Above the Fray?

As the school reform debates rage on, community groups struggle to stay out of the politics and yet keep influencing the quality of education in their neighborhoods.

Children play on the swing set on the grounds of Dudley Charter School in Boston, Massachusetts.
Children on the playground the Dudley Charter School in Boston. Photo by Ruis DeTeresa, via flickr, CC BY 2.0

Education reform is a big deal in the neighborhoods just outside St. Louis where Beyond Housing focuses its housing efforts. For proof, leaf through the four charter school proposals that appear on the desk of the community development organization’s director, Chris Krehmeyer, in just the week immediately following Thanksgiving.

Thanks to the free-for-all heating up over public education, the list of suitors for community development groups’ support is long: Competing camps of teachers, administrators, politicians, and interest groups have made it a habit to come looking to community groups for grassroots support as they wrestle over charter schools, vouchers, teacher pay, and a host of other issues.

In Oakland, Calif., Olis Simmons, whose community action group Youth Uprising just opened two charters this past fall, is used to being on the receiving end of overtures made by a number of groups. Once a quarter, as CEO, she has a standing invitation to attend discussions organized by Elevate 78, a Bay Area group that supports universal enrollment (one stop to apply for/enroll in charters and district schools), that even though the stance conflicts with the positions Simmons has taken with charters specifically targeting African-American children. Recently, the Oakland superintendent asked Simmons to line up behind his campaign to raise teachers’ salaries. The request came a few years after Youth Uprising butted heads with the school board and threatened to invoke a California state statute to seize local Castlemont High as a catalyst to get the its charters off the ground.

Sheena Collier, a director of the Boston Promise Initiative, run by the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative (DSNI) in the Roxbury neighborhood of Boston, says it’s not unusual to get two requests a week. A year ago, the caller was the NAACP, which signed DSNI on to its efforts to block the Boston Public Schools from ending busing for sixth, seventh, and eighth graders. In recent months, the Boston teachers’ union has begun to gird for upcoming contract negotiations and asked DSNI to get parents out to community meetings in support. There are times when the organization has backed off, too. Not long ago, a New York pro-charter group, Families for Excellent Schools, proposed what seemed like fact-finding meetings as it gauged its entry into Boston. Collier says it wasn’t clear what the “ask” there was, but that DSNI made it known that they didn’t take sides in the charter school debate.

When outsiders come calling, say community development heads, attention is one thing and meaningful results quite another.

Take what’s happening in Beyond Housing’s struggling home base, Normandy, Mo. The local school district seems like a ready-made test model for the right voucher, school choice, or charter advocates to come along. In the span of five years, it lost state accreditation and saw the governor’s office seize control of the school board. What’s more, Normandy was pushed by state education authorities to absorb a failing neighboring district along with a handful of abandoned school buildings. with the district has an enrollment of 3,600 in local public elementary, middle, and high schools. Krehmeyer’s organization could even provide infrastructure: Beyond Housing chipped in a couple of years ago by working out $2.3 million in financing to purchase six buildings either abandoned or in need of rehab, structures the director says could house classrooms for 2,000 students.

For all that, Beyond Housing’s Krehmeyer reports that the outsiders have brought about no more than a small dent in a mountain of problems. “We’re open to any and all-my answer is always, ‘Bring it on,’” he says. “But the fact is the charters, for instance, just don’t have the capital in place to work. And besides that, the reality is a charter is going to take two to three years to get off the ground and will help maybe 200 to 300 children at most.” As a result, Beyond Housing has turned its attention to partnering with other groups to address smaller yet significant fixes such as strengthening pre-school in the district.

Caught in the Middle

Ongoing battles over the future of public education frequently put community groups on a high wire. Community development organizations know the importance of education. Their place-based revitalization mission invariably leads to concern about schools. Current realities often mean balancing expedient, short-term remedies such as charters that will help some families with the longer time-horizon task of righting a community asset: public schools. “The bottom line is that public schools are the core to a strong community,” Krehmeyer says. “Our main mission is in real estate, but the fact is that housing in our community is sold by the quality of the school district, since the biggest part of a homeowner’s tax bill goes to schools.”

Collier says it’s heartening to see that neighborhood residents push to be counted in the argument. A case in point is the series of events that took place in 2014 when the Boston Public Schools announced plans to tear down a local middle school building and replace it with a STEM-focused in-district charter. (Boston’s in-district charters are semi-autonomous, with more district oversight than “full” charters.) The project had $72 million in funding and matching grants lined up from the Boston Public Schools and the Massachusetts School Building Authority.

Local parents bristled, though, feeling left out of a process that effectively erased a local school to erect a new structure for outsiders. A group of them turned to DSNI, which in turn pressed the school system to send high-ranking representatives to answer questions about the project to a set of meetings in summer 2014. The superintendent or assistant superintendent attended each of the gatherings, which drew about 40 local parents at a time. Collier reports that it was a winning effort: The school board backed off the charter plans (which would have required citywide admission) and instead will continue to take enrollment from local elementary schools, though education nonprofit BPE, operator of the Dudley Street Charter School, will still be given a large role in running the school. Construction is set to start in early 2016.

