Beyond any one school: Abe Fernandez on the development of community schools and collective impact in New York City (Part 1)

This week, IEN shares the first part of an interview with Abe Fernandez about what he’s learned through his work on community schools, community organizing and collective impact in New York City. Fernandez is Vice President for Collective Impact and Director, National Center for Community Schools, Children’s Aid. Children’s Aid is one of the oldest and largest nonprofits serving young people in New York City. Established in New York City over 165 years ago, Children’s Aid addresses all kinds of issues related to children and youth, including early childhood, schooling, and foster care. This interview follows up on an earlier post on the evolution of work on collective impact in New York City. Part 1 of the conversation begins with Fernandez sharing the story of his own educational experiences and continues with a description and reflections on Children’s Aid’s community schools approach and their work on issues like chronic absence. Next week, in Part 2, Fernandez discusses some of the key steps in creating community schools and goes on to talk about work on collective impact more broadly

IEN: Can you tell us a little bit about your background and how you got involved in Children’s Aid and started working on community schools and collective impact?

Abe Fernandez:  My story is that I grew up in the Bronx, the son of immigrants from the Dominican Republic.  They came to this country hoping that education would be their ticket to prosperity, which I think is still a pretty typical story for many immigrants. I have a lot of belief in the system that we have all built together, although it is flawed. But there’s a real perception that it can lead to some real opportunities, and I have to say I was really lucky. I was lucky born to a family with parents who were really working hard – despite all the barriers around language and culture that they and other immigrants faced – to navigate through a pretty challenging system. I had the good fortune of going to an elementary school that had teachers who saw something in me and my twin brother, and they helped create pathways that allowed us to find opportunities in that school. And then I got really lucky in fifth grade, and I was introduced to a program called Prep for Prep. That’s a program which, as I look back on it now, is problematic in some ways (as detailed in a New Yorker article by a program alum). Essentially, the program creams really high performing kids out of the public school system and deposits them into private schools and the independent school system.

Despite the challenges around that approach, it created some real opportunity for me, and I ended up going to a very elite independent school in New York City, Riverdale Country Day School, and then on to Brown University. At Brown, I got involved in a program that’s still going on today, the Breakthrough Collaborative. It’s a program that has a dual mission of getting younger kids into competitive high schools and encouraging really smart high school and college students to get involved in teaching.  They’ve had a pretty good track record, with large percentages of their college students choosing to do at least a year of teaching after doing that program.

The program started at my high school when I was there, and after I went to Brown I participated in the program, and I went back every summer to teach at Riverdale. When I graduated from Brown, there was actually an opening at Riverdale to run the program there, and they brought me in to run it. As a result, I had this incredible opportunity to jump into the nonprofit world at the same time that I was learning how to become a teacher. I realized as I was working at Riverdale that I was in an extraordinary environment to learn how to teach because we had tons of resources.  I taught middle school math, and I had maybe 13 kids in the classroom, all incredibly motivated kids, with parents who were incredibly engaged, and it was just a great. What a great way to learn the craft of teaching!  But I remember thinking at the time, there’s something wrong about this. How could it be that only a small selection of New York City children get this kind of experience? So after a number of years of running that program and teaching in that environment, I wanted to be closer to the communities and the kids where I grew up.  That led me to join Union Settlement in East Harlem. There, I ran a number of programs that were based inside public housing, and we worked with kids as young as two all the way through 24 year olds.  That was a real shift for me. I got to really understand some of the issues that I knew from my own background, butI got to know them more professionally and to see the systems that were responsible for some of the challenges that young people and families face.  After working there for a few years, I realized that I missed being engaged in education. We were doing great work, but it focused more on hunger and other kinds of issues. I didn’t have the access to what was happening in school where these kids spent most of their time. I found myself wanting to bridge those two parts of my experience, and that’s why I took a job at Children’s Aid, where I’ve been for the last 16 years, working primarily on Community Schools and now collective impact.

IEN: Can you tell us about your work on community schools?

AF: Community schools bring together all kinds of resources that we think kids and families need. They address everything including early childhood education, school-based health, adult education, you name it. The idea is to bring all these partners and programs together in a really coherent way to meet the comprehensive needs of kids and families. Children’s Aid was involved in helping to develop and support community schools long before I got there in the early 1990s. Right away, we had a lot of people from other places who wanted to learn about the approach. They wanted to come kick the tires, talk to principals, talk to us.  But we found that they would go back to their home communities and say “Okay, we’re totally inspired, but we’re totally confused. Now what do we do?” We wanted to meet that need and build the capacity to help teams of people to go back to their communities, get to know their local context, and figure out some next steps. That’s what we’ve doing for the last 25 years through our National Center. Over the past 20 years, we’ve worked on almost every major community schools initiative across the US.  

