In March, 2012, School District 16 in Bedford-Stuyvesant was identified in an annual report by the Schott Foundation for Public Education as – once again – one of the lowest-performing districts in the city.
The report, A Rotting Apple: Education Redlining in New York City, concluded that because of the city’s policies and practices that result in an inequitable distribution of educational resources, children who are poor, Black and Hispanic have far less of an opportunity to learn the skills needed to succeed on state and federal assessments.
The findings—a somewhat familiar re-telling of the pernicious cycle of poverty—were less surprising as they were troubling, while District 16 emerged as the prototype of what happens when an educational system goes terribly wrong.
Two years ago, District 16’s Community Education Council – volunteer parents that help to shape educational policies and priorities in their district – couldn’t even make quorum, because it only had two members.
“So it was outside of just low academic performance we were seeing in the district. It was also that parents were not engaged for a number of different reasons,” said Anthony Simmons, program manager of the Black Male Donor Collaborative, a program of the Schott Foundation. “And we needed to know why; we needed metrics.”
Following the report’s release, Simmons, along with key members of the Brooklyn Community Foundation and the Brooklyn Movement Center, formed a coalition called the District 16 Project, to begin addressing the district’s state of total disrepair.
“One of the things that hit us over the head was that, while it’s called a district, we learned that schools were not cooperating with each other—not because they don’t want to, but because the [Department of Education] structure does not facilitate that,” said Marilyn Gelber, president of the Brooklyn Community Foundation
“So how can we create something that helps schools to understand the mutual self-interest they have in working with each other?”
Gelber further pointed to the fact that although there was a ton of sweeping data explaining why the school’s engine was no longer running properly, there existed little information about what was ailing each school specifically and, therefore, no working blueprint for fixing it.
“There are the numbers on the page. But how do you come up with a way to begin changing the pattern of what’s been going on for such a long time? How do you tell the human story?” asked Gelber.
The District 16 Project decided that the best way to get to the heart of the problem was by taking a bottoms-up, grassroots approach. They began by interviewing every principal in every single one of the districts 26 public schools (excluding charter schools), as well as five teachers, five students and 10 parents from each school.
“We understand that some of what we find may or may not be in opposition to the DOE. And the idea was not to critique the DOE, but instead, look at the district and how is it functioning,” said Mark Winston Griffith, co-founder and executive director of the Brooklyn Movement Center.
“We understood that there would be this sort of tricky dance we would have to do with the DOE, and I think we navigated those waters in a sensitive way. “
Over the past nine months, the independent coalition has spoken to 23 of the 26 principals, as well as hundreds of parents, teachers and students combined, asking such questions as What do you see are the biggest challenges for your school? What are the resources you have in your school? And If there were some philanthropy to come in, where do you think you could make the biggest difference?
“What’s most important for us is, in doing this research, is that relationships were being established; we are building a broad base, not only for our organization, but for what we hope will be a project that will be philanthropy and school and community partnership,” said Winston Griffith.
“From these results we also hope to create a model that is unique, outlining the magnitude, the specific kinds of programs needed. The idea is to make it very actionable to serve as a real guidepost for philanthropy.”
“We want to see if this ground-up approach might work, but first we needed to start some place so that we can actually go back to the DOE and say ‘Hey, this is something we’ve been working on here in District 16; there might be implications for some of the other districts in the city as well,’” said Simmons.
“We’re trying something different here; we’re trying to be comprehensive and inclusive,” said Gelber. “Yes, we can bring in outside resources, but it’s about more than writing some big check.
“If change is going to happen in any real way, then it’s going to have to be a collaborative effort; it isn’t going to happen with just one force. Everybody may have a different emphasis.
"But we thought this could be a good opportunity to create an institutional structure that keeps people together and keeps them focused on solving this issue.”