East Oakland, California

After 10 years of working in East Oakland, including tutoring and prep classes for local teens and young adults, Youth Uprising had come to the conclusion that local school children were not being well served. The data agreed: Over the course of the previous 20 years, the high school dropout rate in the neighborhood had risen to 40 percent. Only 44 percent of the adults above 25 in the area now have a secondary school diploma. Over 80 percent and 60 percent of the district’s students fell short of state math and language arts standards, respectively, on standardized tests.

Discussions with local educators always came back to Castlemont High. Once a flagship for Oakland’s East Side, it was now labeled a district trouble spot. Youth Uprising found out from the principal and faculty that entering freshman simply weren’t adequately prepared and were likely to drop out of school out of frustration.

Youth Uprising’s answer was one part hardball, one part boosterism. Simmons approached the district and threatened to float a petition, gather signatures, and ultimately invoke a state statute to take over the high school. However, they didn’t really want to make good on that threat. “We said rather than fight, we want to partner and rebuild to make Castlemont beautiful,” says Simmons. Given the problem with preparation, the keystone to that plan was to actually to revamp Castlemont’s elementary and middle school feeder system with two new charter schools to be housed directly inside the high school.

Simmons’ group turned to the Newschools Venture Fund, a Bay Area nonprofit that throws its support behind charters, for $80,000 and received another $30,000 from the Rogers Foundation. The money helped pay for a roster of consultants, lawyers, architects, teachers and ultimately for the construction of new classrooms. This past August, the doors opened on Castlemont Community Primary Academy, an elementary school, and Castlemont Junior Academy, a middle school.

Youth Uprising has continued to work on smaller initiatives as well. For instance, it was apparent that African-American parents needed help gathering information on their school choice options. “We noticed that in a district where the school-age population is predominately African-American, 90 percent to 95 percent of the seats at local charters were filled by kids from other communities,” says Lisa Haynes, CEO and co-founder of the Castlemont charter project. “That’s not saying parents in our community weren’t interested in getting their children in-they just don’t know that the steps in placing your kids start early in the school year and even before.”

One reason, Haynes says, is that neighborhood parents felt excluded. Youth Uprising has set about to address that problem. It has organized meetings to brief local parents on what to look for and how to keep abreast of options for their kids. In their own charters, they have emphasized community connection: parents of children enrolled in their charters have been recruited as teacher aides and crossing guards. Both the elementary and middle schools have taken on community service and classroom projects that address neighborhood needs. In one example, middle-schoolers are examining the number of automobile accidents and speeding motorists that made crossing streets near school a peril. Civics classes have learned how to approach city council members and examine police records. Math lessons have helped students calculate the cost of installing a stoplight.

“We’re about what’s best for the people in the place we serve and what’s best for their children,” says Olis Simmons. “School reform, charter schools, traditional education-the truth is when your primary point of interest is the people in the neighborhood, everything else becomes a vehicle.”

Normandy, Missouri

In many ways, Beyond Housing’s work in Normandy has been a succession of crisis interventions. The organization is anchored in a cluster of small, splintered, predominately African-American communities just outside St. Louis, Mo., which are joined together in the Normandy School District. The organization’s home base has not only seen poverty rates rise steadily, but was also beset by both the predatory lending crisis and the Great Recession. Beyond Housing’s response has centered primarily on helping homeowners untangle real estate issues as a way to stabilize and rebuild the community.

Beyond Housing has found it can have the greatest impact working from the grassroots up while checking in regularly with the school district. Early childhood development was one place to start. Krehmeyer’s group found that there was a low bar in terms of early childhood development education for local pre-K providers, usually small entrepreneurs, had to secure a state operating licenses. They reasoned this might be one of the reasons that, according to local teachers, more than half of the children in the district simply weren’t ready for kindergarten.

In response, Beyond Housing paired up with a local organization, United 4 Children, to start training daycare center operators. Beyond Housing tapped its funding network to raise $1 million for the effort, and United 4 Children went to work with about 20 licensed daycare centers, providing 120 hours of early childhood development classes to 40 instructors.

In another instance, Beyond Housing began sleuthing for reasons why attendance at a handful of local schools had dropped significantly just one or two months into the academic year. The organization had recently started sending staffers out to elementary and high schools to meet regularly with administrators, faculty, and parents, and these relationships unearthed some simple reasons. Teachers said some kids were embarrassed to go to school in soiled or torn uniforms and would play hooky rather than risk being reprimanded by the principal. Several parents mentioned students who were ashamed of coming to school emptyhanded if they ran out of or lost their opening day allotment of notebooks, pencils, and other school supplies. When Beyond Housing supplied backup uniforms and replacement school supplies to be stowed away in the principal’s office for those in need, principals reported tangible results right away.

