‘Street Schools’ Face Hard Road to Success
A growing network of Christian alternative schools—some nearly as vulnerable as the children they serve— is bent on getting troubled students back on track.
Sit down with a teacher at the Denver Street School’s west campus and you’re apt to get a glimpse of missionary zeal. The private Christian school expects a lot of its teachers, but doesn’t pay them much, as it tries to turn around the lives of troubled students seeking a second, or even third, chance at success.
“This is by far the most grueling teaching experience I’ve ever had, but by far the most rewarding,” said Laura G. Eggers, a former public-school educator who joined the Street School staff this academic year. “When I lay my head on my deathbed, I will know I lived, and I have taught my heart out.”
The school of some 60 students in grades 7-12, housed in a red-brick church facility here in the Denver suburbs, places a premium on giving students personalized attention, a strong moral compass, and the tools for self-sufficiency. The students have faced all kinds of problems—drug and alcohol abuse, pregnancy, dysfunctional families—and typically have either dropped out or gotten kicked out of regular public schools.
Opened in 1985, the Denver Street School gradually drew notice, spawning imitators and a national association working to refine and replicate a model for what it calls “educational intensive-care units.”
The National Association of Street Schools network has grown to include 44 schools in 19 states and is helping several more to open over the next year. The expansion has been helped along by the Seattle-based Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which has committed nearly $3 million since 2003 to NASS as part of an alternative-high-school initiative that aims to expand networks of schools that primarily serve students who have not made it in other environments.
The initiative, which mainly backs groups working with school districts or public charter schools, comes amid a groundswell of support for creating smaller, more personalized environments for students, especially at the high school level, who are deemed at risk of academic failure. The effort is also part of a broader, $1 billion-plus push by the Gates Foundation to increase the numbers of students who graduate from high school ready for work and college.
The National Association of Street Schools, a network of faith-based small schools serving students at high risk of academic failure, has grown to 44 schools in 19 states.
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“NASS is one of the really innovative models that we are supporting,” said Yee-Ann Cho, a senior program officer at the Gates Foundation. “They’ve done a really good job with a group of students who are very difficult to serve. They are filling a great need.”
The network has attracted favorable attention from the Bush administration, including being invited to have its leader address a White House “Helping America’s Youth” Conference last year.
Yet despite the high-level attention and support, the schools collectively serve only about 2,500 students, fewer than some individual public high schools.
And how well the schools fare academically is hard to clearly gauge. NASS suggests it’s showing good results, with significant increases in grade point averages for recently enrolled students, and what it says are strong average gains in reading across schools. But the group did not make school-by-school test scores available. One outside evaluation of a sample of network schools found graduation rates that were uneven, but better than expected, given the population they served.
As the group looks ahead, money remains a constant struggle. Most member schools charge nominal tuition on a sliding scale—so as not to price out a largely low-income student clientele—and rely mostly on private donations.
“In many ways, the schools themselves are as at risk as the students they serve,” said Duane B. Baker, the president of the BERC Group Inc., in Redmond, Wash., who has been studying NASS and its schools as part of a broader evaluation of the Gates’ alternative high school initiative.
‘They Actually Care’
The NASS network is made up of a diverse array of nonpublic schools scattered from Seattle to New York City, some started from scratch under the Street Schools model and others that sought to reshape themselves in that image.
The association’s secondary schools, like the Denver Street School, are generally intended to be second-chance schools for urban students who have not succeeded in public schools. The elementary campuses target urban students deemed at risk of school failure based on demographics.
Last academic year, nearly half the network’s students—who range from prekindergartners to 12th graders—were high schoolers. Six in 10 were from low-income families, and about 70 percent were from minority groups, mainly African-American and Hispanic students.
Students at the Denver Street School’s west campus say it’s hard to get lost in their school.
“They keep track of you; they help you one on one,” said 15-year-old Jessica Huddle. “They actually care.”
That family environment is a core value of the Street Schools. The group advocates keeping class sizes to no more than 10 and school sizes very small, too, but the approach goes far beyond those traits.
“Loving kids in a small, personalized environment is not a model, it’s a philosophy,” said Tom Tillapaugh, the founder of the Denver Street School and the national group.
Money Is a Struggle
Over the past several years, NASS has become far more focused on refining its model and trying to ensure member schools are faithful to it. The association has drawn up an exhaustive list of nearly 100 “essentials” for its model, covering such areas as academics, spiritual development, finances, and organizational management.
To better manage the scale-up, the association recently helped develop an accreditation track for its member schools that emphasizes the special needs of its at-risk students.
In 2005, NASS was recognized by the Commission for International and Transregional Accreditation, or CITA, as a sponsor for accrediting schools. CITA, an alliance of educational agencies based in Tempe, Ariz., accredits more than 30,000 public and private educational institutions.
About one-quarter of member schools had received regional accreditation as of last June, NASS says, but some are also pursuing the new accreditation. The association is working intensively with 10 campuses on the new accreditation now, and will select another 10 this summer.
NASS provides a wide range of support to schools, including technical assistance, modest grants, and training in such areas as fundraising, data management, and teaching at-risk students. Yet the group says that it’s a long process to get schools aligned with its list of essentials.