            So in New York City, we now have 22 community school partnerships, but we never thought it would go systemic the way it has in Oakland and Chicago. We were also really pleasantly surprised in 2014 when New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a plan to make community schools a big part of his agenda here in New York City. Now, New York City has one of the largest Community School initiatives anywhere, and the infrastructure for community schools that has been built here is pretty exciting.

IEN: How has your work on community schools developed and what have you learned in the process?

AF: Children’s Aid started their work on community schools in the 1990’s in Washington Heights, in Northern Manhattan, with about five or six schools.  Those schools were part of a wave of new schools that were established in New York City, and these schools were actually brand new schools, with facilities designed and built with the idea that they would be community schools. We had the opportunity to think about where to put a school based health center, the community school director’s office, or a parents’ room.

When we expanded the work into the Bronx in the early 2000’s, we didn’t have that luxury. We had to turn existing schools into community schools.  We found ourselves working with schools that were completely overcrowded, and we couldn’t just displace a classroom to put in a health center or something.  Instead of creating new school buildings, we ended up creating a kind of “campus” of community schools. We worked with four or five schools in one area and in the middle of them we built a health center.  Later we put social workers and then an early childhood center into the building.

Although this campus grew out of convenience and practicality, creating this partnership of four or five different schools gave us an opportunity to work in the community in a different way. In the process, we started working on a whole set of issues that we as Children’s Aid didn’t have enough expertise or capacity to really do anything about. Instead of concentrating on how to get all the services in the community into schools, we started to imagine what could happen if we got all the partners in the community to work together on issues that went beyond any one school.  We thought about issues like making sure all kids are healthy, all kids are ready for school, and all kids are graduating high school ready for college and career; and, if we’re developing a vision of supporting children from “cradle through college and career,” we can’t be the ones doing all the work ourselves. Instead, we took on this new role as a kind of “backbone” organization. We’re convening all the partners that work in a community to develop a common results framework with some shared goals and with some indicators that will tell us all how things are moving forward at the neighborhood level.  Part of that backbone role also includes basic things like just making sure that the PowerPoint is up, the coffee is hot, and the notes are being taken the meetings, but, overall, the work is being done by the community. That’s what we’ve been doing for the past five or six years in the South Bronx, playing this facilitating role.

Instead of concentrating on how to get all the services in the community into schools, we started to imagine what could happen if we got all the partners in the community to work together on issues that went beyond any one school

We’re not going to walk away from community schools or stop providing services, but this has what’s expanded into what’s now being called our collective impact approach.  We’re getting many, many partners to work together, looking at the same data together; we’re all coming up with a shared vision for what, what could look different, and then collectively working toward that new vision. As we continue to develop this work, we’re also hoping that the City will pay attention and begin to devote its resources to collective impact, just as they did for community schools.

IEN: What were some of the challenges that you encountered as your work with community schools developed, and how did you address those challenges?

AF: The biggest challenge is that the mindset needs to change. Right now, people tend to think categorically about schools: we believe that school is where students receive curriculum and instruction. Even though this notion that schools can be more than that makes sense, it’s really hard for people to think beyond the current paradigm. I think that mindset manifests itself in different ways. Take attendance for example, which is something many community schools have focused on. In New York City, for all grades K through 12, about 25% of students are chronically absent, which means that they’ve missed about a month or more of school; and in the schools in the South Bronx where we’ve been working, we found that it’s closer to 40 or 50%.  Why are these students absent? One is health. In fact, the South Bronx has one of the highest rates of childhood asthma anywhere in the world (a documentary, Asthma Alley, chronicles the issues in the South Bronx). If you have lots of asthma in your community, kids are going to be sick, and they’re not going to go to school. But that’s not the only issue. In some cases, kids have to stay home to care for their siblings; some high school students might have jobs or other responsibilities; some kids are homeless.  What program solves all these problems? It doesn’t exist. There have to be a number of different partners working together, which is why looking into chronic absence can help people to change their mindset and to explore community schools.  People start to see all these factors at play for why kids are missing school, and they begin to realize schools cannot address this problem by themselves. They have to bring in more partners and more resources and find a way to coordinate everything.

Looking into chronic absence can help people to change their mindset and to explore community schools.  People start to see all these factors at play for why kids are missing school, and they begin to realize schools cannot address this problem by themselves. They have to bring in more partners and more resources and find a way to coordinate everything.

