Principal Daniel Russo and social worker Maria Morales look on as a fifth grade student receives a free haircut in preparation for graduation from the Walton Avenue School. (Neel Dhanesha for The Hechinger Report)
NEW YORK — When the mayor ordered New York City public schools to close in March to slow the spread of the coronavirus, Daniel Russo broke into tears. Ninety-six percent of children at the Walton Avenue School, a K-5 school in the Bronx he’d founded in 2013, face economic hardship, and about a third are homeless. Recently, Russo had seen a little boy wrapping up some of his school lunch. The boy explained he was taking the rest home for his father.
The closure meant kids would be out of class and have to survive for weeks on bagged lunches. But it was more than that. “I’m thinking about the kids who are at the door at 6:45 every morning,” he said, “looking for an adult who cares about them.”
Walton Avenue is what’s known as a “community school,” where educators believe that meeting students’ basic needs is as much of a necessity as teaching them to read — that, in fact, the former is a prerequisite for the latter. As districts across the country shut down in response to the coronavirus pandemic, students at community schools are losing a lot more than their classes.
Community schools are based on research showing that what happens in children’s out-of-school lives can impact their education as much as or even more than what happens in school. Their premise is simple: By partnering with families and community-based organizations, community schools tackle challenges like hunger and homelessness and seek to support students’ mental and physical health. This, they hope, will let kids focus and excel in the classroom.
There are now more than 5,000 community schools nationwide, according to a recent RAND Corporation report. The largest cohort is in New York City, where more than 250 have been launched since Mayor Bill de Blasio took office.
But outcomes for these schools have been mixed: New York’s community schools have shown improvement in attendance, grade progression and graduation rates, but limited growth in math, marginal improvement in school climate and culture and no statistically significant growth in reading, according to the RAND study of 113 of the city’s community schools. And, while other researchers have concluded that “well-implemented” community schools can improve student outcomes, the model is not always implemented well.
The Walton Avenue School is among a few that have thrived across the board. Though the school has higher percentages of students with disabilities and English Language Learners than city averages, it has transformed one of the worst-performing campuses in the city into one of its highest-impact public schools, according to city data that compares the academic results of similar students at other schools.
Russo attributes the success to a simple checklist: The New York City Department of Education’s Framework for Great Schools. Posters listing its six elements, which are derived from research by the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research, are ubiquitous on the campus. Three of the elements are ideas that community schools embrace by design: “strong family-community ties,” “trust,” and a “supportive environment.” Two are ideas that many in education have adopted as common sense: “rigorous instruction” and “collaborative teaching.”
Russo himself has embodied the sixth: “effective school leadership.” Research has long confirmed that a talented principal is critical for improving student achievement. It isn’t always easy to find someone who is both a visionary and stubbornly attuned to the nitty-gritty details, including what kids eat for lunch. But it also isn’t clear that a relentless style like Russo’s is sustainable.
His husband told me he worried about Russo’s high blood pressure. Russo rarely sits or stands still. He doesn’t eat or drink much. He wakes up early and works late. Last year, when the Board of Elections switched its usual polling place for an upcoming local race from the Walton Avenue School’s gym to its cafeteria, Russo worked the phones for days to get the election site moved back to the gym. If students weren’t allowed in the cafeteria, they wouldn’t have access to the school’s freshly cooked free lunches. They would receive cold, bagged lunches instead.
“My parent community can and will mobilize around things that are important to them,” he said. “This is important to them. And it’s important to me.”
Now, with students out of class indefinitely, the school’s healthy hot meals are just one of many supports kids will have to do without.
Before Principal Russo opened the Walton Avenue School, its predecessor, P.S. 64, served the predominantly black and Latinx Mount Eden neighborhood, which begins a few blocks northeast of Yankee Stadium in the Bronx. In the 1980s, district school board members were accused of holding cocaine-fueled parties at the school on Friday nights. In the ’90s, the principal got into a fistfight with one of his own teachers during the school day.
Parents in the surrounding New Settlement Apartments began organizing to improve the school in 1996. They formed the New Settlement Parent Action Committee (PAC) and confronted New York City’s schools chancellor with dead flowers meant to symbolize their poorly educated children. They showed up outside his successor’s office with hundreds of brightly colored balloons, drawing the attention of the press and forcing a meeting. They donned jailhouse-inspired jumpsuits in an allusion to the school-to-prison pipeline. They even dressed as aliens in order to ask why they weren’t being treated as human.
Meanwhile, inside the school building, chaos reigned, according to interviews with former P.S. 64 parents and staff members. “The fifth graders would roam the halls and destroy everything in their path, opening doors, yelling into classrooms, cursing out the little ones,” said Taisha Rodriguez, who taught at P.S. 64 for seven years. “It was almost an atmosphere of fear.”
By the early 2010s, only one in four teachers believed that “discipline and order” were properly maintained at P.S. 64. Math and English test scores were among the bottom 1 percent citywide.
