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.

early childhood

This growing program is addressing Detroit’s literacy crisis — just don’t say it’s filling a “word gap”

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Yuliana Moreno told parents at her LENA Start graduation on Tuesday that her children have become more talkative because of the program.

A small program that started in Detroit last year with an innovative plan to improve infants’ language skills has proved promising and is preparing to expand.

When Concepción Orea entered the program, LENA Start, with her 18-month-old son, the boy was making a few simple sounds. She worried that he was displaying the same delays as her older son, a kindergartner who receives speech therapy.

“Now he grabs a book and pretends to read,” she said, speaking in Spanish at a graduation ceremony for the program on Tuesday. “Watching him pick up more sounds… it’s an emotion I don’t know how to explain.”

Over the course of the free 13-month program, Orea was coached to speak more to her child and read books to him. Her son was outfitted with a recorder that shows his — and her — progress. Each family is asked to place a recording device in a bib near their child’s chest, where it tracks and analyzes the sounds the baby hears at home.

The approach is based on research showing that when parents make a habit of talking to a very young child, that child is more likely to learn to read on grade level, with all the long-term benefits that come with literacy. That’s a big deal in all of the 17 cities where LENA operates, but the stakes are even higher in Detroit, where a tough new “read-or-flunk” state law, taking effect next year, will tighten the screws on a citywide literacy crisis.

“What our data are telling us is that for every one month in LENA Start, there are two months of growth,” said Kenyatta Stephens, Chief Operating Officer of Black Family Development, Inc., one of the program’s funders.

Growth, in this case, mostly means an increase in “turn-taking,” a verbal back-and-forth between parents and children that researchers view as an important sign of healthy language development. Parents are trained to verbalize their thoughts to their children, then look for a response.

A rise in turn-taking also correlates with other benefits: Parents talk to their children more frequently, for one, and kids are exposed to less electronic noise from TVs or cell phones over the course of the program. LENA gives books to parents, and parents typically report reading aloud more to their child.

The program started in Detroit last year with 50 parent-child-pairs. Thanks to promising results, LENA Start’s nonprofit supporters — including Black Family Development, the Kellogg Foundation, the LENA Foundation, the Michigan Children’s Health Access Plan, and Brilliant Detroit — plan to enroll another 150 parent-child pairs in Detroit.

(The Kellogg Foundation funds Chalkbeat. Read our code of ethics here.)

Program leaders say they hope to keep expanding, though the recording technology is pricey.

Using the bib recordings, LENA Start’s computers produce a detailed report for parents. It tells them how much electronic sound the baby is hearing  (differentiating between a computer and a live voice), how much the baby is speaking, and how often the baby “takes turns” in conversation with someone else in the home.

The program draws on  the research of Betty Hart and Todd Risley, the source of the much-cited notion that children from poor families typically hear 30 million fewer words before age three than their non-poor peers. That statistic went viral in academic and nonprofit circles, but it has come under fire in recent years, partly thanks to data collected by LENA programs, which pointed to a gap that is probably closer to 4 million words.

The challenge for program managers in Detroit is working to close the gaps that do exist while rejecting the idea that poor families do less for their children. Framing the problem as a “word gap” can be discouraging to parents and can even cue educators to expect less from children whose families live in poverty.

That may be why Stephens sees the recording data as “an affirmation tool.” Even when parents are stretched thin by poverty, she says they are able to change their speaking habits, especially when they’re given evidence that it is helping their child.

“What’s important is that we’re affirming that they’re already their child’s best teacher,” she said.

That may be one reason that Detroit’s program boasts an unusually high graduation rate — upwards of 90 percent of families compared to the national average of 74 percent.

Graduation ceremonies tend to be loud, Stephens said, because babies become more vocal over the length of the program.

Yuliana Moreno, one of the graduates, entered the program almost by default. She was already at Brilliant Detroit’s Southwest Detroit location at least twice a week before she entered LENA Start, attending infant massage classes for her seven-month-old and English classes for herself.

