Houston ISD aims to address students' nonacademic needs through community schools
Former Superintendent Richard Carranza takes over this week as New York City schools chancellor, where he'll lead a much larger community schools effort
When former Houston Independent School District (HISD) Superintendent Richard Carranza tapped Assistant Superintendent Rudy Trevino to lead a new community schools initiative, he was looking for someone with knowledge of the city’s diverse communities.
As a successful principal and district leader, Trevino says he always looked at schools from an academic perspective and was less focused on how students’ “basic needs” affected learning. But now, as the official overseeing the district’s Every Community, Every School initiative, he has a deeper awareness of how nonacademic issues impact student performance.
“I didn’t understand it before,” he says, but now “I believe in it.”
The district’s move toward a wraparound services model — which includes social-emotional support, nutrition, housing assistance, and will expand to include on-site health services, as well — actually began before Hurricane Harvey devastated the Houston area in August. After the disaster, however, getting a “student welfare” policy passed by the HISD Board of Education was a “slam dunk,” Trevino says.
Since fall, the model has been implemented at 50 of the district’s 286 schools, with plans to expand to 120 schools by the end of the 2018-19 school year and go district-wide within five years. Each school has a district-funded resource specialist who works as a liaison to community partners and coordinates the services provided to students and families at the school. Wraparound service managers at the district level each supervise 10 to 15 specialists.
With a few schools already implementing the model and candidates for the school board expressing support back in 2015, the foundation for community schools had been laid before Carranza arrived in 2016. Trevino adds, however, that Carranza’s “background helped a great deal,” and Zeph Capo, president of the Houston Federation of Teachers (HFT), says that Carranza kept implementation from stalling and brought key people together when necessary.
NYC's community schools initiative continues to grow
Now, as Carranza this week assumes his new position as Chancellor of the New York City Department of Education (NYCDOE), he’ll lead a district with a much larger community schools initiative, where the model is one of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s signature programs and is considered a key turnaround strategy for low-performing schools. Within the past year, the number of community schools in the city has expanded to 227.
A preliminary report from the RAND Corporation, released in October showed that New York’s community schools have met the initial goals of extending the school day to give students additional learning opportunities and increasing efforts to reduce chronic absenteeism. More findings are expected next year.
In partnership with Warby Parker, over 35,000 pairs of eyeglasses have been given free to students in community schools, and the city has dedicated more than $1 million to expand the free vision screening and medical eye exam program, according to NYCDOE spokesman Doug Cohen.
"This administration remains focused on supporting the whole needs of each child, and the new chancellor will continue to ensure that schools provide students with the tools they need to be successful in the classroom and beyond," Cohen says.
While resource specialists in HISD are district employees, the model in New York involves over 62 community-based partner organizations that hire community school directors who work as part of each school’s leadership team.
“I think Carranza is a good fit for New York," says Jane Quinn, the director of the National Center for Community Schools at Children's Aid in New York. The center oversees 24 community schools, some of which are part of the 225, but also provides technical assistance to districts with community schools across the country. She adds that the center worked with Carranza when he was superintendent of the San Francisco Unified School District, which has community schools.
"I know him to be a leader who has a central focus on equity," she says. "I also think he really respects families and understands their role."
She says she thinks it's time for principals of community schools in New York to focus on "deepening the partnerships and deepening the practices, and that the city's philanthropic, business, financial and higher education sectors — as well as libraries and museums — could be doing more to connect with and support schools. "I think there is a lot of untapped potential," she says.
Community schools viewed as an equity strategy
In Texas, attending to students’ social and emotional issues has often been put on the “back burner,” Trevino says, adding that the state accountability system “ties our hands” to focusing on academics. Decentralization, he adds, means that some schools have nurses, social workers and counselors, and others don’t.
Working with community agencies to address students’ mental, physical and other needs, he says, is a way to “create equity.”
With support from the Houston Endowment, the district consulted school, civic and community leaders, and examined how other large urban districts have designed their community school initiatives. The foundation has also funded the development of an online platform to better match students with the services they need.
A researcher at Rice University in Houston is also recommending that HISD's accountability measures consider the "whole student."
"In the era of increased accountability, blame often falls on school district administration and principals for how children perform in school, but many years of research demonstrate that academic performance can be affected by many other factors such as neighborhood violence, food insecurity and the physical and mental health of the children attending school." Dr. Quianta Moore, a child health policy fellow at the Baker Institute for Public Policy, wrote in a Houston Chronicle op-ed.
She describes research conducted in a "large, urban school district" showing that the biggest difference between schools classified as "improvement required" and those that met the standard "was the percentage of students who suffered from negative factors such as depression, neighborhood violence or food insecurity within the school."
HISD based its criteria for choosing where to begin implementing the community school strategy on a few factors. First, it included schools where the model had already grown “organically,” such as Durkee Elementary, a north Houston, predominantly Hispanic school that Capo says had experienced “years of neglect” and needed “some turnaround and some love and some refocus.”
With an Innovation Fund grant from the American Federation of Teachers in 2016, Texas AFT hired a statewide community schools coordinator, and Durkee Principal Irma Sandate, along with teachers at the school, bought in to the concept.
Experiences at another school, Kashmere High School, provided some lessons on the importance of engaging staff members in the implementation and including the voices of community partners and those receiving the services, Capo says.
Some “underserved and underperforming” schools within the district’s Achieve 180 school improvement initiative are part of the initial 50 schools, and finally, schools within feeder patterns matching neighborhoods targeted by Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner’s Complete Communities initiative were also included. While schools most affected by Harvey were not specifically targeted to become community schools, Capo notes that there was some overlap because low-lying, flood-prone areas tend to have higher poverty and fewer resources.
Even though the board passed its policy in October, the details of how Houston’s community schools will be governed at the local level are still being determined. One option is to create school-based wraparound service community councils that would eventually hire the specialists, Trevino says. Identifying a lead agency for each community school is also being discussed.
Capo notes that HFT members are supportive of the model, but “it is absolutely dependent on how the school implements the program.”
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