Health and Happiness

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

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

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.”

union power

Charter teachers won big in nation’s first strike. What now?

PHOTO: Yana Kunichoff / Chalkbeat
Teachers from Acero charter schools in Chicago protest stalled negotiations Oct. 24, 2018, as they readied to vote on authorizing a strike.

Some 500 unionized teachers joined in the nation’s first charter strike last week, and succeeded in negotiating wage increases, smaller class sizes and a shorter school day. Their gains could foreshadow next year’s citywide contract negotiations — between the Chicago Teachers Union, with its contract expiring in June, and Chicago Public Schools.

“The issue of class size is going to be huge,” said Chris Geovanis, the union’s director of communications. “It is a critically important issue in every school.”

Unlike their counterparts in charters, though, teachers who work at district-run schools can’t technically go on strike to push through a cap on the number of students per class. That’s because the Illinois Education Labor Relations Act defines what issues non-charter public school teachers can bargain over, and what issues can lead to a strike.

An impasse on issues of compensation or those related to working conditions, such as length of the school day or teacher evaluations, could precipitate a strike. But disagreements over class sizes or school closures, among other issues, cannot be the basis for a strike.

The number of students per class has long been a point of contention among both district and charter school teachers.

Educators at Acero had hopes of pushing the network to limit class sizes to 24-28 students, depending on the grade. However, as Acero teachers capped their fourth day on the picket line, they reached an agreement with the charter operator on a cap of 30 students — down from the current cap of 32 students.

Andy Crooks, a special education apprentice, also known as a teacher’s aide, at Acero’s Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz school and a member of the teachers bargaining team, said that even having two fewer students in a classroom would make a huge difference.

“You really do get a lot more time with your students,” Crooks said. “And if you are thinking about kindergarten in particular, two less 5-year-olds really can help set the tone of the classroom.”

In district-run schools, classes are capped at 28 students in kindergarten through third grade, and at 31 students in fourth through sixth grade. But a survey by the advocacy group Parents 4 Teachers, which supports educators taking on inequality, found that during the 2017-2018 school year, 21 percent of K-8 classrooms had more students than district guidelines allowed. In 18 elementary school classrooms, there were 40 or more students.

The issue came up at last week’s Board of Education meeting, at which Ivette Hernandez, a parent of a first-grader at Virgil Grissom Elementary School in the city’s Hegewisch neighborhood, said her son’s classes have had more than 30 students in them. When the children are so young and active — and when they come into classrooms at so many different skill levels — “the teachers can’t handle 30 kids in one class,” she told the board.

Alderman Sue Garza, a former counselor, accompanied Hernandez. She also spoke before the board about classroom overcrowding — worrying aloud that, in some grades at one school in particular, the number of students exceeded the building’s fire codes. (Board chair Frank Clark said a district team would visit the school to ensure compliance fire safety policies.)

While the Chicago Teachers Union aren’t technically allowed to strike over class sizes, the union does have a history of pushing the envelope when it comes to bargaining.

Back in 2012, when the Chicago Teachers Union last went on strike, they ended up being able to secure the first limit on class sizes in 20 years because the district permitted the union to bargain over class size.

They also led a bargaining campaign that included discussion over racial disparities in Chicago education and school closures, arguing that these trends impacted the working conditions of teachers.

“Even if you can’t force an employer to bargain over an issue, you can push them to bargain over the impact of an issue,” Bob Bruno, a labor professor at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, explained.

The Chicago Teachers Union also emerged from its 2012 negotiations with guarantees of additional “wraparound services,” such as access to onsite social workers and school counselors.

What's Your Education Story?

As the 2018 school year begins, join us for storytelling from Indianapolis educators

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy/Chalkbeat
Sarah TeKolste, right, and Lori Jenkins at a Teacher Story Slam, in April.

In partnership with Teachers Lounge Indy, Chalkbeat is hosting another teacher story slam this fall featuring educators from across the city.

Over the past couple of years, Chalkbeat has brought readers personal stories from teachers and students through the events. Some of our favorites touched on how a teacher won the trust of her most skeptical student, why another teacher decided to come out to his students, and one educator’s call to ramp up the number of students pursuing a college education.

The event, 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 13, is free and open to the public — please RSVP here.

Event details:

5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.
Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018
Tube Factory artspace
1125 Cruft St., Indianapolis, IN 46203
Get tickets here and find more on Facebook

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