She said the benefits of the program extended to both of her children, even the one who didn’t attend LENA Start with her. It’s not that she wasn’t talking to them before — it’s just that no one had told her how important her communication could be, and the normal demands of life got in the way.

These days, she reports reading to her children more often, and says she uses her cell phone less while they’re around.

appeals

Will charter schools rebuffed in Chicago find a savior in the state? Why the outlook is iffy.

At Moving Everest Charter School one recent morning, first-grade teacher Alexis Collins gestured proudly at her room of 15 students, all wearing oversize headphones and quietly peering at laptop screens loading a math program that would launch them into elementary computer programming.

“We start them off with coding, so by the time they are in eighth grade, they’ll know what a person with an associate’s degree would know,” Collins said.

The school is so confident that its controversial personalized learning program will help raise up children from struggling neighborhoods that its directors proposed opening a second campus.

But the Chicago school board, perhaps recognizing the shifting political tide, denied the proposal from Everest and two others seeking to open new charters, despite lobbying by supportive parents.

Now Moving Everest is pinning its hopes on an appeal to the Illinois State Charter Commission.

Another charter applicant also plans to appeal: Kemet Leadership Academy, which proposed a middle school for at-risk boys in Englewood. So do the operators of Kwame Nkrumah Academy, which the Chicago district ordered closed at the end of the school year.

Appeal plans are uncertain for two others: charter applicant Intrinsic, which sought to replicate its Level 1-plus campus with another citywide high school, and Urban Prep West, whose school was ordered closed. Neither Instrinsic nor Urban Prep West responded to requests for comment.

The state established the charter agency in 2011 to ensure quality in charter schools, and granted it the power to override local school boards’ rulings. Since then, charter school operators have regarded the state charter commission as a lifeline protecting them from hostile local school boards.

Its history with Chicago is contentious. The commission has overruled Chicago Public Schools  to approve opening two charter schools and to reopen four charters closed by the district — one of which later shut down. The state agency oversees and funds five charter schools now operating in Chicago.

Opponents chafe at the commission’s ability to override local decisions.

But circumstances have changed. The commission’s future is far from certain, meaning that charters rejected this month could have only a small window to win commission support before the administration, and possibly policies, change in Springfield.

Chicago tried to curb the commission’s authority by backing a state bill that would have stripped it of its right to reverse school district decisions. The bill passed, but Gov. Bruce Rauner vetoed it last spring, and the Illinois Senate failed to override the veto.

But incoming governor J.B. Pritzker has pledged to place a moratorium on charter school expansion. His position on the charter commission is unclear. He earlier told Chalkbeat that good charter schools are “worthy of support” but that adequate funding for district schools should come before “expanding the opportunity for people to start charters.”

Now legislators have introduced a package of bills to rein in charter schools. Among other things, they would cap charter school expansion in financially struggling districts like Chicago and bar for-profit companies from running charters.

Could Everest win approval in time? Charter operators have 30 days from a denial to file an appeal. Then the commission has 75 days to rule.

The school hasn’t yet filed an appeal. But Michael Rogers, the founder of Moving Everest, said he isn’t ready to give up on expanding his school’s mission.

He’s not deterred by Everest’s Level 2-plus rating, not a stellar rank, from Chicago Public Schools.

He said that the school offers a unique learning environment. It also provides for its students in other ways, including offering dental and eye care.

“How do we interrupt the cycle of children growing up in this neighborhood who have a challenging instructional environment?” Rogers asked, adding he will tell the commission about the importance of investing in a struggling community.

In Austin, one of the city’s most under-invested neighborhoods, the large gray-and-green buildings that house Moving Everest school and its partner after-school “Christ-centered” program, By The Hand, stand our starkly against the nearby empty lots, run-down strip malls, and train tracks.

“We are thankful that the charter commission lives on, at least for the time being,” Rogers said. “We do believe that we have a strong school academically, financially. Our model is such that the community has spoken very loudly about or school.”