A High-Risk Response to an Urgent Need | Teachers College Columbia University

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A High-Risk Response to an Urgent Need

By Aaron Pallas

The Mayor’s plan to convert more than 90 struggling schools to community schools suggests some confusion or conflict within the administration over just why these schools are struggling. If community schools are the solution, what’s the problem? The hallmark of community schools is their effort to dismantle boundaries between the school and the local community, locating a variety of social services designed to promote the healthy development of children – health care, counseling and mental health, and nutrition, to name a few – within the school. The problem that community schools address is children’s physical and psychological well-being, both of which are prerequisites to readiness to learn.

But schools can struggle for other reasons as well. They may have a dysfunctional culture in which the principal and teachers don’t rally around a core mission, and are unable to work together productively on curriculum development and instructional practices. If this is the problem, community schools aren’t the appropriate solution, and in fact there are few strategies that can be counted on to turn around such schools. But direct intervention into school staffing and leadership, either via replacement or professional development, is a common approach.

Deputy Mayor Richard Buery joined Mayor de Blasio’s administration from the Children’s Aid Society, a social service agency that has opened and cultivated nearly 20 community schools in New York City. In contrast, Chancellor Carmen Fariña has long championed a “high-touch” approach to school reform, emphasizing the ways in which teachers and principals can learn from one another via professional development opportunities. The Mayor’s proposal may represent a compromise between these two influential members of his team.

There’s a risk to this approach, however. Converting schools into community schools involves adding responsibilities to a school. And if a school is already struggling to organize effectively to manage basic instruction, it may be unwise to saddle it with the additional responsibilities associated with a well-run community school. A staggered approach, in which attention is first directed at basic school functioning, and only later to a broader conception of child development after there are signs of renewal, might be safer. But it may not convey the administration’s sense of urgency about fixing schools that are not working well.

Published Wednesday, Nov. 5, 2014