A $3.8 million gift from the state couldn’t come soon enough for Sabrina Breland, who has had no working computer lab, no librarian, and too few tutors to match the higher expectations that come with running a “turnaround” school.
Breland is principal of the Wexler/Grant Community School, a 424-student Dixwell neighborhood K-8 school. Her school took on extra scrutiny and pressure when it was tapped in the fall of 2011 to undergo a “turnaround” experiment aimed at overhauling a failing school.
Wexler/Grant will benefit from a five-year, $3.8 million-per-year Alliance District grant the state approved for New Haven Public Schools last week—the first extra burst of money to come in Breland’s doors to support her turnaround.
The largest chunk of New Haven’s money, $1.5 million, will go to retrain and pay the salaries of 26 guidance counselors in K-8 schools, according to Assistant Superintendent Imma Canelli. They will be trained to become “behavioral interventionists,” working in small groups with troubled kids who need extra social support.
The money will also pay for the city to hire librarians at six schools with vacancies, including at Hill Central School, where a brand new library sits locked because there is no one to circulate the books.
And the money will also pay for Michelle Sherban-Kline’s $126,198 job in charge of teacher evaluations; boost the district’s IT department; and pay for six low-performing “focus” schools to hire tutors, a new teacher leader, and technology and supplies. The six schools are: Truman, MicroSociety, John Martinez, Troup, Beecher, and Wexler/Grant.
The money is part of an extra $40 million in Educational Cost Sharing money Gov. Dannel P. Malloy promised to the state’s lowest-performing 30 districts—so long as they agreed to undertake certain reforms. Click here to view the district’s application, whose approval the state announced Thursday. Scroll to the end for the budgetary breakdown.
At Wexler/Grant, the money will begin to balance an inequity between the city’s 19 magnet K-8 schools, which access extra state money as part of a statewide plan end racial segregation and improve school choice, and its “neighborhood” schools, which have no such flow of supplemental funds.
Tale Of 2 Turnarounds
The city’s first in-house turnaround school, West Rock’s Brennan/Rogers, which was overhauled in 2010, scored an extra half-million dollars a year for three years to become an interdistrict magnet school with a focus on media and communications. The school used the money to buy iPads, Mac computers and recording equipment. As one of the bottom-performing 5 percent of schools in the state, Brennan/Rogers also landed a half-million dollars a year from a federal School Improvement Grant aimed at overhauling failing schools.
Meanwhile, at Dixwell’s Wexler/Grant, which received no comparable cash infusions for its turnaround, the computer lab has been out of commission the entire school year because the server went down, Breland reported Friday. Keyboards sit stacked up in a closet because no one can use the computers. Teachers are now supposed to use computers in their classrooms to take daily attendance using a new PowerSchools program. But not all teachers have computers in their classrooms, so some use their smartphones to send in attendance reports, Breland said.
The Alliance District grant will be the first extra money to support the turnaround, Canelli said. Not counting the extra money, Wexler/Grant has a budget of $3,198,824 for 424 kids, about $7,500 per student. Brennan/Rogers has a budget of $5,427,950 for 346 kids, about $15,700 per student, more than twice as much, according to the school district budget.
Breland said she doesn’t concentrate on the inequity.
“Instead of sulking that we didn’t get any money, and ‘how do you expect us do do anything differently’” without more resources, Breland said, “we focus on the positive.”
As one of six newly dubbed “focus” schools in New Haven, Wexler/Grant will now have access to some $113,000 per year for “supplies” and “property.” That money will be divvied up between six schools, but with preference to schools with lower resources, said Assistant Superintendent Canelli. A “focus” school—one that has “the greatest challenges for groups of students” and for which the state will “demand interventions to improve student performance”—is a new designation the state is using as part of its application for a waiver from the federal No Child Left Behind Act.
Breland said she’d like to use some of the money to buy a mobile computer lab so that her students can start using computers for classwork. In a tour through the school library, she noted that the school benefited 2002, when it became one of the first to be renovated in the mayor’s $1.5 billion school rebuilding initiative. One drawback is that the improvements—including some computers—still haven’t been updated since 2002.
