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

In part 2 of this interview, Abe Fernandez discusses some of the key steps in creating community schools, describes their efforts to address key issues like chronic absence, and goes on to talk about work on collective impact more broadly. In the first part, Fernandez shared the story of his own educational experiences, explains the evolution of the community schools’ approach of the National Center for Community Schools, and discusses critical issues, like chronic absence. Fernandez is Vice President for Collective Impact and Director at 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.

IEN: What does it look like when you first go into a school or community? What are the first steps?

AF: It’s really important to have a quick win right away. In our first community school, we parked a medical van in front of the school twice a week as a way to tell the community something different is going on here.  It showed that we were already providing a direct service to families that they weren’t getting the week before.

We’ve also found that leveraging after school programming can be another quick win. For one thing, no one questions anymore whether or not we need out-of-school time programming.  Helping with after school programming creates a wonderful opportunity to start building relationships with the principal, with the other adults in the building, and with families and with kids. It may be that what a particular school community needs is really hardcore mental health support, for example, but I’m not sure that you want to start trying to build relationships talking about hardcore mental health. We also find that lots of engagement makes a big difference too. In our first community school we paid for a neon sign to be put above the parent room announcing parents were welcome there, and we made sure that the coffee was hot.  Just creating an opportunity for parents to get together and talk, with no agenda, allowed to them talk about their concerns as well as what they were proud of in their school. That really makes a difference. You want to build enough trust so that people can get to know each other a little bit better, and then they can start thinking about what the next wave of work needs to look like. There is a saying in the world of collective impact that this work moves at the speed of trust. That’s incredibly true even if you have all the resources and all the right partners. If you haven’t built trust, it’s going to be really hard to move forward.

There is a saying in the world of collective impact that this work moves at the speed of trust. That’s incredibly true even if you have all the resources and all the right partners. If you haven’t built trust, it’s going to be really hard to move forward.

IEN: How can you help connect the school and afterschool?

AF: We often say we’re not trying to recreate the school day in the afternoon. They each have their purposes, and we want to them to have different looks, and we want to honor each other’s work.  But I think there should be some consistent themes and threads and values and cultural elements that are ever present and that can help form a bridge between different elements. For example, in one school, during the day they were using PBIS  – Positive Behavior Interventions and Support. But then at three o’clock everyone stops doing it. And one of our partners said, “Why are you stopping? It’s the same kids, same building. Let’s keep that going.” That to me was another win.

IEN: When you’ve had the opportunity to design a community school and a community school building from the “ground up”, what does it look like?

AF: Let me answer that by telling a story. When one of my sons was five or six, he was at school and wasn’t feeling well, so I had to go pick him up. When I walked into the building, there was a sign that said no parents beyond this point. So one answer is:  don’t do that in terms of design. Instead, imagine if you walked in and there was a neon sign that was very welcoming and made it clear to parents that you do belong here.  This space is for you.  The design needs to make it clear that the community is invited in.  But at the same time, I don’t think every service a student needs has to be inside of a school. Yes, there’s some convenience in that, but putting everything inside a school’s four walls can lessen the engagement with the outside. There has to be a balance. That means it’s not solely about the design of the school itself; you also need to think about how all the key functions are fulfilled in a community in general. How do we break down the silos between agencies and distribute services throughout the community in ways that are less siloed?

 It’s not solely about the design of the school itself; you also need to think about how all the key functions are fulfilled in a community in general. How do we break down the silos between agencies and distribute services throughout the community in ways that are less siloed?

IEN: Along with your work on community schools, you’ve also been very involved in bringing community organizations and schools together in initiatives to increase collective impact. Can you tell us about the work in the Bronx on collective impact and chronic absenteeism?

AF: As I mentioned, we saw pretty high rates of chronic absence in our community, and, at first, our approach was to bring as many of those stakeholders as possible together in one room just to understand what chronic absence is. Average daily attendance is something that most people understand. It’s really useful if you want to figure out how much lunch to buy or how many chairs, you need. But it doesn’t tell you how often each individual student is absent. For example, in New York City, around 2008, there was a report that came out from the Center for New York City Affairs that found that K-5 attendance overall was about 92% which sounds pretty good. That same year 90,000 students missed a month or more school.  You could have a school that has a 90% average daily attendance while 30% of the students are chronically absent. So we helped the schools, the principals, the parent coordinators, and community partners to understand those numbers. Although they thought they were doing fine, they got their data and they could not believe what they were seeing. When we could, we encouraged schools to go beyond the numbers and look at the names of that students that were absent. That just completely changed the conversation, and the schools started making plans for how they could help certain students.