In 2013, the administration of former mayor Michael Bloomberg began phasing out the school. Two new schools would take over the building.
At the time, Daniel Russo was a 27-year-old fifth grade teacher in the Bronx’s District 11. He had recently applied to be a founding principal via Bloomberg’s Office of New Schools. Once selected, he insisted that he wanted to keep working in the Bronx. He was assigned to the P.S. 64 campus and the Walton Avenue School was born.
Principal Russo stood before his new team in the late summer of 2013, a couple of weeks before the first day of school in what he says was “a terrible, run-down, deplorable space.” Plaster hung from the walls. Decades-old furniture was covered in spray paint. “How the hell am I going to inspire people to start fresh and anew in this kind of space?” he wondered.
The teachers gathered in front of him included not only new recruits, but also skeptical veterans brought back from P.S. 64. Taisha Rodriguez was one of them. “I was like, ‘Hey, he’s gonna try. Good luck for him,’ ” she said. “I did not think he was going to be successful whatsoever.”
Russo gave a rousing speech about moving on from the campus’s troubled past. “Either you’re with us or you’re with us. There’s no against us. You have to be all-in,” he told the staff.
His insistence on a fresh start captivated Rodriguez, who’d been miserable for years. “Sign me up,” she recalled thinking. “Burn it to the ground! Let’s start new.”
Russo tried to focus his staff on early wins, no matter how small: a day without fights, a day without a screaming match at dismissal, a day on which student reading levels inched up from abysmal to bad. “We tried to recognize them and celebrate them until they multiplied and grew,” he said. Gradually, he added, “what was considered an early win became the norm.”
He’d initially intended to tackle the school’s many challenges by focusing on curriculum, instruction and professional development. But as he got to know the community, he started to more fully understand “the barriers that were keeping so many students from reaching their potential.” They needed to be warm, to feel safe, to have full stomachs. He developed a more fundamental operating philosophy: “Everybody gets everything they need every day in order to succeed.”
Russo said he began his tenure with an expanded budget, including a federal School Improvement Grant of roughly $750,000. He dedicated about half of it to a partnership with Counseling in Schools, which provided three social workers to support students’ mental and emotional health. The rest paid for teachers’ extra collaborative curriculum planning as well as for professional development consultants and new furniture and technology.
In a turn of luck just as Russo was getting the school up and running, newly elected Mayor Bill de Blasio launched his Community Schools Strategic Plan. The plan allocated $52 million to open 45 community schools. (By the 2018-19 school year, the program had expanded to $195 million for 258 schools.)
The leaders of the New Settlement PAC successfully lobbied for the P.S. 64 campus to be included in the new program, securing $600,000 in annual Community Schools funding. Walton Avenue shared the money with the school that was in the process of closing and with Lucero Elementary School, the second new school opening at the P.S. 64 campus.
Russo used the funds to start a partnership with the nonprofit Abbott House, which supplied three full-time staff members: a community school director, a clinical social worker and a community health educator. The extra staff began providing services the preexisting teachers and staff could never have managed on their own, turning the school into “a one-stop shop for as many things as possible for families,” said Jason Estevez, the community school director.
They supported efforts to boost attendance, tracking down truant students and urging them to come to school with kid-friendly incentives like pizza parties. They maintained a caseload of children who needed regular counseling services. They were on-hand for crisis intervention. And they set aside part of their budget to pay for New Settlement’s long-running and popular after-school program, which also ran during the summer.
Estevez and his staff also coordinated with Warby Parker to provide free vision screenings and eyeglasses for students. With help from the Office of Community Schools, they partnered with Smile New York Outreach to provide free dental checkups and cleanings. They brought in La Canasta, a food service which delivered fresh and affordable produce for families.
Working with the Floating Hospital, the community school staff hosted parent workshops on topics such as child sleep routines, asthma, self-esteem and body image. The Floating Hospital also provided door-to-door medical services: they would pick up students and families living in temporary housing, bring them to a medical facility to receive vaccinations and other necessary care, then drop them back at home.
North Shore Animal League brought in therapy puppies to spend time with some of Russo’s highest-need students. And Russo partnered with the Food Bank for New York City, which operated out of the cafeteria on Thursdays and was regularly attended by about 100 families.
“The idea is that these comprehensive services are meant to tackle some of the consequences of living in under-resourced and high-poverty neighborhoods that get in the way of learning,” explained Dr. William R. Johnston, the lead author of the recent RAND report. The model’s supports are “meant to be in the service of learning.”
The array of supports added up to major changes in the school’s climate, and nearly every teacher and staff member at the school was won over to Russo’s “everything they need” philosophy. “We’re here to teach them,” said Taisha Rodriguez. “But we can’t expect them to be successful at learning if everything else is chaos. If their life is in chaos, then obviously, when they’re here, they’re still in chaos.” What Walton Avenue was doing, she said, was minimizing that chaos, “so that when that child is in your room, that child has nothing else that they need to worry about except learning what you’re teaching.”