Brooklyn, New York

The Cypress Hills Local Development Corporation (CHLDC) has spent the last 25 years working in the Brooklyn neighborhoods of Cypress Hills and East New York. The group saw early on that education intervention was a logical complement to its housing development work.

One strategy, says Briana Santiago, a director for the group’s Promise Neighborhoods initiative, has been to open a dialogue between parents, partner organizations, and schools. Another has been to help students with after-school care and programs to direct their attention to their individual futures.

For starters, Cypress Hills runs five elementary and two middle school after-school programs that are designed to supplement school work and give working parents a break in the form of a longer school day for their kids. Altogether a total of 1,350 children now attend the programs.

The group has also opened what it calls “success centers” at local Franklin K. Lane High School and an area storefront. The program helps high schoolers understand the importance of college and how to clear hurdles in order to complete university applications and apply for financial aid. Santiago says the success centers welcome about 300 high schoolers a year and reach as many as 500 students from lower grades who drop in. The popularity of the program prompted Cypress Hills to open a middle school offshoot at I.S. 171 where seventh and eighth graders can learn more about private and specialized high-school options open to them and take prep classes for entry tests.

At the same time, Cypress Hills has used its connections to collect observations and insight from partner organizations, community leaders, and, most importantly, local residents, and try to coordinate disparate efforts and make the most of proven programs. Building consensus is no mean feat: Cypress Hills’ residents have come to Brooklyn from the world over. The organization says the largest number of residents hail from the Dominican Republic, Guyana, Bangladesh, Ecuador, and Trinidad. Local geography is a factor as well. Santiago says the J and Z elevated subway lines slice down the center of the neighborhood, effectively creating a divide between two halves. The end result, she notes, is that organizations operating on one side frequently don’t know what’s happening across the rails.

The gulf became apparent during a community forum and quarterly meetings held by Cypress Hills as part of their Department of Education Promise Neighborhood grant. Community leaders and directors of outside organizations were frequently surprised at how much activity was already taking place. “Even now, we keep hearing, ‘I didn’t know there was a program like that in the community,’” she says.

In one example, the East New York Reads initiative works in two local public schools, while a few blocks away, the Brooklyn Public Library has set up another literacy effort targeting children from birth through fifth grade. Thanks to Cypress Hill, the two are not working in isolation, but sharing information on strategies, methods, and outcomes.

Boston, Massachusetts

In 2012, Northeast Boston’s Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative (DSNI) partnered with BPE, a teacher training and school development organization, to start the Dudley Street Neighborhood Charter School. Enrollment has grown to a projected 325 students next year. Collier says the effort is a success because DSNI and BPE stick to their respective areas of expertise: DSNI contributes $25,000 of its Boston Promise Initiative funding and also rallies parents through community organizing efforts. That frees BPE to keep its focus on curriculum and school administration.

Additionally, a total of $1.2 million in Promise Neighborhood funds has made it possible for DSNI to contribute $25,000 to four other schools, while it targets other smaller-scale projects and coordinates partners to provide comprehensive solutions to benefit Roxbury’s 7,000 school children.

One partnership, called No Child Goes Homeless, was drawn up with a local Boston organization, Project Hope. It helps homeless families with children find stable, permanent housing and at the same time keep their kids enrolled in one school while they try to get settled. The director says the project is now exploring how to get St. Patrick’s, a neighborhood Catholic elementary school, to join the program starting in 2016.

Two other efforts DSNI has funded target smaller, more specific needs. At the King K-8 public school, a number of middle school students were chronically tardy. The faculty brainstormed and decided that a morning enrichment program including a class devoted to honing basketball skills might motivate more kids to get to school on time. DSNI contributed funding, and final reports filed at the end of the 2014-2015 school year noted that more boys showed up at school on time after the program was instituted. When public school budget cuts ended late afternoon bus service to the Dearborn 6-12 STEM Academy, effectively leaving students out of after-school and tutoring programs, DSNI stepped in with Promise Initiative funds to pay to keep buses running until 4 p.m.

Start Small and Local, Aim High and Local

Community developers say the problems local schools face are so broad and deep-seated that the best they can hope for is incremental progress. What’s more, the work of rallying, cajoling, appeasing, and working with a myriad of players slows things down. One thing is clear, however: Joining one side of the argument or the other oversimplifies the myriad of problems the parents and school children confront daily.

“Our strength is in organizing-we’re not education experts,” says DSNI’s Sheena Collier. “Early on, we came to the conclusion that we’d have the most impact on planning, housing, organizing, and finding just how to integrate with partners to benefit young people in the neighborhood the most.”

Says Briana Santiago of Cypress Hills, “The idea is that schools are a neighborhood asset. We really approach education with a community organizing lens.” “We see partnerships with local schools and businesses as the way to revitalize the neighborhood economy and empower community residents and at the same time take on issues such as school reform.”

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