In this work, information, and having data at people’s fingertips, is really important, but too often, data has been used as a hammer, particularly in schools and the nonprofit sector. We try to help people use data as a flashlight. How can we use data at the front end, not just at the back end? How does it inform our planning? How does it support improvement, not just tell us how many kids are reaching a particular benchmark?

Too often, data has been used as a hammer, particularly in schools and the nonprofit sector. We try to help people use data as a flashlight. How can use data at the front end, not just at the back end? How does it inform our planning? How does it support improvement?

Beyond providing access to information, we try to bring together multiple stakeholders to look at data together. We found that the schools that had a more representative group of people, including the school nurse, a community partner, parents, teachers, and the principal, looking at data on chronic absence had a much much more engaged conversation. These conversations led many of those schools to go back and rethink their Attendance Teams so that the principal wasn’t the only one responsible for addressing the problem. They began to break down the problem, starting with the universal things that support every student: How do we create a culture of attendance in our building? What signs are on the wall. What are we talking about during assembly?  How do we let families know that attendance is important?

Then what are we doing to support those students who are chronically absent – the 40 kids who’ve missed 10% of the school year? For that, many schools ended up using what’s called success mentoring where you identify adults in the building who work with each student every day; someone to check in with them and to say I’m so glad you’re here, just building a relationship with them. And if the student is out, their mentor is the one calling home, not a secretary or a robo-call saying your child was absent. They call to see if everything’s okay, asking that question “Can we help you?” that changes that relationship between the school and that family.

Then there’s the most intensive support for the students who have missed the most, maybe 10 days in a row, or they were absent for more than 50 days the previous year. For those students, mentoring is probably not going to be the answer. It might help, but it probably will not resolve what is probably a much, much larger issue. In these cases, it’s really important that connect these students to a social worker and other kinds of supports as soon as possible so more complicated issues can get addressed.  

By breaking the problems down and developing multiple strategies, we saw some huge changes in some of our school. One school, PS 42, reduced their chronic absence percentage by double digits in just two years.  All this showed that chronic absence is one of those few numbers in schools where you can actually make improvements almost instantly, and then everyone realizes, “Oh my God, we can actually make a difference here.” It just takes getting a little bit more organized, getting more targeted around data, and bringing more eyeballs to the work.

Of course, the progress is uneven, and not all schools have seen those kinds of results. So that raises the question of what’s preventing those schools that aren’t making it? What’s the difference between the school that reduced chronic absences and the one that didn’t? School leadership really matters, that’s number one. Two, sometimes school leaders really get it, but they don’t have the capacity to make it work. They just don’t have the help or they can’t figure out how to get the data just organized for that meeting.

But now there’s been some really exciting work in New York City. New Visions for Public Schools has developed a tool and a dashboard that makes it easier for schools to look at their data. I went to a school about a couple of years ago and I sat in on their attendance team meeting to look at their data with them, and they pulled out what looked like an old phone book, which basically had a report for every single kid. Who’s going to look through 500 pieces of paper to figure out what’s going on here?  With the new data system, instead of having a stack of papers, you can create heat maps that use colors like red, yellow, green to look at subpopulations of kids, and to help identify who’s chronically absent. So hopefully tools like this will help those leaders who get it but haven’t had enough support. I think this is where the principals of the community schools have an advantage. They have a built-in partner and a dedicated person whose job it is to wake up every morning to do this kind of work and that makes a huge difference. We found that in our 61 schools 20 of them are community schools and it’s those 20 that saw the most improvements in chronic absence.

IEN: Given all the resources and support that community partners can bring, why has there been some resistance? Why wouldn’t all principals want to lead community schools?

AF: First let me clarify that I think there are there are plenty of schools that have tons of partners in them.  What we’ve seen is that the principal might be saying yes to the resources, but they’re saying no to the shared leadership that comes with community schools. I would argue that the only thing that’s worse than not having enough resources is having too many that are uncoordinated. It’s what we call random acts of programming. I’m sure anyone who’s walked into schools has seen this. You walk into the school, and there’s tons of activity, but it is complete chaos. So when we go into a building, we look to see if they’ve invested in the coordination of all these partners: Who is doing what, for whom and for what purpose? Is it any good? Is anyone better off?

