by Karim Abouelnaga
Last week, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo gave his state of the state speech. With Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday last week, I couldn’t help but reflect on the lack of progress my city has made towards ending social inequality, and narrowing long-standing achievement gaps. During his “I Have A Dream” speech, Dr. King Jr. envisioned a day where “little black boys and girls will be holding hands with little white boys and girls.” At this rate, this dream may never come to fruition in New York City’s public school system. Wealth inequality is at the greatest level it has ever been, the public schools in my great city are the most segregated in the country, poverty is pervasive with 78.2% of children receiving free or reduced lunch in public schools, and achievement gaps have not narrowed for Blacks and Hispanics. Frankly, these facts should make any New Yorker outraged, but this would infuriate Dr. King Jr. who, almost 53 years ago, stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial sharing his vision for a better world.
In a two-hour update, Governor Cuomo made several big announcements, including a plan to add another $100M to the community schools initiative around the state, with the majority of the $100M being targeted in New York City. The community schools program is an initiative to turn schools in high-need communities into beacons of light for inner city families. In theory, the program is laudable. Schools would provide mental health services, counseling, academic summer learning, after school support, and family support services. On paper, this is extremely hard to argue against as being a thoughtful solution to leveling the educational playing field.
Now, having worked with several community and renewal schools (renewal schools are community schools that are in probation) across New York City, I am confident that if we don’t make adjustments soon, the $150M pledged by Mayor de Blasio last year, and the additional $100M pledged by Governor Cuomo will be spent with very little to show.
Here are the three sensible solutions that will allow the city to use the money in a way that will drive the intended outcomes, live up to the expectations of New Yorkers, and bring us one step closer to achieving Dr. King Jr.’s vision.
1. The Mayor and the Chancellor need to intervene to identify the effective programs to deliver on their comprehensive vision. Right now, every community school has been partnered with a lead community-based organization (CBO) that is responsible for providing support to their schools. In my experience thus far, the CBOs have not had the expertise to provide adequate support, or evaluate the effectiveness of programs that will lead to productive interventions. This is extremely troublesome. With mounting pressures, many of the partner organizations are operating sub-par programs. Now is not the time for trial and error. We need to see positive results in our community schools. Simply throwing money at problems does not solve them. If you have students who can’t count to 10, and you throw $100 at them, do they magically learn how to count to 10? No. We need to design programs that will teach them how to count to 10. My biggest fear is that the programs schools need to deliver on the Mayor’s vision do not exist at the needed scale
2. Schools need a better sense of their funding and timing.This is something that applies for all schools, but with the amount of funding given to support the renewal schools, this is especially important for them. I’ve met with numerous community schools that are due to get more funding, but neither the school principal, the office of community schools, or the CBO have an idea as to what sort of support they will receive. In the five years I’ve been running Practice Makes Perfect, I’ve heard several horror stories where school leaders have been called with two or three days notice, and were asked to spend upwards of a quarter million dollars. This forces schools to pinch pennies all year and compromise the quality of the interventions they provide, only to find themselves at the end of the school year with a surplus that must be spent superficially. If this pattern continues, this could turn into millions of dollars by the community schools.
3. Alter the Community Schools Partnership Model.The thought of having a lead CBO that can provide comprehensive wrap-around services is flawed. In line with my first recommendation, let providers deliver services across the schools based on their area of expertise. The office of community schools can coordinate the supports without the additional overhead. A quick analysis of the lead CBOs shows many familiar organizations that have been in these struggling communities for decades with very little outcomes to show.
These challenges arise from the need to scale interventions quickly. Of course the administration needs to act with a sense of urgency, but let’s ensure that this urgency doesn’t lead to excessive waste in both city and state dollars. As a product of the New York City public school system, and the leader of an education organization, I want nothing more than to see our schools, and children succeed. I have four younger siblings going through our system, and I want to see them get the support they deserve. We owe it to our students to get this right. I am hopeful that we can. Let us honor Dr. King Jr.’s legacy by moving forward with a proper plan in place. Only then, will we get one step closer to ending inequality.
Karim Abouelnaga is the Founder and CEO of Practice Makes Perfect, an evidence-based, full-service summer school provider for K-8 schools.