Future of Schools

Best of 2014: Expanding program links students to social services

Most classrooms at Nashville’s Warner Enhanced Option Elementary School feature a small tent in the corner — but it’s not for fun and games.

Although the school sits on an East Nashville street lined with Victorian houses of ever-increasing value, more than half of Warner’s students come from the James A. Cayce public housing complex, half a mile away. Many Warner students are frequently witness violence, on the street or within their own homes. Some have experienced bouts of homelessness.

When Marianna Merritt first began working at Warner two years ago, she commonly had to deal with students who would not get out from underneath teachers’ desks. Students need a place to feel safe, she explains. Thus, the tents.

Merritt is the Communities in Schools site coordinator at Warner Elementary. She assesses the needs of students and figures out how to meet them, through creative measures like the tents, more traditional services like counseling, and by recruiting help from local non-profits.

Communities in Schools is a national organization currently operating in five schools in Nashville and, for the first time this year, two schools in the Achievement School District: MLK Prep and Westside Achievement Middle School in Memphis.

It is part of a larger movement for “community schools,” based on the idea that school buildings should serve as a community hub, providing not only academic services, but through partnerships with local organizations, health and social services as well.

Not all community schools follow the same model. What makes Communities in Schools different from other community schools models, according to its proponents, are site coordinators like Merritt, who identify students’ needs and work with people within the school and from the community to meet them.

At any given time, Merritt works with up to 10 percent of the student body directly, meeting with kids and their parents to discuss anything from immediate crises — an illness or death in the family — to ongoing behavioral problems. Students are usually referred to her because of grades, attendance or behavior, but sometimes they refer themselves.

“I can just walk into the cafeteria and someone will say, ‘My friend told me he talks to you when he’s sad,” she said.

Community schools are as old as education reform itself, and like any reform, have had mixed results. Jane Addams operated Hull House, a kind of full-service school in Chicago at the turn of the 20th century, but the idea has gained momentum in the past ten years. The Harlem Children’s Zone  in New York City, perhaps the most ambitious and comprehensive program of this type, has been lifted up as an example of education and community reform by the Obama administration.

Earlier this month, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio  announced that he was committing $150 million to the establishment of more community schools in the city.

Some people argue that to raise the academic achievement of poor students, society must first attack poverty. Others counter that poverty  shouldn’t be used as an excuse for failing schools. In reality of course, it’s not that black and white. Few educators truly fall into one camp or another. Community schools, too, straddle the line: They address poverty’s multifaceted symptoms, rather than just low test scores, while also focusing on academic goals.

Nashville has community schools that predate the higher-profile school reforms like charter school expansion. In the late 1990s, hoping to prevent the widening of achievement gaps following the end of desegregation efforts, Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools established Enhanced Option schools in its poorest neighborhoods.

Today, all of those schools have smaller classes than the other schools in the district, as well as extra guidance counselors and social workers. Many also have Family Resource Centers to connect parents with health and social services.

In 2004, the Nashville Chamber of Commerce formed an organization called Alignment Nashville to funnel existing direct service programs into the city’s public schools. Since 2008, Alignment Nashville has helped connect the school system with non-profits. Alignment Nashville also helps operate school-level teams at 14 schools through an initiative called Community Achieves, which is in its second year. School-based services provided through Community Achieves range from health care to coat closets where students without the resources to buy a winter coat can pick one up.

Community school advocates say the Nashville programs have been successful, and point to several examples. When Nashville’s Glencliff High School adopted a community schools model in 2007, the graduation rate was 66 percent; now, it’s 76 percent. Warner Enhanced Option became one of the fastest improving schools in the state following the addition of Merritt to its staff two years ago. (Some Community Achieves schools have seen academic gains, but district officials say it is too early to attribute them to the community schools model.)

Communities in Schools has also had shown positive results at sites across the country, and studies show that it reduces drop-out rates when implemented fully. However, it’s difficult to tell how dramatic its impact is from Communities in Schools’ self-reported numbers. The organization only collects data like test scores and post-college plans from the students it case manages, making meaningful comparisons between those students and those at schools without case managers impossible.

And yet, despite the extra resources, students attending enhanced option schools still have some of the lowest test scores in Tennessee. Despite the financial backing of Wall Street’s wealthiest, schools in the Harlem Children’s Zone have regularly scored in the bottom half of charter schools in New York City.

To some backers of community schools, the test scores are, if not beside the point, a small part of the point. After all, they say, the goals of community schools go beyond academics.

Ansel Sanders works for the Achievement School District, and helped bring Communities in Schools site coordinators to some of the district’s schools this year. He says that while ASD officials are well-aware of the pressure to raise scores, test scores are ultimately not why they want to help students be healthy and safe.

“Whether or not it raises reading scores, […] it’s the right thing to do,” he said.

Merritt said that, although it possible to have a community school without a site coordinator, it’s helpful for students and teachers to know that connecting them with help is her number one priority.

“The ability to be present is really powerful,” she said. “When [someone] needs something [they] know that […] we’re going to figure it out, as opposed to, you’re going to call a case manager, you’re going to leave a voicemail, they’re going to say they’ll return the call in 24 hours, and then I’ll schedule something two weeks out.”

Merritt said that it can be hard to measure her work in numbers — “this work is kind of the work of the heart,” she said — but it’s part of the Communities in Schools model to try, so that the organization can track progress and make data-informed decisions.

She sets individual goals for each student she works with, sometimes about their grades and test scores, sometimes using another measure, like attendance or stints in in-school suspension. She evaluates goals quarterly with the students and families. Merritt said parents are almost willing to work with her.

“People are really open to someone championing their child,” she said.

