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On community school tour, Fariña finds signs of success beyond test scores

Chancellor Carmen Fariña on a tour of Manhattan's P.S. 5 with Principal Wanda Soto and Deputy Mayor Richard Buery.
Chancellor Carmen Fariña on a tour of Manhattan's P.S. 5 with Principal Wanda Soto and Deputy Mayor Richard Buery.
Patrick Wall

Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña roamed the halls of P.S. 5 in Inwood Thursday morning, marveling at the suite of academic and support services it provides students and their families, just one day after the city announced that dozens of other schools will begin to offer such services next year.

Fariña smiled at children in an early-learning program as they lifted a colored parachute, and inspected artwork that students and their families created together during evening workshops. She stopped by a medical clinic where children receive asthma medication and immunization shots, and she chatted about literacy with parents who were meeting in the school, which offers adult education courses.

By extending its reach beyond the classroom with the help of a nonprofit partner, the school has drawn in parents and fostered healthier, happier students who show up for class at high rates, Fariña said after her tour. The city is hoping for similar outcomes at 40 schools that officials announced Wednesday will split a four-year, $52 million state grant to bring a similar range of support services and learning programs to their campuses.

The city is aiming to boost student attendance and reduce the number of dropouts at the schools that will add the services. While those shifts could in turn bolster students’ classroom performance, officials are not promising immediate academic gains.

“Are you going to get a one-year growth in reading scores immediately?” Fariña said Thursday. “Not necessarily.”

As P.S. 5, for instance, which has offered robust medical and other services for two decades, students score well below the citywide averages on state exams, records show. But Fariña said such measures cannot be the only yardstick for the success of schools with robust services, which are known as community schools.

“That’s why we have to look at something beyond the test scores,” she said. “These kids are in a happy place, a healthy place.”

Schools that struggle with high rates of student absenteeism can apply to receive the grant money, which will pay for a full-time coordinator at each school to bring in outside groups to provide services. Those services can include college-preparation classes, arts programs, tutoring, and physical and mental health services for students, as well as classes and other programs for families.

The city and the nonprofit Children’s Aid Society jointly founded P.S. 5 in 1993 to act as a community school. The school offers preschool classes, after-school and summer programs, and English-language courses for parents. About 90 percent of students make use of the school’s built-in health clinic with its full-time nurse, visiting physician and dentist, and regular vision and mental health screenings.

Wanda Soto, the school’s principal for the past 15 years, said all the supports lead students to view the school as a “safe haven” whose classes they are eager to attend. The school’s average attendance rate this year is 93 percent.

The school’s programs “give children poise, structure, responsibility,” Soto said.

Despite signs of student and parent investment in the school, many students have not performed well on the state’s annual standardized tests.

Last year, less than 10 percent of students passed the state English exams, compared to 26 percent of students citywide. In math, 16.4 percent of P.S. 5 students passed, compared to 30 percent across the city. The school’s scores were also far below the city averages in 2012 and 2011.

Soto pointed out that nearly half of the school’s students are still learning English, while less than 15 percent all students in the city school system are English-language learners. She added that classroom assessments and student-work portfolios show that students are making academic progress.

While the city will not judge the success of the community schools program based solely on student test scores, officials are still hoping to see students perform better in school as their attendance rates improve and their physical and mental health needs are addressed.

The United Way of New York City, which will help the city manage the program, will track students’ academic performance at the participating schools in addition to their attendance rates, according to United Way CEO Sheena Wright.

“There is an absolute, direct correlation between improving attendance and academic success in school,” Wright said. Still, she acknowledged that the state grant funding the program is focused on student attendance and is not directly aimed at enhancing teaching and learning at the schools.

“If you have bad instruction” at a school, Wright said, “you’re not going to improve your academic performance.”

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