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Cradle to College | The Nation

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Cradle to College

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There's no cookie-cutter version of community schools. At the Manhattan Center for Science and Mathematics, which draws 1,700 students from the five boroughs to its East Harlem site, the main goal is to keep these bright kids on track for graduation and college. Typically they're the first generation in their families to think about going to college, and they need help in getting there. As ninth graders, many of them arrive at Manhattan Center unprepared for its rigors and consequently flunk some of their courses. That's an all-too-reliable predictor of dropping out.

About the Author

David L. Kirp
David L. Kirp, professor of public policy at the University of California, Berkeley, is the author of The Sandbox...

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Together with Manhattan Center teachers, the Children's Aid team devised a freshman seminar that helps students manage stress and acquire the self-discipline needed to study. The school's freshman failure rate dropped from 36 percent to 24 percent after the first year of the seminar program, and school systems nationwide are exploring the model.

The students at Manhattan Center have a major voice in planning what happens after school. Children's Aid has made them a deal—if ten kids sign up for a club, the nonprofit finds and pays for an adviser. That's how the hip-hop dance club came into being, as well as the knitting club that a group of boys requested. Other projects, like peer tutoring (which relies on the top students to help their classmates), emphasize academics. Children's Aid encourages kids to explore possibilities in higher education, paying to keep the college office at the school open long hours and taking students to see university life firsthand. The aim is to bring higher education within psychological reach, so that earning a BA seems less like an impossible dream.

Even as Joel Klein was fulminating about the culture of excuse, school officials recruited Children's Aid to help design a new school, the High School for Excellence and Innovation (HSEI), which could turn around the city's hardest-to-reach teens. That's a mighty tall order. These students are 16 and 17. By rights they should be starting their junior or senior year; instead they are entering ninth grade. Many came to HSEI reading at a third-grade level, and half have been labeled "special education" youngsters. Such teens are near-certain bets to drop out and likely candidates for the prison track. Enter Children's Aid. "We're not just involved after school—more and more we're part of the school day," says Richard Negrón, who runs the New York City program.

HSEI opened last fall in unpromising temporary quarters—two floors of a tired-looking building that has no gym or library, no cafeteria or health clinic—but bright paint and walls festooned with students' written work do wonders. "In September we couldn't have been sitting here having this conversation," principal Tyona Washington tells me. "There was too much craziness." Over the course of the year the change has been remarkable. "It was 'Fuck this' and 'Fuck that' when they arrived; now it's 'Good morning, Tyona.'" These adolescents aren't cutting school—attendance is at 84 percent, considerably better than at other schools with similar students—and they're coming on time.

Washington gives a lot of the credit to Children's Aid. "It's a 24/7 collaboration...a great marriage," she says. "We're creating an environment for learning and growth, not making excuses." Trips to leafy suburban campuses have got some of these kids strategizing to improve their grades so that they can go to college. "I've got a 79," volunteers one boy. "I need to get my average up six points." I drop in on a seminar where a Children's Aid staffer is leading a discussion of Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken." None of the students had ever heard of the poet ("He was the one who made Frosted Flakes," jokes one), and the poem is hard to absorb when you hear it for the first time. Yet its pivotal lines—"Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—/I took the one less traveled by,/And that has made all the difference"—become the launching pad for these students to talk about the meaningful choices they make "every day," and their hard-knock lives punch up the conversation.

"If I didn't come here every day," one boy says, "all my goals would go down the toilet."

It's logical that youngsters' test scores will improve if you give them the help they need and get their parents interested, and evaluations back up the anecdotes of accomplishment. In a study conducted during the 1990s, Fordham University researchers concluded that the Children's Aid schools had better reading and math test results, higher attendance rates and more parent involvement than comparable public schools. Teachers' attendance improved as well, presumably because they were less stressed, and relations between students and teachers were better. A 2005 evaluation found 25 percent fewer special education referrals than at similar schools, a key measure of future success. Progress measured in test scores exceeded the citywide average in reading by significant margins, and the schools showed far higher attendance than peer schools. The more time the youngsters spent in the after-school and summer programs, the better they did academically.

Those figures are impressive—they're a big reason Children's Aid is Exhibit A for the community schools movement—but they don't tell the entire story. "Evaluating such schools is very hard, because there are so many moving parts," says Samuel Whalen, research director for the doctoral program in urban leadership at the University of Illinois, who has been following the community school experiment in Chicago for years. What's the right metric of success: whether the schools' reading and math test scores improve and students are on track to graduate? Whether a youngster can get a needed pair of glasses or a dental filling? Whether large numbers of kids are staying after school to learn how to sculpt or to bone up on math?

Education reform in the era of No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top pivots on reading and math tests. Community schools are committed to literacy and numeracy, but they also pay attention to less readily measurable outcomes like health, creativity and community service. The question isn't which approach is right—what parent would make such a choice?—but how to blend them effectively. Pitting academics against the rest of children's lives makes for a false dichotomy.

"The 'no excuses' rhetoric is a reaction to a real problem—decades of failed education policy," says Richard Buery, president and CEO of Children's Aid. "But it's an overreaction, because it makes an enemy of a strategy that is no enemy of academic rigor. Unless a school has excellent leadership and teaching, we can't be successful. But you need to pay attention to more than cognition. You have to treat a child as a human being, not as a collection of characteristics."

With school systems across the country drowning in red ink—New York City has announced that it's laying off 8,500 teachers, and that Children's Aid summer programs for middle school kids will be canceled—all eyes are on Washington. The Obama administration has made education a priority. Its 2011 budget calls for spending $49.7 billion, an increase of 6 percent at a time when cuts are widespread. But how will that money be spent? The Education Department has so far been better on rhetoric than dollars for community schools—$10 million in planning grants to Promise Neighborhoods this year and a possible $210 million next year, not much more than a rounding error in the department's budget. "Money goes to where the crises are," says Buery. "People aren't against us—it's just not the priority."

Still, with solid evidence of their effectiveness and mounting political support, community schools should be a big part of the revamped No Child Left Behind Act. These academies of learning and life make for healthier, happier and more engaged students; build social capital; generate lots of money for the schools; and connect parents—what's not to like? Going down this road, rather than obsessing about test scores, is the most promising way to bridge the achievement gap and strengthen the public schools.

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