The approach worked because the pressure to work hard to meet kids’ needs wasn’t just coming from Russo, she said. “It’s coming from your colleagues, it’s coming from your coaches, it’s coming from your supervisors. There’s always that push from everyone.”
Eventually, though, the School Improvement Grant ran out for Walton Avenue — and other schools across the country. Russo could no longer afford the three social workers from Counseling in Schools.
By necessity, Russo was quickly becoming a skilled fundraiser, building relationships in the worlds of politics and private philanthropy. When the federal grant expired, he secured a $100,000 grant from Deutsche Bank, but it was only enough to pay for one Counseling in Schools social worker, and only for two more years. When the Deutsche Bank money ran out, he went through his school budget, shaving money line-by-line until he had enough to hire the social worker onto his own staff.
Russo would have loved to give every student a laptop or to build a state-of-the-art science lab. But as he saw it, such luxuries were not as central to his mission as collaborative teaching and rigorous instruction. So he dedicated as much of his budget as he could to professional development. (This included money he was now saving because the Community Schools funds were paying for the after-school program.)
“They have this culture that’s really powerful, which is that the teachers feel that they are leading it, but they also feel like they can be vulnerable enough to learn,” explained Lisette Nieves, director of Educational Leadership and a professor of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies at NYU’s Steinhardt School.
She was struck by the teachers’ ability to articulate that “they had power in their classroom, and that they had to give up power to have student voice” in the school’s increasingly student-led classrooms. (Russo has since enrolled in Nieves’ Ph.D. program.)
“Part of what’s innovative is that, at the Walton Avenue School, they see the children in the full richness of their humanity,” said Milo Novelo, who worked with Walton Avenue in his capacity as senior director of the NYC Department of Education’s now-defunct Showcase Schools Program.
Novelo said that, too often, schools approach students from low-income communities with rigidity. But at Walton Avenue, “they don’t dehumanize them by overly proscribing and being overly directive.”
Russo had been instrumental in making all those improvements, but the stress had worn on him. So he picked another strong leader to help him. Assistant Principal Nicole Perkins had taught alongside him during his classroom days and was just as hard-working and passionate. Even though she had more experience and was certified to become an administrator, she’d never found the right fit — until Russo asked her to join him at Walton Avenue. “I wouldn’t have done it alongside any other person,” she said, “because he had that patience to help me and show me what I needed to know.”
Perkins was born and raised in the Bronx. As a woman of color and a new leader, she said she had to work extra hard to prove herself and learn to get people to buy in to her leadership. For example, when she first started in the assistant principal role, she wouldn’t have been able to solve a problem like elections being held in the cafeteria. “They would have said, ‘Well, who is she? No, it is going to happen, there’s no other way you could do it.’ ” But now, she said, “I would know who to call and who to speak to, because I’ve had Dan as my mentor, and I’ve watched him do it.”
When Walton Avenue’s test scores came in last summer, they supplied further evidence that Russo’s devotion to the Framework for Great Schools was raising student achievement. Students reached the 88th percentile in English and the 96th in math in the city. (Although, in another sign of the community’s high level of engagement, parents opted their students out of the tests at a rate of about 46 percent and 38 percent, respectively.) The school had become a top choice for local parents and a source of pride in the community. The classrooms were abuzz with smiles and energy. Students said they loved coming to school.
Then, a few days before Valentine’s Day this year, Russo called together the school community to deliver some news that left many in tears: He had accepted a new job as deputy superintendent in the Bronx’s District 11, where he’d first started his teaching career.
But “there’s somebody so beautiful, and so deserving, and so capable and ready to help you,” Russo said, indicating Nicole Perkins. “She will lead this school to new heights, and I’ll be in the background cheering you on.” The staff broke into applause.
The next month, the Walton Avenue School was shut down because of the coronavirus.
Perkins was now in charge, and she and the staff sprang into action. They recorded a message explaining that breakfast and lunch were, for now, available for daily pickup. Like other public school staff across the city, they called every single student’s family to get their most up-to-date contact information and to find out who did and did not have access to a smartphone, laptop or tablet at home. Then, beginning with the fifth graders and working their way down, they invited students to come to the school to pick up devices to take home — though Perkins said they were likely to run out before every kid who needed one got one. They assigned each student an email address. They did a staff training on how to set up Google Classroom. The therapists, too, prepared to work with their students remotely.
Over the last few weeks, the administrators have been driving around the neighborhood handing out iPads to the school’s kids from the trunks of their cars, according to Russo. Children and adults have come by the school now that the city is offering meals to anyone who needs them.
No one was “ready for this type of remote learning and their kids not coming to school,” Perkins said. She was sad not to be seeing her kids. Still, she and her staff knew they remained accountable to their mission. “No matter what, we’re going to make this work.”
“Our goal is to be there for our families and students,” Perkins said. “We’re going to provide all the support they need. Whatever they need.”