Testimony Prepared for the Assembly Standing Committee on Education: Governance of the New York City School District
Katherine Eckstein, Director of Public Policy
March 13, 2009
Good morning. My name is Katherine Eckstein and I am the Director of Public Policy at ThebChildren’s Aid Society (CAS). Chair Nolan and members of the Education Committee, thank you for the opportunity to testify. The Children’s Aid Society, founded in 1853, provides comprehensive services for more than 100,000 of New York City's children and families each year. Our goal is to ensure their physical and emotional well-being, and to provide every child with the supports and opportunities needed to become a happy, healthy and successful adult. The Children’s Aid Society comes to the issue of school governance with 20 years of experience partnering with New York City Public Schools. We have worked with eight Chancellors and four Mayors. We have worked with District Superintendents, Community School Boards, Community Education Councils, School Support Organizations and Empowerment Zones. We have many beliefs about how the school system was run and how it is being run. Children’s Aid supports mayoral control of the public schools. In that context, there are two issues about which we care deeply that we hope will inform decisions moving forward:
- Ensuring that there are multiple opportunities for authentic parent and community engagement at all levels – from individual schools to the system at large. When we say parents, we mean families. When we say community, we mean community members, community-based organizations, businesses, higher education and health providers.
- One promise of mayoral control has yet to be fully realized – the opportunity to harness the power of city agencies to respond in an integrated and coordinated way to the real and multiple needs that children and families have, using schools as the vehicle.
Our preference for mayoral control of schools stems from our conviction and our years of experience that this is the preferred governance strategy, and because we think it still has the potential to deliver in these two areas. Before I speak about the need for more authentic parent and community engagement, I will take a moment to describe the context in which we see parent and community engagement – as part of a full-service school environment. Community Schools: How Children’s Aid Approaches this Work Children’s Aid partners in 20 schools in New York City in what we call Community Schools. Community Schools are both places and partnerships that bring together the school and community to provide an engaging academic experience, enriched opportunities to help students see positive futures, and services designed to remove barriers to learning. i Full-Service Community Schools integrate multiple services into the school building because taking care of children’s non-academic needs improves academic performance, and because bringing important services directly to children, where they spend each day, is an effective and efficient way to serve the whole child. Community Schools have caught on across the country and the world. Community Schools offer mental health, medical and dental services. Our schools provide high quality, enriching after-school, holiday and summer programs built upon what happens during the school day. Our schools offer classes for parents that might include learning English or starting a business and our schools hold immigration clinics for the entire neighborhood. Some of our schools have Head Start and Early Head Start. In every one of our schools is a Community Schools Director, who works in close partnership with the principal and whose responsibility it is to integrate and align the non-academic programs and services offered in the school. We know that schools can’t do it alone and that we need to combine the resources of both the human services sector and the education sector to address the individual needs of students and families. In partnership with the Department of Education we have been able to leverage more than $200 million in the last 20 years in private and public money to improve student and family outcomes. So, if a family is about to be evicted, we help the family fight eviction. If they don’t have health insurance, we help them apply for it. Helping the family improves the school by addressing the types of problems that prevent students from learning. Results from our own schools and initiatives around the country have shown that there is value-added to children if they attend a Community School: Outcomes from 16 years of research on Children’s Aid Community Schools include:
- Increased academic achievement ii
- Improvement in student attendance iii
- Improvement in youths’ social and emotional development and community engagement iv
- Increased parent involvement v
- Improvement in mental and physical health vi
Sixty-eight percent of our funding comes from existing public funding sources, many of which schools by themselves could not otherwise access, such as Medicaid. Parent and Community Engagement One of the most important aspects of Community Schools is the parent engagement programs. Parents can and should be involved and engaged in schools. Parents should be respected and welcomed as teachers, leaders, learners and advocates. This means:
- Providing opportunities for parents to have their own needs addressed through adult education classes and connections to social service supports and legal advocacy;
- Offering classes in parenting such as “Understanding Your Middle School Child,” or “Reading to Your Child at Home”; and
- Helping parents become advocates for themselves and their children.
We want to help parents be advocates in support of good schools. What does it take to produce genuine parental engagement in schools? How can barriers between schools and families, particularly in low-income communities, be broken down? The model we recommend features opportunities to directly address parent needs, to nurture parent leadership and to train parents on issues important to them, such as public benefits, landlord/tenant assistance and negotiating the special education system. The model helps facilitate a positive relationship between schools and parents and engages parents in meaningful and authentic ways by:
- Ensuring that the Parent Coordinator (whether paid by the DOE or CAS) is trained and acts as a bridge between families and the school;
- Facilitating authentic participation in School Leadership Teams and other school governance structures; and
- Providing training and workshops in leadership and advocacy.
We have seen parents discouraged and angry when decisions are made about their children’s schools with little or no input from families or the community. One example of this is when schools are restructured or closed. Though ultimately it might be the best decision, parents and community partners are often left out of the decision-making process. Decisions appear to be made unilaterally and the implementation is sometimes confusing and chaotic. Authentic engagement means including parents in discussions and decisions. Providing opportunities for authentic engagement – such as well-functioning School Leadership Teams and Parent Guardian Associations – is critical. A great new initiative in Washington Heights is the Parent Leadership Institute, created with support from Assembly Member Adriano Espaillat, which builds on the parent engagement work that we have been doing in schools for almost 20 years. In the Institute, parents come together to learn – ESL, technology, entrepreneurship – and join together as advocates. This is not done as an adversary to the school system, but in partnership with it. This past year:
- The parents in one of our schools in East Harlem helped address their community’s need for better access to fresh produce by partnering with the Council on the Environment of NYC to launch a Youthmarket at which local farmers sold fresh produce;
- Children’s Aid partnered with the City Bar Association to offer parents and community members free legal advice at our Immigration Clinic; and
- We held workshops on High School Choice, preparing for the SAT, and financial planning for college.
