Powerful Partnerships: A Recipe for Student Success

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The City College Academy of the Arts, founded in 2005, is a 6th to 12th grade New York City Department of Education/City University of New York/The Children’s Aid Society early college, full-service community school, in northern Manhattan. There are 526 students; 86% qualify for free lunch. The attendance and graduation rates are 95%, SATs are above average, and there is a 100% college acceptance rate. An explanation behind this remarkable success may be the shared vision and unified approach at this school that keep the well-being of the whole child at the forefront of all activities.  

The school is part of the Early College Initiative (ECI) at the City University of New York (CUNY). This means that at the City College Academy of the Arts (CCAA), low-income youth, English language learners and students of color can simultaneously earn a high school diploma and an associate’s degree or up to two years of credit toward a bachelor’s degree, at no cost. Perhaps not by chance, the school was placed in a building where the NYC Department of Education (DOE) had been successfully running a full-service community school, in partnership with one of the city’s most solid social service agencies, the Children’s Aid Society (CAS), since 1992.  CCAA still shares the building with two other DOE/CAS schools, I.S. 218 and I.S. 322.   

As the primary academic partner, CUNY’s City College of New York (CCNY) invests substantial human and financial resources.  Its ECI helped create the school’s vision and mission and provides guidance, technical support and professional development.  For instance, while the school is named for its focus on the arts, there is a strong emphasis on reading and writing, so City College professors helped develop and implement an interdisciplinary program –every teacher teaches reading and writing. Students take courses at CCNY; in grade 9 they attend most of their classes at their high school but take art at CCNY. By senior year, all their classes are taken at CCNY –college courses, college-oriented workshops, and special activities.

“We have been the school’s lead community-based partner from day one,” says Migdalia Cortes-Torres, CAS community school director. She adds that Dr. Burnadette Drysdale, the school principal, is a strong, inclusive leader who believes in true partnerships. “She’s always available to discuss our suggestions. In fact, there’s a culture of collaboration, trust and respect here that facilitates everybody’s job. But there’s also accountability.  We respond to the school’s needs. She totally trusts us because we deliver.” CAS provides school-based comprehensive health services, expanded learning opportunities (that offer a wide range of enrichments during and after school, summer and holidays), service learning, career readiness, adult education, and family engagement programs.  

The school often contracts with Children’s Aid to provide specific supports and services; the Career Exploration and Senior Internship Program (CESI) is a good example. Through this program, over 70 seniors are placed in internships where they gain pre-professional work and field experience, in a position that carries responsibility and matches students’ particular interests. The program is designed and run in conjunction with CCAA assistant principal and CCNY’s liaison. CESI’s coordinator, Giselle Pagan, says that both the students and the organizations providing the opportunity are highly satisfied. “In the future, we hope to offer internship opportunities to students from ninth to twelfth grades,” she says. Twice a month, Ms. Pagan meets with the students at CCNY to check on their progress and to provide workshops on job readiness, leadership development and self-awareness skills.  

Parents are major partners at the school, and a great deal of collaboration between CAS and CCAA ensures that they get involved.  “This school encouraged me to be part of my daughters’ education more directly. As a father and immigrant, I feel totally supported,” says Ruddy Colón, whose children attend 11th and 12th grades. “I’ve learned about their developmental process and that has been very helpful. I know that many other fathers would agree with me.” Colón is a professional computer engineer and has been part of the fathers program that Children’s Aid Parent Coordinator Lidia Aguasanta established at the school seven years ago.  

Since most early college high school students will be the first in their families to go to college, the process may be confusing for some parents. "Students are asked to do college level work in high school, and begin thinking about college as soon as they get to 6th grade,” says Manuela Ceballos, CCAA parent coordinator. “Part of my job is to help the family understand what this entails.”

Ceballos describes herself as a product of the CAS community schools.

“My children attended Head Start and elementary school at [Children’s Aid’s] P.S. 5. I became a parent leader there,” she says. “Now my three children are going to Brown University, Long Island University and to the University of Buffalo – on full scholarships. We want parents to see that no matter where you start, you can always go far. I’m doing my master’s in counseling. My bachelor’s degree is in behavioral sciences. We can all achieve if we work hard.” Ms. Ceballos collaborates very closely with the Children’s Aid parent coordinator, who she says has been an inspiration to her, and with the coordinators of the two other schools in the building. “’Parent involvement is everybody’s job,’ as we say at CAS,” she adds with a wide smile. “We wouldn’t be this successful if we were doing this on our own.”

By all accounts, this collaboration is a recipe for success. Concrete examples of multiple partnerships working seamlessly are easily found.  “We often make miracles happen here,” says community school director Cortes-Torres. “Through careful planning and coordination we maximize our resources and our collective capacity expands.  Collaboration can definitely bring on success for children and families.”