As a Bronx elementary school principal, Drema Brown routinely encountered students who were struggling to complete schoolwork without adequate health care, a stable address, or even electricity.
Challenges like those held Brown back from boosting academic achievement. Even worse, she said, she couldn’t solve the problems wrought by poverty, either.
“I might take it for granted that I can just take my daughter to an eye doctor’s appointment and I have insurance that is going to get her that $300, $400 pair of glasses. But sometimes in a school something as simple as that could languish for an entire school year,” said Brown, who headed P.S. 230 in the South Bronx’s District 9 from 2003 to 2007.
Now a top official at the Children’s Aid Society, the 158-year-old social services provider, Brown is leading an experiment in integrating health and social services into a school setting. Children’s Aid is set to open its charter school in the Morrisania section of the Bronx next fall. The Board of Regents formally approved the school’s charter earlier today.
Plans for the school have been in the works since 2009, when Richard Buery became Children’s Aid’s president and CEO. Buery, who has a background in law and education non-profit management, asked CAS staff who worked with community schools to think about how a community school operated by CAS could have a longer-term impact than the agency’s usual school partnerships.
The group already works with city schools to deliver social services and connect after-school programs. And since 2000 the group has run a full clinic in Morrisania, offering preventive services and a meeting place for families whose children are in foster care. But the new project marks Children’s Aid’s first venture into school management.
The clinic “is a visible presence in the community with lots of welcoming faces,” Brown said. “Our mission now is to a establish a school that feels the same way for kids and their families so that education becomes more attractive and a welcoming experience.”
That’s a sentiment that hasn’t always been present in the South Bronx, which has a longstanding reputation for poverty, crime and lackluster public schools.
The new school will also join a small coterie of charter schools such as Mott Haven Academy seeking to enroll a demographic that other charters have had a hard time reaching: children in the foster care system, who are learning English, or living with just one parent, according to Gregory Morris, Buery’s assistant.
“It is no secret that charter schools are having to deal with the idea that there is a selection process which would seem to prevent the kids who need it most from getting into the schools,” he said. “We’re going to use the foundations we’ve already laid to be certain that we’re going to increase the odds of kids who would be least likely to normally get into a school like this.”
Attracting families in need may be one of the Children’s Aid school’s toughest tasks, according to Jessica Nauiokas, principal of Mott Haven Academy, a charter school with 223 students, mostly from the surrounding neighborhood, which opened its kindergarten and first-grade in 2008.
“Charters are based on a lottery and schools that are really looking to specialize in and serve underserved communities have to be very thoughtful about advocating for families that might not typically apply to a lottery,” she said. “For example, when you’re working with a welfare-involved population you have to think through the points of contact for case workers and agencies that go through the family.”
She added that this type of school mission also requires more instructional time through a longer school day, and outreach to parents who are not already actively involved in their childrens’ education.
Exactly how to structure the school day and involve parents and guardians remain open questions for the Children’s Aid Society as it prepares to move forward with preparations for the school. In the coming months, the group will have to hire a principal, find a space, and recruit families, all while trying to stay true to the mission of providing wraparound services to students and their families.
“There are these questions at the core of the idea of the school that have to be constantly laid against very technical stuff,” Brown said. “For example, if we’re not going to have enough space or resources to have a full clinic in the school, then how do we make sure we’re close enough?”
Morris said charter school experts have cautioned Children’s Aid that its school might fall short academically if it draws students from a community with chronically low attendance and graduation rates and a high population of English language learners and students in special education.
“They cant just have great health outcomes — they have to have great academic outcomes,” Morris said. “There aren’t a lot of models you can look to of people that have really taken that on.”