Newsletter April 2017: CLS advocacy stronger than ever

UFT Vice President of Elementary Education Karen Alford watches students at work at PS 59 in Brooklyn, a community learning school. (For more information, see story below.)

By UFT Vice President Karen Alford

Each year, as the spring unfolds, our educators and our partners direct much of their energy towards helping our students and families successfully complete the term and be well positioned for next year.

Our thoughts turn to how we can build on the momentum of the current school year and see it through to the end in a powerful way. We’re excited and have innovative ideas. New methods and strategies for academic interventions and out-of-time school begin to formulate. We’re in full gear and ready to act.

Implementing our ideas, however, takes resources. Whether it’s for material costs, staff per diems or buying the latest technology — schools need funds to give shape to their wonderful ideas.

Federal funding for public education and support programs is taking a back seat to voucher initiatives and tax cuts that favor private schools.

The first budget proposal emanating from the White House this past March included more than $1.2 billion in cuts from the federal government’s community schools initiative, called the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program. This funding provides enrichment, tutoring and other academic services to students before and after school.

So, as public schools and safety net programs that rely on federal support face dramatic funding cuts, the Community Learning Schools Initiative has made strong appeals at both the state and municipal levels.

CLS is, once again, a UFT budget priority in lobbying the governor and state Legislature, and the mayor and the New York City Council. For all the reasons stated above, we are heartened by and thankful for the union’s support and its belief in what we’re doing. We’re making a powerful difference in the lives of children and families. Lawmakers need to understand how their support will help sustain our progress, as well as expand our reach.

On March 27, members of our CLS team joined UFT lobbyists and activists in Albany, where we told our story to state lawmakers and their staff. We provided the takeaway from a study released in 2016 comparing the percentage of students meeting or exceeding English Language Arts (ELA) and math proficiency standards from the 2012-13 to the 2015-16 school years. We revealed that our CLS students outperformed students at schools in the rest of the city and state in terms of growth in ELA and math scores.

On the city front, on March 20, the union testified before the City Council, whose members have championed CLS from its inception. Pressing our case for additional funding, councilmembers heard examples about how we’re removing obstacles to learning and helping children achieve and thrive. This is not the end.

On May 18, hand-in-hand with UFT President Michael Mulgrew and our colleagues from other UFT initiatives  — the Positive Learning Collaborative, the BRAVE anti-bullying program and Dial-a-Teacher — we aim to persuade the City Council leadership and members to fund our initiatives, which are working in our schools.

We’re making gains in our neighborhood public schools. We’re public school proud. Our message is strong. Our advocacy and optimism is even stronger.

Congrats to our First Book grant award winners!

Team First Book New York City announced this March that four community learning schools: Brooklyn Landmark, PS 65, Queens; PS 59, Brooklyn; and PS 18, Bronx, will receive book grants in 2017.

Initially launched in early 2011, Team First Book New York City’s goal is to provide books to organizations supporting childhood literacy in the metropolitan area. Typically, each child receives a steady stream of books for six months, at no cost to schools. PS 18 Community School Director Mia Martinez said her school plans to increase parent engagement by partnering with parents and inviting them to information sessions and workshops each month.

“Although they might just be books right now, they are really tokens we can show to parents as a way to engage them in the learning process and bridge the gap between home and school,” said Martinez.

PS 65 Community School Director Lianna Brenner shared the sentiment. “We are very excited to receive the grant,” Brenner said. “It’s encouraging to know teachers can give books to students that align with their reading level, so they are taking something home that’s appropriate to where they are as readers.”

Brenner added that the books for her school also carry a special meaning because their local library is closed and book access is limited.

“We know there’s kids at our schools whose parents can’t afford new books,” said Brenner, who added the extra help from Team First Book New York City will foster a love of reading at her school.

Report: How the CLS initiative is improving communities

The United Federation of Teachers launched the Community Learning Schools (CLS) Initiative in 2012 in response to union member concerns about learning barriers for students created by poverty. Since then, the CLS team has used a strategic approach to ameliorate some of these educational barriers which include poor nutrition, food insecurity, insufficient clothing, inadequate housing and physical and mental health issues.

Through an inclusive and community-oriented approach, our initiative has helped to improve student achievement by meeting some of the health, safety and social services needs of students, parents and communities. We are proud to say that our initiative is now 28 schools strong and growing with support from our school partners, non-profits, local businesses, community-based organizations and government partners.

An independent report by ActKnowledge in 2016 highlights the Community Learning Schools Initiative’s method in identifying school needs and acting on that information.