“We don’t want to be just prescriptive and tell them what to do,” said Mr. Tillapaugh, the executive director. “We want to walk with them and help them through it.”
The National Association of Street Schools has developed more than 90 “essentials” for schools using its model. They focus on such core areas as academics, school climate, finances, and spiritual development.
• Mission is aligned with NASS core values and reflects the Christian ideal of compassion for the
poor and needy.
• Admission policies ensure “access for all.”
• Curriculum is based on state standards and academic requirements of NASS.
• Follows student-centered model.
• Tracks multiple data regarding student achievement and outcomes.
• Teacher collaboration time scheduled frequently.
• Structure and activities create a family-like atmosphere.
• Provides every student with at least one caring, engaged adult through an advocacy program to help student navigate life, both in and out of school.
• Instructional and behavioral goals are written for each student as part of an individual student learning plan.
• Teachers are prepared to work effectively with low income, urban, minority students through specific reading and coursework.
• Selected as staff members are those who can act as role models that love students and build positive relationships with them as a means of sharing the tenets of the Christian faith.
The biggest barrier to meeting the group’s list of essentials, NASS officials say, is inadequate resources.
David M. Morgan, the director of the 22-student Winston-Salem Street School in North Carolina, which opened in 2004, estimates that his school meets about two-thirds of those essentials.
“A lot we embrace from a philosophical standpoint, but pragmatically, it’s almost impossible,” he says, “because of the staffing and time.”
For example, Mr. Morgan said, his school has struggled to devise individualized learning plans for all students and consistently follow up on those.
Money is a continual struggle for NASS and its schools. Because of budget constraints, NASS let three employees go in 2006, the group says, though it has since hired two new people with another two hires expected soon, for a total of 11.
A few schools have had to close because they couldn’t stay afloat financially. A Denver elementary recently had to cut back on the grade levels it serves.
The Lighthouse Academy, a 43-student program run by Wedgwood Christian Services, a nonprofit organization in Grand Rapids, Mich., has found a way to alleviate the funding dilemma.
The group has a contract to take students expelled from 20 public school systems served by the Kent Intermediate School District, and the academy is now technically a program of that regional district.
Achievement Data Spotty
A 2005 evaluation by the Parthenon Group of Boston—paid for by the Gates Foundation— found that, on average, slightly more than half of students who started in the 9th grade at a sample of NASS schools eventually graduated from them. The study examined data for students at eight schools who were 9th graders in the 2000-01 academic year.
The evaluators said that the graduation rate was on a par with rates for at-risk students nationally, but suggested that the students at NASS schools were at even higher risk of academic failure than the general population of such students.
Of the graduating seniors examined in the Parthenon Group study, 73 percent attended a two-year or four-year college. The school-by-school college-going rates ranged widely, though, from a high of 86 percent in one NASS school to a low of 38 percent in another.
NASS itself reports that in 2005-06, students’ average reading scores progressed by 1.5 grade levels, though the association declined to provide testing data for individual schools. Across schools, NASS says, students’ grade point averages after a semester at the schools climbed from 1.2 to 2.5 on a 4.0 scale that same year.
Asked about the flagship Denver Street School’s west campus, Lisa Leith, the association’s vice president for member services, acknowledged that standardized-test scores do not show consistently strong, across-the-board gains for students over time.
“We have such a varied path that these kids travel,” Ms. Leith said, “that the great gains and the struggling kids cancel each other out.”
Ms. Leith said her group is working to identify more accurate ways to monitor student progress, and to help schools and teachers use that information to improve.
For example, NASS recently developed StreetSchool Tracker, a database system to track test scores, graduation rates, attendance, and other data in individual schools and across the network.
Ms. Leith said the group also is working to identify a single, standardized testing instrument that can be applied across the national network.
Ms. Cho from the Gates Foundation said that while she has not reviewed their test scores, NASS high schools have impressed her, especially given that many of their students would otherwise have abandoned school.
“One of the real keys is that [the students] are actually in school; they’re engaged in a way they had not been before,” she said.
Beyond academics, the schools seek to foster emotional growth, social development, career planning, and spiritual growth, NASS officials say.
Though NASS is not affiliated with any single religious denomination, the schools seek to infuse Christian principles into their educational approach, and hope students will embrace the faith.
And yet, say NASS officials and educators in the schools, proselytizing to students is not the driving mission.
“The agenda in this is that they have a future, not that they become Christians,” said Gregory J. Fuchs, who teaches religion and physical education at the Denver Street School’s west campus.
The schools practice what Mr. Tillapaugh calls “faith-based hiring.” All teachers must embrace core Christian beliefs, especially that “every child is a divine creation and … worthy of love,” he said.
“This is a tough, tough place to work,” said John R. Parsons, the executive director of the Omaha Street School in Omaha, Neb. “If you don’t feel like you’re called to be here, you could easily pack your bags and make ten grand more someplace else that wasn’t as difficult.”
Ms. Eggers, the teacher, said that students at times have lashed out at her verbally.
“They will try to blame me,” she said. “They want me to be the next person in their life that tells them they’re a failure. I’m not going to tell them that.”
Vol. 26, Issue 31, Pages 24-26Published in Print: April 4, 2007, as ‘Street Schools’ Face Hard Road to Success