Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

Providing Schools to a Community

By Samara JacobsonPublished January 1, 2017

Mayor DeBlasio's approach to education reform in NYC is holistic and innovative, but is his approach too ambitious?

New York City hosts one of the most segregated school districts in the country.  While NYC is home to many exclusive, high-performing high schools, it also hosts many failing schools, especially in areas that are economically disadvantaged.  This educational segregation reflects the general economic disparities in New York; people in economically lower income areas, such as the South Bronx, are often forced to attend low-performing schools.  This lack of equal educational opportunity creates a self-perpetuating cycle of poverty and limited socioeconomic mobility for today's students.
Because of this inequity, Mayor Bill DeBlasio has made educational reform a top priority.  In 2016, he implemented the Community Schools initiative, a novel and comprehensive education reform package that focuses on community engagement and outreach.  Most education reforms focus solely on problems that happen inside school doors.  The Community Schools initiative differs in that it attempts to create an education-friendly community outside the classroom, with efforts to engage families and entire communities in the learning process.  Implementation of this initiative comes in the form of large monetary grants that Community Schools are tasked with spending as they see fit.  The majority of these funds are given to educational sub-contractors, called Community Based Organizations, to implement extra-curricular afterschool programs and programs that support student's health. CBO's are able to provide students with free glasses, laundry services, mental health counseling, and other services that otherwise support student's well-being in addition to academic programs.
As of now, the Community Schools initiative is extremely limited in scope.  To become a Community School, a school must fail several important indicators for school success and be selected by the Department of Education as a school with potential for improvement.  Usually, failing schools have consistently low performance on state-wide standardized exams, low attendance rates (and consequently high rates of chronically absent students), and perform poorly on other more qualitative assessments.  Often, these schools are on the brink of being closed by the NYC Department of Education. Although there are many schools who qualify as low-performing or failing, the costs of the Community Schools Initiative prevent expansion of the program.  According to the NYC Department of Education, the program includes a $225,000 base grant for each Community School, with an average grant of $310,000.  The current scope of the program — only about 45 schools — still costs millions of dollars. There are currently plans to expand the number of community schools to 100 by the end of 2017, but the sources of these funds are unclear.
Although sound in theory, the Community School Initiative's costs are incredibly prohibitive.  With 314 schools in NYC classified as either focus or priority schools by the New York State Department of Education, the program's limited scope of 45 schools is extremely problematic.  If the Community School Initiative's goal is comprehensive, widespread education reform for disadvantaged populations, then the program's costs cannot be so prohibitive that widespread reform is impossible.  The efforts made by DeBlasio to take a more holistic approach to education are admirable, but these reforms may be better implemented in a way that is not directly linked to the Department of Education.  The Community School initiative is necessarily selective in terms of which schools receive the funding, which leads to the arbitrary exclusion of disadvantaged students from the program.  Any education reform needs to be widely applicable and not exclusive to certain selected students.
The Community School initiative is overambitious in implementation, but its holistic approach is innovative and refreshing.  Inequality in education and opportunity is a pressing issue in NYC public education, but often the most effective reform is not done by the Department of Education.  If socioeconomic status and equality in education are inextricably linked, then perhaps Mayor DeBlasio should pursue alternative, more realistic reforms.