junket science

UFT tours get mayoral hopefuls weighing "community schools"

All four of the likely Democratic candidates for mayor, seen here with Republican Tom Allon during an education policy discussion in November, have traveled to Cincinnati with the United Federation of Teachers to view "community schools."

Among the thousand visitors from across the country who streamed through Cincinnati’s Oyler School in the last year were all four of New York City’s likely Democratic candidates for mayor.

They made the trip at the invitation of UFT President Michael Mulgrew, who has been touting Oyler as the epitome of a school model that he hopes New York City’s next mayor will promote.

The trips have been held up as evidence that the candidates are all trying to win the union’s endorsement. But just as significant as why the candidates made the commute is what they saw when they got there.

Cincinnati has turned all of its more than 50 district schools into “community schools” that rely on partnerships with businesses and non-profits to provide an array of services. The school buildings stay open until late into the night and on the weekends, providing early childhood centers, adult education, access to gyms, translation services, tutoring, and food banks to the general public. Local hospitals embed nurses in the schools full-time to provide free health, dental, and vision services.

As one of the first schools in Cincinnati to make the evolution, a decade ago, Oyler is seen as an anchor for the model.

“It’s an amazing thing to walk into a school and to see so many different services, seamlessly aligned,” Mulgrew said of his visits to Oyler in May, when he announced that the union would fund a six-school pilot community schools program in New York City.

Drawing on their campaign funds, Public Advocate Bill de Blasio and former comptroller Bill Thompson joined UFT officials at the school last spring. Comptroller John Liu and City Council Speaker Christine Quinn made the trip with the union in October, paying their way with money from their public offices. (Principal Craig Hockenberry, who has been at the school for 14 years, said Quinn’s visit stood out among the 60 he hosted this year because she brought police protection.)

The union’s efforts to promote what has happened in Cincinnati are starting to pay off. In his State of the City speech in December, Comptroller John Liu proposed turning each of the city’s school buildings into a community center after school hours.

“Earlier this year, along with Speaker Quinn, and many of our city’s teachers, I visited the school system in Cincinnati,” he said. “I was very impressed by what I saw there.”

Other candidates have also expressed support for the idea. Even before visiting, Quinn mentioned Cincinnati in her own State of the City address last February. Then, joining city and union officials to kick off the six-school pilot in June, she said, “Look, we’re in New York, and we hate to say that anyone else has a [better] model than we do, but occasionally we just have to swallow our pride and admit that there are some other places in the world that come up with good, interesting, and effective models of how to do this.”

And Thompson told GothamSchools that he agreed to visit because he supports having “wraparound services” at schools. “To see it in practice, I thought it was great,” he said. “It’s making the community school more attractive again.”

The four candidates are competing for the UFT’s endorsement — and the financial support that would accompany it. But backing Cincinnati’s model could be attractive for other reasons. Since Cincinnati’s schools were transformed into community hubs, the city’s high school graduation rate increased from 51 to 82 percent. Officials in that district have said the conversion didn’t cost much, because the model calls for services to be coordinated, not created. And, in an extra bonus for New York City mayoral candidates, creating community schools is seen as easier with a strong executive in charge.

“I see this as the promise of mayoral control — harnessing the power of city agencies,” said Mulgrew’s predecessor at the UFT, Randi Weingarten, in 2009. Weingarten launched a sustained push for community schools when she was elected president of the American Federation of Teachers, a national union, in 2008.

The UFT has continued to press the issue. An article praising Oyler Elementary in the union’s newspaper in May described “growing frustration that New York City has not taken more advantage of the potential to concentrate services at schools and strengthen community ties.”

A union official who had already visited Oyler multiple times, Vice President Karen Alford, told the newspaper, “We’re doing a lot of what they’re doing — clinics, tutoring — but each is a separate program.”

When the law granting mayoral control of city schools was last up for reauthorization, in 2009, the union asked lawmakers to give parents more control over the way schools are run. If the city’s next mayor uses his or her authority over the city’s schools to execute the UFT’s visit, the union could be less likely to push for changes to the school governance law.

Although it joined the union’s community schools pilot after Mulgrew told union members that he would move forward with or without the city’s help, Bloomberg’s Department of Education has shown less interest in Oyler. Chancellor Dennis Walcott has met with Cincinnati officials at UFT headquarters, but he has so far declined an invitation from the union to accompany Mulgrew on one of his visits to the city, a union official said.

State Education Commissioner John King, on the other hand, did make the pilgrimage with the union.

King’s participation could prove crucial. With an eye on 2014, UFT officials have been working to line up support for community schools from more than just mayoral candidates. Testifying before Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s Education Reform Commission in October, Mulgrew called on state government to help push the model forward, something that he said Ohio did not do for Cincinnati and would be necessary for the model to work at an even larger scale.

“New York is not Cincinnati. Fifty-two schools aren’t directly comparable to 1,700. We’re not blind to the difficulties,” Mulgrew said. But, he went on, “Our mind is fixed on meeting the needs. Cincinnati represents what’s possible when we park egos and the bureaucracy at the curb.”

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”