Community schools get a boost from city

Some 50 parents and students rallied at the Taft Center in Morrisania on Jan. 20, to urge a city educational panel to vote to approve new standards to strengthen community schools.

By Victoria Edwards. Parents rally at the Taft Educational Center on Jan. 20.
By Victoria Edwards. Parents rally at the Taft Educational Center on Jan. 20.

Parents of children in underperforming schools were jubilant when a city educational panel passed a law in January to strengthen a year-old mayoral initiative they say has been beneficial for students.

On Jan. 20, the Panel for Educational Policy, a 13-member body of education experts and officials appointed by the mayor and borough presidents, convened at the Taft Educational Center in Morrisania to vote to define standards for for what a New York community school should look like. The policy was established in January 2015 to help struggling schools by assigning social service and educational nonprofits to work with them to boost student performance. 

Some 50 parents and students from the grassroots Coalition for Community School Excellence braved sub-freezing temperatures to rally in front of the Taft Center, urging the panel to approve a policy that would create a sustainable model that can be built on.

In the end, their wish was granted, as the panel voted unanimously for the standards established by the nonprofit NYC Coalition for Educational Justice in 2014.

When the mayor implemented the program last year, his administration agreed to a three-year term for the 130 schools it included, but as the initiative approached the halfway point, parents and administrators were eager to create a set of written parameters defining what the schools’s goals are in order to make them sustainable.

Parents and students voiced their enthusiasm for the program as they waited for word of the panel’s vote.

“I want the school to continue to improve,” said Fatima Morel, whose child is a student at a community school, the Bronx High School of Business.

“Parents are now part of the school community and I want to make sure that continues,” Morel said through a Spanish interpreter, and added that, “one big change is language access at the school where I can speak in my language to find out how my child is doing.”

Elias Crespo, a junior at the Bronx High School of Business, echoed Morel’s support of the initiative. He said he had struggled academically under the traditional school model, but a mentor from a partnering nonprofit helped boost his confidence.

“Before, my grades were not good,” said Crespo. “Now I’m on the honor roll.”

Another Bronx High School of Business junior, Michael Yeboah, said he had come to support the nonprofits that work with the community schools, because his mentor helped him raise his grades.

“If they put in the effort for us – we’ll put it in for them,” Yehoah said.

Advocates from education groups that helped shape the community schools policy in 2014 joined the rally.

“Now that Becky has new glasses, she also needs to know how to read,” said Natasha Capers, coordinator for the Coalition for Educational Justice. New York City’s version of the national initiative provides not only a social services component to help students in struggling schools cope with difficult issues at home, she said, it is also one of the first in the country to provide students academic assistance, through mentoring and tutoring.

Earlier in January, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced he would allocate $100 million to extend the program to more schools across the state, in addition to the 130 already in the program. One education advocate said that money would pay for some schools to partner with community colleges rather than nonprofits, proving that the initiative is designed to be adaptable to its surroundings.

“It’s one model, but may differ depending on the needs based on the community,” said Marlene Peralta, a senior associate at Progressive Cities.

One of the panel members, Laura Zingmond, lauded the educational advocacy groups for helping shape the policy, and “not just asking for policy and not having details,” but presenting a robust plan the panel could work with. “We’re thrilled that it got to this point.”

The Coalition for Educational Justice says it will continue to keep an eye on state and city government to ensure officials keep their promise and comply with the requirements of the initiative, and to continue pushing them to renew it.