Coordination and Integration at P. S. 8, A Children’s Aid Society Community School in Washington Heights, New York City

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Local News    In these challenging times, it makes more sense than ever for schools and community partners to join forces to support student achievement. Coordinating and integrating services is not only effective but is also cost-effective. Joint planning avoids redundancy of service and school-based delivery ensures that children and families have access to needed supports in a familiar and convenient location. The role of the community school director is essential to ensuring that the needed planning, coordination and integration occur. This article explores that role in one of our community schools, P. S. 8 in Washington Heights (a low-income neighborhood in northern Manhattan).

Meet Arnery Reyes, a former teacher and experienced social worker, who serves as the community school director at P. S. 8, a full-service community school, enrollment 680, where The Children’s Aid Society is the lead agency. A key part of her role is working closely with the school’s principal, Rafaela Landin, and other administrators, teachers and parents on a day-to-day basis. She also coordinates all of the Children’s Aid services at P. S. 8 − health services, early childhood programs, after-school and summer enrichment programs, Supplemental Education Services, social services, and parent and community involvement programs. In addition, Reyes acts as a service broker, helping to bring in other partners, such as arts organizations like the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater.

Reyes observes that her role has changed over time, as the school invited Children’s Aid to take on more responsibility. “We provide the Supplemental Education Services, per the principal’s request. She tried different vendors when these services where first introduced under No Child Left Behind legislation, but she wasn’t happy with the results and decided to trust Children’s Aid; we have the capacity to do it and know the school well. After all, we are part of all the key school committees, from those that devise the school’s comprehensive education plan, such as the School Leadership Team and the School Educational Design Team, to those that deal with particular students, such as the Pupil Personnel Team, or with student safety such as the School Safety Committee.”

Joint planning is essential to achieve cohesiveness and move the school’s educational plan forward; thus, the Children’s Aid Society director not only participates in the governance of the school but also must have effective communication with the principal through formal and informal meetings.

The work of the educational coordinator, a teacher from the school who is paid and supervised by Children’s Aid in the non-school hours, ensures that the after-school, holiday and Saturday programs are well aligned with the school’s curriculum and comprehensive education plan.

To ensure cohesion in terms of family and parent involvement, Children’s Aid supervises the parent coordinator, who is paid by the N. Y.C. Department of Education. Among other duties, the parent coordinator works closely with the Parents Association, staffs the Family Resource Center, facilitates parent and family celebrations and service opportunities, organizes adult literacy programs and classes for English learners, and supports parent participation during Parent-Teacher Conferences.

According to Reyes, there’s an “all hands on deck” approach at P. S. 8 and The Children’s Aid Society is a key part of this ethos. Regular ongoing communication and problem-solving focus on the needs of students and their families, not only about education but also about concrete needs. “Particularly during this financial crisis, which is hitting our community very hard, we need to be more creative to maximize our resources and respond to needs,” says Reyes. She cites a recent food and clothing drive held at the school on a Saturday: “The whole school community participated. Children’s Aid coordinated the event, and staff, parents, teachers, students and administrators donated new and gently used clothing, mostly for children, who as you know outgrow clothing rapidly. We also got toys and canned food. The event was supposed to go from 9 to 3, but by around 12:30 everything was gone. This shows the amount of need. Parents were very happy.”

According to Myrna Torres, Children’s Aid’s assistant director for community schools, the biggest challenge to coordination and integration is change at every level, but particularly at the Department of Education. “When you get a new principal, you need to start almost from zero. Each new principal needs to learn how to make best use of the human and financial resources that a partner like Children’s Aid can bring to support the education and healthy development of students. We have to demonstrate to new principals that we have a common goal: children excelling. Our directors are mandated to become part of the fabric of the school – and this is not a matter of speaking. They belong to every committee that has to do with the educational process and the safety of students. It is important that everyone is on the same page; we need to know in order to be able to plan our response. When you have partners efficiently working together, you can unite all your efforts around children.”