But schools are not built to think that way, and they often take a much narrower approach.  Here in New York City, there is a mandate that every school must have an attendance team. If you listen to some of the conversations in those teams, it sounds like “Okay, who was absent this week? How many kids have hit the threshold for being chronically absent? Did we send the letter? Did we make the phone call?” They check the items off a list. It’s a compliance driven approach. That’s different from a problem-solving approach. In a problem-solving approach, we look at the data, and that can get you thinking about who’s sitting around the table because we need more voices to interpret the data. Once we understand what the issues are, then we have to think about who’s going to help us create a plan and implement the intervention? That requires other people to be involved. All of that requires that shift in mindset. It’s an approach that helps to get at the stories behind the numbers, to help schools understand what’s happening for students and their families, so they aren’t just “rubbernecking” and saying “Isn’t that terrible.” It puts schools in a position to do something about the issues their students are facing.  It is a lot to ask schools beyond what’s already a very challenging set of responsibilities, but if you add more partners to the mix, we can begin to share those responsibilities. That shift in in attitude is critical, but frankly, not every school leader is interested in doing it that way. There are some leaders though, who see the challenges and want to open up their doors and bring other voices in; look at that information and collectively problem solve; and share in some of the responsibility for work on these issues together.

Another critical challenge is that there is nothing you can do without principal leadership. It’s the linchpin, but if there are problems with a principal, it can be really hard to replace them. We’ve seen how, in the same building, you can have two different leaders with completely different outcomes. The challenge for us as a capacity building organization is that we still have not figured out how to implant a vision inside of a principal just by showing them PowerPoints or giving them books. A lot comes down to conversation and building trust. The most effective tool we have is other principals who get it, so creating networks of learning among the principals has helped quite a bit. The good news is that in the very beginning, people just wanted to build one community school, and now we’re seeing people who want to build systems of community schools. One of the really nice features of that is that you can start building these networks.

A lot of times the communities that are drawn to doing this work, tend to have populations that have higher rates of poverty, higher rates of tons of issues, and the schools in those communities tend to have less experienced teachers and less experienced principals. We’re asking them to work on a very high level, and many of them just haven’t had the chance to develop their own skills as school leaders, let alone as community school leaders. It’s a hard sell for some. On the flip side, we’ve come across principals who said this has been my vision from the minute I walked into my first classroom. I didn’t know it had a name, but I’m so glad that I can now join this community of people who work in this way. We have to find ways to build this way of working and these opportunities earlier into the careers of teachers and principals.

IEN: Given these challenges, how do you get started? How do you figure out who to work with?

AF:  When it comes to New York City, we have identified particular neighborhoods where the data tells us we need to do something right away. And those places have changed over the years. When Children’s Aid started this work, the work was on the northern parts of the Upper East Side, which today looks very different. It doesn’t really need community schools the way it once did. As a result, we moved the work into the Bronx, and we’ve been there for about 20 years. The work starts with thinking about what’s the community we want to work in? And then it’s finding those people who have a real desire to work differently; that bring a sense of curiosity and have a feeling that things really should be different; who know that they can be doing things with partners, but they might not know how to do that quite yet. It does help quite a bit to have some top down support. There are some communities around the country where there’s a really inspired superintendent, who’s been willing to think about how to create the environment for their principals to want to do this work. Other times we find it is a really strong community partner that has had a relationship with a school and has already built some trust, but maybe they’ve realized they’ve been doing programs in the school for decades and have not seen the outcomes that they wanted to see. They come knocking on our door wondering how to better integrate their work with the other work going on in schools.

IEN: You said you’ve transitioned a bit from focusing on working with one school at a time and are now thinking more about a “hub and spokes” model.  How does that work?

AF:  We’re still doing both really. We often say community schools is not a program. It’s a strategy. It’s made up of many different programs and depending on what the needs are in that community, they’re all going to look different. We also don’t say it’s a model because the actual mechanics of how you’re going to move forward really needs to be worked through locally.  Figuring out what your needs are and how are you going to meet them is actually part of the work.  You can’t just implement a list of steps someone gave you. There are some benchmarks and some tools we want to use, but you want to engage local stakeholders in that process.

In some communities, you might start with a school. For example, they might have a YMCA attached to the building with a pool and many things you might want. But it’s totally disconnected. In that case, we’re going to find ways to connect those two and bring other folks into that space. In another community, we might find a school with a clinic or hospital across the street, and then we’ll find ways to bring those people together. It really depends community by community.

More recently, we’ve also been thinking about economies of scale. For example, in New York City you have 10 schools all working in one neighborhood, and they might all figure out that many of their students have asthma. Instead of having 10 different conversations with 10 different principals you can try to create one conversation between these schools and two or three partners to meet those needs. That ends up being a much, much more efficient way to work. It’s more likely to attract a partner because you’re talking about a scale that actually makes sense for them and chances are it’s much more sustainable.


2 responses to “Beyond any one school: Abe Fernandez on the development of community schools and collective impact in New York City (Part 1)

  1. Pingback: Moving at the speed of trust: Abe Fernandez on the development of community schools and collective impact in New York City (Part 2) | International Education News

  2. Pingback: Moving at the speed of trust: Abe Fernandez on the development of community schools and collective impact in New York City (Part 2) Study Aims

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