One of the hardest parts of this work is helping people to think of it as a strategy, not a program. And the problem with programs is that they are predefined, with a beginning, middle and end, and you know what the inputs are and what the outputs are going to be.  But a strategy needs to be different by design. It has to be adaptive. For us, the core components of that strategy begin with making sure that kids are at the center of every conversation. Typically, when that doesn’t happen, we make really bad decisions. But it’s also important to recognize that kids are parts of family systems. So there’s no way to educate kids without also understanding who their families are. They are not just the recipients of support, they are also the providers of support, and we need to partner with them in that capacity. Then we need to recognize that families are part of communities, so what’s the relationship between the school and the community?

One of the hardest parts of this work is helping people to think of it as a strategy, not a program…But a strategy needs to be different by design. It has to be adaptive.

But we’ve also recognized that the instructional program is a core part of the work. Back in the 90’s, in our work at Children’s Aid, we never talked about instruction. We’d say, “that’s the school’s job.” We saw our job as providing what we called “wraparound services.” I hate that term because it makes it sound like those are secondary, nice, but not necessary, and now I think that’s not right. So now we say, “look, even though we’re not the ones delivering the core instructional program, it is part of the approach; it’s part of the strategy. Even if you have a wonderful parent’s program and great parent engagement and an awesome school-based health center, if the teaching stinks, it doesn’t matter. You’re not going to make the difference that you want to make. We need to have high quality instruction. Full stop.

But we also see expanded learning opportunities as an important part of the strategy; before school, after school, weekends, summer, all of that creates the opportunities for kids to learn. As part of expanding the kinds of learning activities you do with kids, you’re also expanding who is doing the teaching. It’s not only certified teachers.  You can have college students, alumni of the school, families, you name it. Artists can be a part of the teaching as well. And then as a foundation for all that, there are these comprehensive support services that remove barriers to learning – making sure there’s some counseling and removing those barriers so kids are actually ready to learn when they’re in school. 

There are many schools that may do a lot of these same things, but what makes a school a community school is the way all these services and supports are connected and coordinated. There’s a system in place so that if there’s a teacher who recognizes that a student is struggling, there’s a mechanism for that teacher to let the right people know what’s going on; there’s a feedback loop back so the teacher can get information about how to support that student and how to engage the family in that conversation. There’s also a way to learn from that teacher’s experience and to develop a broader response if that’s necessary. If you find out the fourth grade math scores are dropping, you can look at how the after school program can build on what’s happening in the fourth grade classrooms and create opportunities for students to practice those skills and apply them in ways that may be a little bit more engaging. There’s a conversation that’s going on between that program and the school day. And the social worker, someone, who understands children’s development, can be tapped to help other people in the building create a safe environment for all kids. It’s the connection points that are really critical.

If I’m talking to a group of principals who are not totally feeling this yet, I might ask “Do you want to do all that work by yourself?”, and they often say, “no way.” I ask them to imagine that they had some sort of a dedicated capacity, someone who will work on the same side of the desk with the principal to find the partners and supports to meet those needs. Then they start to come around a little bit. But all of this hinges on a principal who is willing to share data, share time, share control, and share authority. They have to want to do these things.  I think it’s a real paradox of the US system that we have designed a system that makes the principal absolutely crucial and makes the position completely unsustainable. It’s very hard to do that job. Obviously, some people manage it, but it’s not clear that we could have a system succeed on a broader level if this is what’s required of principal; yet it’s not clear how to change that system without relying on that principal.

I think it’s a real paradox of the US system that we have designed a system that makes the principal absolutely crucial and makes the position completely unsustainable

IEN: Have you seen anything in your work that can help us think about how to bring people together with different views, particularly with different educational views?

AF: I think there are people who have pretty strong opinions who have not been in a school for a very time and that’s partly why I think the more we can find opportunities to invite people in to actually see what’s happening in schools –  to see how challenging it is educate children – we can start a conversation. If we can get more people to really interact with those who are doing work in schools and help everyone better understand what the challenges are, I think we can at least create an environment where we can try some things out.  We’re hoping that work can change the culture a bit because we’ve been conditioned to want to prove what works. We want to find that silver bullet curriculum, the silver bullet framework, the teaching tool that works no matter what the weather condition is. But instead, and this goes back to using the data more as a flashlight than a hammer, we need to focus on improving things and developing a much more adaptive way of thinking.

It turns out that what works in one school actually may not work in this other school, so the people in each environment have to figure it out. It’s not a recipe – the process is the program, and it’s a process that depends on the engagement with the local community because figuring it out is a team sport. I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to position schools as belonging to the community.

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