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Vigorous effort yields high-need students for new charter school

When leaders of the Children’s Aid Society set out to develop a charter school with wraparound social services for the Bronx’s neediest elementary school students, they understood the challenges before them.

Putting the social services in place would be complicated but in reach for the nonprofit group, which has connected service providers and offered its own programs for more than 150 years. And Drema Brown, the CAS official leading the project, would draw on her experience as a school principal to develop the school’s academic program.

But making sure that the Children’s Aid Society Community Charter School enrolled the highest-needs students would be a taller order — even though the school promised after-school programming, a longer school year, and a wealth of counselors that would be particularly helpful for them. A major reason is that charter schools’ admissions rules favor families with the stability and savvy to enter a lottery that takes place more than five months before the start of school.

“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,” Gregory Morris, the assistant to CAS’s president, said earlier this year. “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.”

So the group placed ads in bilingual publications and deployed staff who work with families around the Bronx to spread the word about the new school. Bilingual CAS social workers, canvassers, and caseworkers worked together to reach families who otherwise might have missed the chance to try for the charter school option.

Now, with less than a week to go until the school’s application deadline, it looks like CAS has gotten what it set out for. Of just over 300 applications the school has already received, 70 percent are from English language learners, nearly 70 percent are from single-parent households, and more than 20 percent are in the child welfare system, according to Brown.

“We have a lot of relationships out in the community with the families beause of all the work that CAS does in the Bronx,” Brown said. “I have been working with a lot of staff internally around this very notion, saying to them you’re going to be the best recruiters because you’ll actually know the families who might benefit from this school.”

Next year, Brown said, the school will aim for more applications, and more from inside the district where the school is located — two key measures that charter schools frequently cite to prove demand. This year, about a third of the applications have come from District 12, and Brown said the school hoped to amend its charter to reserve a majority of spots for District 12 students.

In the meantime, Brown is checking two more important tasks off her new school to-do list: Finding a location, and hiring a principal.

In January, the Panel for Educational Policy approved a plan to co-locate the charter school with P.S. 211 and I.S. 318 in Morrisania. CAS already partners with P.S. 211, and as a result, Brown said, “as co-locations go, this was a much more pleasant process.” The co-location was approved for the next three years, and Brown said CAS is searching for a more permanent home for 2015 and beyond.

And just three weeks ago, the CAS hired Ife Lenard to serve as principal of the school. Lenard, who holds degrees in education and social work, served as assistant principal at the high-performing Bronx Charter School for Excellence.

“We thought it was important that whoever went into the school could hold both ends of the vision, rigorous academics and an understanding of the family and child support—the importance of after-school and family support services,” Brown said. “Some traditional educators just see after school, and they dont see all the additional supports and the the full range of outcomes for kids beyond academic support. But Ife really represented all of that for us.”

Lenard said she is hoping to bring the academic “best practices” of her former school to CAS. She said the classes would emphasize small, flexible groups, hands on activities, inquiry-based learning, math literacy, and field trips related to what students are learning. She also said the school would make sure that it creates an environment that goes beyond academics.

“You want to have an environment that celebrates achievement, and it coud be achievement in all facets, social, emotional and academic,” she said. For example, “A pep rally means a lot. It’s going to be a norm for our school community.”

Lenard’s main duties so far have included recruiting families and teachers for the school. She recently drew about 40 parents and students to the CAS’s Next Generation Center on Southern Boulevard for an information session held on one of this month’s unseasonably warm mornings.

“They’re the same anxious kindergarten parents as any have been,” Lenard said. “We talked about the school day, the uniforms, the curriculum, what my philosophy is. I talked about planting seeds in children at the earliest age, to groom students to become scholars.”