CLS has made strong progress in meeting key preconditions for student learning identified in the initiative’s Theory of Change, which shows the conditions that need to be in place (based on the barriers to learning) for students to succeed. The report highlights areas in which the initiative has excelled. These include:

  • Catering to the basic needs of families – Schools have made significant inroads in identifying and delivering on basic needs such as the provision of food, clothing and other supports to families. Principals, teachers and other stakeholders all emphasized how important these elements were to a student’s success.
  • CLS Community School Directors – Directors were critical in building the trust among parents, families and schools, which was necessary to accurately assess needs. This applies particularly to those whose needs arise from poverty, which students and their families are sometimes embarrassed to acknowledge.
  • Establishing partnerships  – CLS, and Community School Directors in particular, have developed a broad range of partnerships and leveraged resources to help students and families. These include services related to physical and mental health and academic support. They also develop resources that facilitate greater engagement by parents and families in the schools.
  • Aligning real-world resources with programming – The initiative worked to successfully align outside resources with mainstream activities within the schools. Where the CLS strategy has been most strongly supported by school leadership, the alignment has been most successful. The results, when alignment has been supported in this way, have included the development of more formal communication structures between teachers and out-of-school-time program staff, which, in turn, has led to better curriculum alignment and sharing of information on student needs and progress.
  • More support for teachers – Teachers highlighted the benefits to their instructional practice and to student learning by resources garnered through CLS with daytime activities in the schools. The alignment of specific academic support or appropriate resource to a student’s need was especially critical, i.e. tutoring to “at-risk” students or referring disruptive students to mental health professionals rather than suspending them.
  • Making use of Community School Directors – The inclusion of the Community School Directors in various school committees and teams in the schools has also been crucial for effective alignment. This has helped to build relationships with teachers and other school personnel that further deepens this alignment.
  • Advisory Boards –  The role of Advisory Boards was highlighted as an important mechanism for delivering different components of the CLS strategy. They provide a forum for discussing needs, for identifying resources and for determining how these resources can be integrated effectively into the school.

According to ActKnowledge, the CLS initiative has achieved these outcomes through an integrated strategy that organizes the resources of the school and surrounding community around key conditions necessary for student achievement. We are proud to continue utilizing the fundamental principles of the initiative to identify the holistic needs of students. Our team at CLS central agrees with ActKnowledge’s recommendation that each of the schools employ data systems to better track student progress. We look forward to working closely with our schools to provide the appropriate tools to improve data collection and analysis.

The CLS initiative will also strive to continue assessing the needs of communities and the schools within them to ensure that every child and every community has the capacity to thrive through collaboration, communication and support.

Bronx CLS Vision: Creating a culture of collaboration

Twenty educators and CLS staff visited the UFT Bronx borough office on Feb. 1 to discuss issues and pool resources for Bronx schools.

Sometimes it’s easier to solve problems when you collaborate. Four UFT community learning schools in the Bronx are doing just that. The Community Learning Schools Initiative welcomed 20 educators from the four schools to a collaborative dinner on Feb. 1 at the UFT’s Bronx borough office. The event brought together principals, chapter leaders, UFT district representatives and community school directors to foster collegial relationships and a discussion about the issues affecting student achievement in the Bronx.

“We want healthy children and we want schools that are strong academically,” said Karen Alford, the UFT vice president for elementary schools. Alford said the borough-specific event was a great way for educators to share resources and learn from one another in an informal environment.

Sandra Perez, the community school director at Bronx Writing Academy, said the idea to host a vision dinner was born when the four Bronx community school directors started meeting once a month to walk through their schools’ neighborhoods to better understand the needs of their communities. Under the guidance of Nick Cruz, the UFT’s Bronx parent liaison, the group began to brainstorm ways to work together more efficiently. “The more ideas you bounce off each other, the better,” said PS 14 Chapter Leader Fred Cassara. “That level of sharing and collaboration can breed success.”

District 7 Representative Bill Woodruff said it was great to see educators share their successes as well as their struggles. “The solutions are in the room. It’s about having the time to sit down and figure out those solutions, and events like this allow for that to happen,” said Woodruff. The dinner was hosted by community school directors Frank Cutrone of the International School of Liberal Arts, Carly Ayala of PS 14, Mia Martinez of PS 18, and Sandra Perez of Bronx Writing Academy.

Women’s Leadership Initiative introduces students to finance

High school students and panelists at a workshop for high school girls on finance ended the evening with a group picture, an exchange of business cards and lots of lively conversations.

