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NYC’s ‘community schools’ are a lifeline for many students. Dozens are bracing for cuts.

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Supporters of community schools attend a celebration in 2017. Dozens of schools that provide wraparound services for vulnerable students are bracing for cuts.

Edwin J. Torres / Mayoral Photography Office

Big cuts are coming to nonprofits that partner with dozens of New York City’s “community schools,” providing them with wraparound support for students, such as mental health services, attendance monitoring, and dental or vision check-ups.

One organization that serves a 1,600-student Queens high school may have to slash a program helping students apply for college. Another that works with three Brooklyn high schools plans to eliminate attendance workers, who have been coaxing teens back in efforts to make a dent in high chronic absenteeism rates.

The cuts stem from a new formula meant to more equitably fund organizations working with schools across the five boroughs. Out of 145 campuses housing community schools that were affected by the change, 93 are seeing an increase, but 52 campuses stand to see significant cuts. 

Research has found that the city’s community schools — which embed social services in high-needs schools — boosted math scores, graduation rates, attendance, and the rate at which students move on to the next grade. But some of those successes could be hampered at campuses whose partner organizations will likely face tough decisions about laying off staff and cutting back services that have been a cornerstone of the city’s much-lauded program, said leaders of those nonprofits. 

Meanwhile, the federal government has embraced community schools as a way to grapple with the high social, economic, and academic needs, earmarking $413 million across the nation for expanding the model. 

“The reason why I think this is incredibly disappointing is because many of the things we work on — mental health, college access, addressing chronic absenteeism, after school – all of those things are areas in which the current administration, the [Department of Education], have expressed as important as we continue to come to the other side of the pandemic,” said Sonia B. Sisodia, executive director of South Asian Youth Action, or SAYA.

Her organization is expecting to see its funding slashed by nearly 50%, or roughly $420,000.

SAYA provides services to nearly a third of students at Richmond Hill High School, where 78% of students are from low-income families. Losing funding will force administrators to cut or eliminate their college access program. It would “significantly reduce” after school programming, such as clubs for robotics, books, arts, LGTBQ students, and one focused on leadership, Sisodia said. The organization would also shave mental health services.

All of this means that staff might work with a student just once or twice the entire year, if at all, compared with their current practice of keeping up with students more regularly, Sisodia said.

‘The needs are so great’

The cuts currently on the table were supposed to take effect last year when the city revamped the funding formula for community schools. But City Council intervened, giving organizations — who were caught off guard by the change — a reprieve as they braced for the reopening of school buildings during the pandemic. 

Some organizations were receiving as little as $87,000, while others got as much as $1 million, explained Chris Caruso, former director of the Office of Community Schools. 

The new formula gives each organization a base of $250,000, then adds money based on factors such as student enrollment, the percentage of low-income students in the campus they serve, and the type of grades they’re serving. Elementary schools are weighted three times higher than high schools because those elementary schools might provide more extended learning time “due to child care needs,” according to an email from education department officials obtained by Chalkbeat, which revealed that the highest contract amount was just under $550,000 and the lowest was just under $400,000.

The new formula also allows the city to expand the number of community schools, Caruso said. A department spokesperson said they plan to open about 100 more community schools by this fall.

Hundreds of thousands of dollars in cuts “is going to be noticeable,” Caruso said, but he noted that increased funding to schools, such as from federal coronavirus relief, could help offset some of these losses.

Cypress Hills Local Development Corporation, which works with three schools on the Franklin K. Lane campus in Cypress Hills, had a budget of just over a $1 million this school year. It is expecting a $590,000 cut for next year, said Emily Van Ingen, the organization’s deputy director. 

Each school has a team of two full-time staffers, plus several part-timers, who work on “some of the core tenements of community schools,” including improving attendance and graduation rates by finding ways to keep students interested in school. Those teams meet with students and their families and connect them with mental health, housing or other services.

With the cut, the organization will reduce its staff to one full-time director at each school and a part-time social worker who would work across all three campuses. 

But the needs remain high. The East New York and Cypress Hills communities were “rocked” by COVID, Van Ingen said. Many students are dealing with the loss of loved ones and remain apprehensive about coming to the building. In the first nine months of the school year, there were 16 attempted suicides among students, compared to none in the 2019-20 school year, Van Ingen said. 

“We have to be realistic about how much you can expect one human being to do because the needs are so great,” Van Ingen said.

At one of the schools on the campus, chronic absenteeism hit 45%. Citywide, schools are projected to see a 37% rate of chronic absenteeism, which is when students miss 10% or more school days. That would be the highest level since at least 2000.

The front line workers from community organizations are worried these rates will continue to remain high next school year. 

“Students have been online, remote learning and have had a hard time socializing and reintegrating into school, so if they’re not coming now, what’s the indicator that they’re going to come in September or October?” asked Anju Rupchandani, of Zone 126, which works with Long Island City High School in Queens. 

Zone 126 plans to cut six full-time people, half who work on improving attendance through home visits and one-on-one mentoring. The others provide drama-based therapy to students. They also contract with an outside organization for mental health services, which they plan to pare back.

That will leave the school with two full-time Zone 126 staffers, one who will potentially work on attendance and then a director who will “coordinate any and all programs.” 

Students at the school have struggled this year to connect with their peers and even have one-on-one conversations, Rupchandani said. They’ll often walk into the Zone 126 office at school seeking a place to “chill out” because they’re overwhelmed, and some have been nervous about falling behind academically. She’s noticed a concerning level of chronic absenteeism among the school’s ninth graders. 

Failure to get paid

Suzan Sumer, a spokesperson for the education department, said the department will work with the City Council “to continue funding our community schools and the incredible work they do in support of all-around student health and wellbeing.” 

The funding cuts are just another issue facing these organizations: Multiple nonprofits have not yet been paid for the hundreds of thousands of dollars in services they’ve provided to schools this year.

Cypress Hills may have to cut back on end-of-the-year student events, such as graduation, if they’re not paid by June, Van Ingen said.

SAYA has not yet been paid “one dollar” for the more than $600,000 worth of services they’ve provided so far this school year, Sisodia said, who added that they’ve received no clear explanation for the delay.

As a result, SAYA’s cash balances were drained this year, and they dipped into investment accounts to help make payroll. At one point, they were faced with the decision whether to pay their employees or pay the vendor they contract with that provides mental health services for Richmond Hill students, Sisodia said.

The education department declined to explain why organizations have not been paid, what the problems are, and how many are waiting on payments. Any delays in payment “are being addressed and are related to contract procurement and registration,” according to a department spokesperson.

Reema Amin is a reporter covering New York City schools with a focus on state policy and English language learners. Contact Reema at ramin@chalkbeat.org.

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