Although her work is to champion students, they often see her as a friend. Merritt keeps extra belts in her office in case a student forgets to wear one (they are part of Warner’s dress code.) On the Monday Chalkbeat visited Warner,  a student came into the office for a belt, and started to explain how hectic her morning was: Mom was running late for work; her brother kept hiding things. She mentioned that she was cold.

Merritt gave the student the cardigan off of her back, and the girl’s face broke into a smile.

“Now I look just like you,” she said.

In the money

Here’s how Colorado schools would spend an extra $100 million from the state

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post
Hannah Moore, 8, shows off her moves during practice for an after school talent show that is part of the Scholars Unlimited After School program at Ashley Elementary school on March 10, 2017 in Denver, Colorado. Scholars Unlimited is an after school and summer program funded by the 21st Century Community Learning Center Grant, which is threatened to be cut entirely under the White House's budget cuts. The 21st Century Community Learning Center Grant served almost 20,000 students in Colorado between 2015 and 2016 and 76 percent of students showed academic improvement. (Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post)

Legislators on the Joint Budget Committee unanimously decided this week to set aside $100 million to “buy down” the budget stabilization factor.

This number – $822 million in 2017-18 – is the amount by which Colorado underfunds its schools when compared to the constitutional requirement that spending on education increase every year based on student count and inflation. It’s more commonly known as the negative factor, though lawmakers are trying to get away from that term.

For several years now, lawmakers have held the negative factor steady, but this year, as Colorado has more money to spend than it has had in a long time, Gov. John Hickenlooper wanted to make a dent in it and requested the $100 million reduction. To be clear, a $100 million reduction in the negative factor is $100 million more that the state would send to districts. Technically, this number will be finalized in a separate piece of legislation, the School Finance Bill, which is coming any day now.

But state Rep. Millie Hamner, the Dillon Democrat who chairs the Joint Budget Committee, wanted to give some reassurance to educators that the money will be there in the budget. 

“It would send a message to our K-12 community that we are not spending that money and have set it aside,” she said.

And educators have been clamoring to hear that message. The Colorado School Finance Project has been running a social media campaign for the $100 million buydown using the hashtags #k12needsco and #kidsmattertoo.

The non-profit asked school superintendents around the state to say what they would do with the extra money, which translates to an additional $114 on average for each enrolled student, compared to holding the budget stabilization factor steady. The answers are identified by region, but not by district.

Here’s a small sample of the responses:

You can read all of them here.

The Joint Budget Committee has set total program spending on education at $7.75 billion before the negative factor is applied, up from $7.45 billion this year, a 4 percent increase. Of total program spending, the state will pay $4.4 billion, with the rest coming from local property taxes. This doesn’t include voter-approved tax increases known as mill levy overrides.

That translates to average per-pupil spending of $7,959, compared to $7,662 this year. A budget stabilization factor of $722 million would yield an average per-pupil amount closer to $8,074. 

The smaller budget stabilization factor is significant beyond just one budget year because state law says that this number shouldn’t get larger from one year to the next. However, Colorado superintendents are also pushing for a tax increase and change to the distribution of school money. It will take more than an additional $100 million spread among 870,000 students to address all the needs they identify in their responses to the Colorado School Finance Project.

Hickenlooper had also requested an additional $200 million for the state education fund, with the intention that that money be used to offset costs to districts from proposed changes to the public pension system and expected reductions in property tax revenue in rural communities.

The Joint Budget Committee instead voted to set aside $225 million to deal with costs associated with fixing the Public Employees Retirement Association’s unfunded liability – but in the general fund rather than the state education fund and not specifically to help schools, where retirement costs account for a big chunk of the personnel budget.

The committee also agreed to set aside $30 million to help small rural districts with low tax bases and was supportive of setting aside $10 million to address rural teacher shortages, though some of the details are still being worked out.

March for Our Lives

Memphis students say Saturday protest is not just about school shootings. It’s about all gun violence.

PHOTO: RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post
A student at Columbine High School holds a sign during a protest of gun violence, on March 14, 2018 in Littleton, Colorado.

Students marching Saturday in Memphis against gun violence say they are not only protesting the shootings that killed 17 people last month at a Florida high school. They also are speaking out against shootings that happen daily in their own city.

Seventeen-year-old John Chatman says he fears school shootings, but he especially fears the common gun violence in his neighborhood of South Memphis. He has lost close friends to shootings.

“It can happen anywhere, anytime,” Chatman said. “I think [this march] is a great stand. We should protest against school shootings. But we have to talk about what kids like me are seeing in Memphis on the daily.”

Memphis had 200 homicides in 2017, down from 228 the previous year, the deadliest year recorded in the city in two decades.

Chatman is one of hundreds of Memphians expected to participate in this weekend’s March for Our Lives event as part of a nationwide protest sparked by the Feb. 14 school shooting in Parkland, Florida. The largest march will be in Washington, D.C., where up to a half million protesters are expected, but smaller demonstrations are planned in cities and towns across the nation. In Tennessee, other marches are slated for Jackson, Nashville, Chattanooga, Knoxville, Clarksville, Cookeville, and Johnson City.

The Memphis march will start at 10 a.m. at Claiborne Temple, and Savanah Thompson will be there. One of more than a dozen student organizers, she worries that news about people getting shot has become commonplace.

“Being in Memphis, you get used to hearing about gun violence,” said Thompson, a freshman at White Station High School. “This affects the youth in our city. … We never want a school shooting to happen in Memphis or anywhere ever again.”

Alyssa Kieren, a student leader at Collierville High School, hopes the march fosters a sense of unity.

“We’re trying to stress that this isn’t a partisan issue,” Kieren said. “We have to acknowledge there is a problem and we have to come up with solutions. … The thing we’re upset about is that children are dying in our schools, and they’re dying in our city.”