More than 15 high school students participated in the inaugural Girls in Finance Workshop and Networking Session on March 9, hosted by the Women’s Leadership Initiative, a program developed by the law firm Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft LLP. The workshop was presented in March to coincide with Women’s History Month.

Students from a number of schools attended, including the Queens High School for Information and Research, a community learning school, and Discovery High School in the Bronx.

Girls in Finance, inspired by the Girls Who Code movement, was designed to introduce high school girls to the fundamentals of the stock market and provide them with an opportunity to meet successful women in the financial sector.

Katherine Riley, with the Women’s Leadership Initiative, said the event was designed to encourage students from diverse backgrounds to consider pursuing a career in finance. “I think this event shows girls that they can unlock their full potential,” said Riley, who serves as an associate in the Financial Services Group and the Capital Markets Group at the firm.

To help students explore career possibilities, Cadwalader asked a number successful business women to participate in a discussion. The panelists spoke about their aspirations when they graduated from college, the first steps in their careers and the moves they made as they moved up the corporate ladder.

The workshop also featured an interactive finance cell phone quiz, a basic overview of the stock market and a mock investment scenario in which students built portfolios. After the “buying and selling,” the students learned how their “investments” fared, and prizes were awarded to the students who “made” the most money.

At the end of the workshop, students mingled with panelists, asking questions and asking for business cards.

Aisha Green, the director of attorney development and training at Cadwalader, said that exposing girls at an early age to the financial and legal sectors is necessary because diversity is greatly needed in those fields. “Hopefully the takeaway from this event will be that this is a viable option for them,” said Green. The firm hopes to host the event again next year.

Around the schools

The NYC Community Learning Schools Initiative aims to improve student achievement by meeting the health, safety and social service needs of students, parents and communities. Here are some examples of how Community Learning Schools have connected with nonprofit organizations, local businesses and public agencies to support our work to benefit children and school communities.

PS 335 earns $5K grant from Nike

Congratulations to PS 335 in Brooklyn! The Nike Community Impact Fund has awarded the school a $5,000 grant to fund new sports equipment and uniforms for the school’s 25 basketball players and members of the newly minted cheerleading squad. PS 335 Community School Director Charlene Corbett said the funds distributed in December 2016 helped to further engage students at the community learning school, including some students who struggle with behavior and attendance issues.

“It sounds like a small thing, but for the kids to be able to have uniforms and some students were even able to get sneakers,” said Corbett. Staff members and parents at the school often volunteer to teach students cheering routines, Corbett added, but the uniforms helped students to really feel like a team. The school also installed an electronic score board.

The Nike Community Impact Fund, in partnership with Charities Aid Foundation of America and the Oregon Community Foundation, is an innovative approach because it involves Nike employees from around the nation in the grant-provision process to help local communities. Brooklyn is one of the first six communities selected to receive Nike Community Impact Fund grants.

PS 19 says ‘thank you’ to school partners

Students from PS 19 participated in the community learning school’s first “4Eva ‘N’ Our Hearts” thank-you event for community-based partners on Feb. 13 in Queens.

The intimate atmosphere at the school proved to be the perfect opportunity for students and school staff to say thank you to partners with awards and certificates of appreciation. The event opened with ROTC color guards and also featured traditional Mexican dances, similar to tap dance, and flamenco performances by students. The thank-you event also included a showcase of projects from the Purfek Academy Music Engineering students and Engineering for Kids.

QIRT students pay tribute to trailblazers

QIRT students put on a performance to honor African-American trailblazers on March 10. The event was moved from a previous date in February due to snow.

Eighteen student performers took the stage on March 10 for a Black History Month talent show at Queens High School for Information, Research and Technology.

The school also received a surprise visit from NY1, which highlighted the tribute to trail blazers. Students at the assembly showed original films about Harriet Tubman. They also performed step and dance routines — and songs inspired by Afro-Latino culture. The school is planning another talent show this spring.


See the complete article and video on NY 1 »

PS 156 students perform at Early Childhood Conference

Sensai Jackie (first row, right) with her colleagues and students from PS 156’s steel pan band that performed at the Early Childhood Conference.

More than 15 students from PS 156’s steel pan band performed at this year’s UFT Early Childhood Conference on March 11.

The steel pan program at the Brownsville community learning school was originally designed to offer students, who struggled with absences and lateness, an incentive for coming to school early.

Since then, the program has morphed under the direction of music teacher Sensai Jackie, who encourages students to play familiar tunes before large audiences. The band’s performance included the Star-Spangled Banner and a mash-up of hit pop songs.