I note these parent and community engagement models because we believe there are schools in the system, usually with the support of community-based organizations (CBOs), that are demonstrating great success in parent and community partnerships, but this must be increased substantially. Parent engagement in schools does not just happen. It must be an intentional strategy of any administration moving forward. CBOs can help. The Promise of Mayoral Control: Harnessing the Human and Financial Resources of NYC The second issue I’d like to discuss today is often left out of conversations about mayoral control – harnessing the resources of all city agencies using schools as vehicles to address the very real needs of children and families that we know affect student achievement. Our experience has taught us that a child who is depressed, hungry, scared of walking to and from school, has chronic asthma, is homeless, or whose parents are abusive, neglectful or mentally ill will not be able to take advantage of all that schools have to offer – even if schools have the best leadership, innovative teachers, small class sizes and state-of-the-art resources. Often services exist that can help students deal with such issues, but they are not always effectively delivered. A holistic approach to working with children and their families yields the best results for them. And we believe that a holistic, systemic approach is necessary to address the startling statistics that our City still faces, despite the gains made over the last years. Systemic problems such as chronic early absenteeism and the lack of quality preventive medical care demand systemic responses. How do we respond to the crisis in middle schools or to the fact that 90,000 children in grades K-5 were absent in New York City for a month or more of the 2007-2008 school year? vii The school system alone cannot be held solely responsible for tackling these issues. This does not mean that we shouldn’t hold schools accountable; however, it does mean that our accountability system should be expanded because many of us share the responsibility for whether or not a child succeeds in school. Mayoral leadership can facilitate the kind of coordination and integration that is necessary to tackle these problems – multiple city agencies have to be involved in the solutions. One example that illustrates the potential of mayoral control is the creation of the Out-of-School Time (OST) Initiative, the largest after-school system in the country. An unprecedented MOU was created between the Department of Youth and Community Development and the Department of Education, which commits hundreds of schools as sites for OST programs (60% of the 644 programs are in schools). Because of this, 80,000 children are participating in high-quality afterschool programs, which keep them safe and engaged after-school, on holidays and during the summer and support their working parents or caregivers. We know that during tough economic times families who are already vulnerable suffer the most. This is why we must look at cost-effective strategies that we know will yield positive results. And because we know that there isn’t just one factor that contributes to children not succeeding in school, we need a multi-sector, cross-agency, coordinated response. New York City has an opportunity to marshal its human and financial resources to help the children and families who need it the most. We have an opportunity to promote the integration and coordination of the efforts of city agencies and community organizations. We would like to see City Commissioners and the Chancellor held accountable by the Mayor to think and plan innovatively together about how to relocate certain services into schools. We would also like to see schools receiving incentives for partnering with other City agencies and CBOs. Think of what it would mean if the Mayor declared that all 1.1 million children in NYC public schools be enrolled in health insurance and then mobilized the Department of Health to locate facilitated enrollers in schools? Or maybe this means redeploying housing workers into schools with particularly high family mobilization rates. Perhaps this means locating child welfare preventive services personnel into a school – like we do at one of our elementary schools. Or it could mean aligning the early childhood system and the education systems because we know that learning doesn’t begin in Kindergarten. Or it could mean offering incentives for deeper and stronger partnerships with community-based organizations to locate a health clinic in a school or work on improving school climate. However just putting these services in schools is not enough. We know that these services must be coordinated within schools if they are to be effective and that all partners must share accountability for outcomes. The Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, presided over the largest Community Schools initiative in the country – 150 schools based on our model – when he was CEO of Chicago Public Schools, another city with mayoral control. We know it’s possible. It’s time for New York City to catch on. Let that be a lesson for New York City. As the NYS Legislature makes its decision about the governance of NYC Public Schools, please remember that we need parents and communities to be engaged authentically in schools and that in order for us to tackle the great challenges of our City, we need more than the school system to make it happen. Both of these are possible under mayoral control. Thank you for the opportunity to speak with you this morning. I look forward to answering any questions you may have.
i Community Schools for All: A Case Statement and Strategic Plan | 2007‐2014, Coalition for Community Schools, http://communityschools.org. ii 21st Century Community Learning Centers at Six New York City Middle Schools Year One Findings, prepared by Kira Krenichyn, Heléne Clark, Nicole Schaefer-McDaniel and Lymari Benitez of ActKnowledge, September 2005. See also Summary of Fordham University Research Findings 1992-1999, prepared by ActKnowledge. iii Op cit., Fordham University Research Findings 1992-1999. See also Op cit., 21st Century Community Learning Centers at Six New York City Middle Schools Year One Findings. iv Op cit., 21st Century Community Learning Centers at Six New York City Middle Schools Year One Findings. See also op cit., Fordham University Research Findings 1992-1999. v Op cit., Fordham University Research Findings 1992-1999. vi The Children’s Aid Society’s Community School Mental Health Services Analysis of Progress in 4th Year of the New York State Education Department’s VESID – Effective Practices Contract. Evaluation conducted by Heléne Clark and Robert Engle of ActKnowledge, November 2003. See also PS 50 Evaluation of the Health Component in its First Year. Evaluation conducted by Heléne Clark, Melissa Extein, and Robert Engle of ActKnowledge, September 2003. vii Nauer, White and Yerneni, “Strengthening Schools by Strengthening Families: Community Strategies to Reverse Chronic Absenteeism in the Early Grades and Improve Supports for Children and Families,” Center for New York City Affairs, Milano The New School, October 2008.
For further inquiries please contact: The Children’s Aid Society Office of Public Policy and Client Advocacy (212) 358-8930