approved the final members of his leadership team Tuesday and began piecing together a roadmap to guide his work.

The board confirmed three assistant superintendents chosen by Superintendent Roger León: Jose Fuentes, the principal of First Avenue School in the North Ward; Sandra Rodriguez, a Hoboken principal who previously oversaw Newark Public Schools’ early childhood office; and Mario Santos, principal of East Side High School in the East Ward. They join three other assistant superintendents León selected for his team, along with a deputy superintendent, chief of staff, and several other officials.

The three assistant superintendents confirmed Tuesday had first come before the board in June, but at that time none of them secured enough votes to be approved. During last month’s meeting, the board assented to several of León’s leadership picks and to his decision to remove many people from the district’s central office, but it also blocked him from ousting several people.

This week, Board Chair Josephine Garcia declined to comment on the board’s reversal, and León did not respond to a request for comment.

What is clear is that the board and León are still navigating their relationship.

In February, the board regained local control of the district 22 years after the state seized control of the district due to poor performance and mismanagement. The return to local control put the board back in charge of setting district policy and hiring the superintendent, who previously answered only to the state. Still, the superintendent, not the board, is responsible for overseeing the district’s day-to-day operations.

During a board discussion Tuesday, Garcia hinted at that delicate balance of power.

“Now that we’re board members, we want to make sure that, of course, yes, we’re going to have input and implementation,” but that they don’t overstep their authority, she said.

Under state rules, the board is expected to develop district goals and policies, which the superintendent is responsible for acting on. But León — a former principal who spent the past decade serving as an assistant superintendent — has his own vision for the district, which he hopes to convince the board to support, he said in a recent interview on NJTV.

“It’s my responsibility as the new superintendent of schools to compel them to assist the district moving in the direction that I see as appropriate,” he said.

Another matter still being ironed out by the board and superintendent is communication.

León did not notify the full board before moving to force out 31 district officials and administrators, which upset some members. And he told charter school leaders in a closed-door meeting that he plans to keep intact the single enrollment system for district and charter schools — a controversial policy the board is still reviewing.

The district has yet to make a formal announcement about the staff shake-up, including the appointment of León’s new leadership team. And when the board voted on the new assistant superintendents Tuesday, it used only the appointed officials’ initials — not their full names. However, board member Leah Owens stated the officials’ full names when casting her vote.

The full names, titles and salaries of public employees are a matter of public record under state law.

Earlier, board member Yambeli Gomez had proposed improved communication as a goal for the board.

“Not only communication within the board and with the superintendent,” she said, “but also communication with the public in a way that’s more organized.”

The board spent much of Tuesday’s meeting brainstorming priorities for the district.

Members offered a grab bag of ideas, which were written on poster paper. Under the heading “student achievement,” they listed literacy, absenteeism, civics courses, vocational programs, and teacher quality, among other topics. Under other “focus areas,” members suggested classroom materials, parent involvement, and the arts.

Before the school year begins in September, León is tasked with shaping the ideas on that poster paper into specific goals and an action plan.

After the meeting, education activist Wilhelmina Holder said she hopes the board will focus its attention on a few key priorities.

“There was too much of a laundry list,” she said.

early dismissals

Top Newark school officials ousted in leadership shake-up as new superintendent prepares to take over

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Incoming Newark Public Schools Superintendent Roger León

Several top Newark school officials were given the option Friday to resign or face termination, in what appeared to be an early move by incoming Superintendent Roger León to overhaul the district’s leadership.

The shake-up includes top officials such as the chief academic officer and the head of the district’s controversial enrollment system, as well as lower-level administrators — 31 people in total, according to documents and district employees briefed on the overhaul. Most of the officials were hired or promoted by the previous two state-appointed superintendents, Cami Anderson and Christopher Cerf, a sign that León wants to steer the district in a new direction now that it has returned to local control.

The officials were given the option to resign by Tuesday and accept buyouts or face the prospect of being fired by the school board at its meeting that evening. The buyouts offer a financial incentive to those who resign voluntarily on top of any severance included in their contracts. In exchange for accepting the buyouts, the officials must sign confidentiality agreements and waive their right to sue the district.

Earlier this week, León submitted a list of his choices to replace the ousted cabinet-level officials, which the board must approve at its Tuesday meeting. It’s not clear whether he has people lined up to fill the less-senior positions.

It’s customary for incoming superintendents to appoint new cabinet members and reorganize the district’s leadership structure, which usually entails replacing some personnel. However, many staffers were caught off guard by Friday’s dismissals since León has given little indication of how he plans to restructure the central office — and he does not officially take the reins of the district until July 1.

A district spokeswoman and the school board chair did not immediately respond to emails on Friday about the shake-up.

Some staffers speculated Friday that the buyout offers were a way for León to replace the district’s leadership without securing the school board’s approval because, unlike with terminations, the board does not need to sign off on resignations. However, it’s possible the board may have to okay any buyout payments. And it could also be the case that the buyouts were primarily intended to help shield the district from legal challenges to the dismissals.

León was not present when the staffers learned Friday afternoon that they were being let go, the employees said. Instead, the interim superintendent, Robert Gregory, and other top officials broke the news, which left some stunned personnel crying and packing their belongings into boxes. They received official separation letters by email later that day.

The people being ousted include Chief Academic Officer Brad Haggerty and Gabrielle Ramos-Solomon, who oversees enrollment. Also included are top officials in the curriculum, early childhood, and finance divisions, among others, according to a list obtained by Chalkbeat.

In addition to the 31 being pushed out, several assistant superintendents are being demoted but will remain in the district, according to the district employees.

There was concern among some officials Friday about whether the turnover would disrupt planning for the coming school year.

“I don’t know how we’re going to open smoothly with cuts this deep,” one of the employees said. “Little to no communication was provided to the teams about what these cuts mean for the many employees who remain in their roles and need leadership guidance and direction Monday morning.”