“Everything we have is old,” Breland said.
The school badly needs computers for reading interventions, which use online programs, she said. Some teachers have addressed the lack of resources by bringing in their own laptops from home; however there is no wireless access in classrooms.
Asked about the inequity between magnet and non-magnet schools, Superintendent of Schools Reginald Mayo said that all schools have a strong basis of funding.
“I don’t think we are hurting as bad as some might say,” Mayo said. “We are so fortunate some of our schools do have magnet money.” For non-magnet schools, “we are pumping money into those schools also,” he said. “Everybody’s got a good base in all of our schools.”
“We are in such better shape than other districts,” he said.
Mayo said while Wexler/Grant has not received extra money for its turnaround, it has received some extra support from a program called BOOST!. The initiative aims to connect kids to social and emotional supports they need to succeed in school.
Through BOOST!, Wexler/Grant got a staffer from Americorps Vista to coordinate new services at the school. Last year, Wexler/Grant even hosted a senior official from the U.S. Department of Education in a forum applauding the program.
Wexler/Grant received $30,000 the first year to bring in new not-for-profits to work for kids, Breland said. The school brought in three groups: Elm City Shakespeare and Collective Consciousness, which offered theater programs, and the Foundation for Arts and Trauma, which provided a drama therapist to work with kids with behavioral problems for four hours a week.
The second year, BOOST! drops its funding to $10,000 per school, with the idea that the school will find other ways to continue its new partnerships. At Wexler/Grant, the drop in funding means that the school had to end its relationship with the two theater troupes, Breland said. The school held on to its drama therapist, but with curtailed hours—two hours per week instead of four.
With the state money, Breland said she is now looking forward to receiving what she called urgently needed social and academic supports for at-risk kids at her school. While grades 6 to 8 at Wexler/Grant are running smoothly, she said she continues to see major behavioral and emotional problems among the younger kids, especially in grades K to 3.
“We’re in a critical situation,” she said.
A lot of kids in grades K to 3 are getting physical, she said. Many are seeing therapists for “deep-rooted psychological problems,” she said. Last year, the school had the most homeless kids of any city school, she added.
Wexler/Grant also has an urgent need for more literacy help, Breland said. There are so many kids struggling in the 3rd to 5th grades, she said, that normal classes in those grades “shut down” from 8 to 8:30 a.m. every day while teachers take students in small groups for reading intervention, “enrichment” activities, and social support with the school guidance counselor.
There’s such a need for literacy help that “we needed every available staff member to take a group”—including the principal and assistant principal, Breland said. The groups each have about seven kids. As a “focus school,” Wexler/Grant will receive $20,000 per year to hire more tutors. Breland said she plans to hire four or five to help shrink the size of those small groups and extend the tutoring time. The school also has a long-running program through which Yale undergraduate students tutor kids in reading.
To boost certified instruction ranks, six “focus” schools will get to hire a new “lead teacher,” a roughly $60,000 full-time job, according to Canelli.
As soon as Tuesday, Wexler/Grant will be able to fill a librarian (“library media specialist”) job. The position has been vacant since Wexler/Grant’s librarian retired at the end of last academic year, said Breland (pictured). In the meantime, a paraprofessional has been holding story time and organizing the books, she said. Canelli said she expects to submit three names of new hires for approval at the school board’s meeting Tuesday. The grant will pay 20 percent of salaries of library media specialists across the district, Canelli said. That will pay for the district to fill the six current vacancies in school libraries, as well as a seventh that was filled at the beginning of the year at Roberto Clemente Leadership Academy.
Breland’s school will also receive some new money from a different source to support expanded after-school programming. Wexler/Grant is one of four schools, along with Hillhouse High, Davis Street and Riverside Academy, to receive a combined $400,000 per year for five years to support extended-hours programs at school. The money comes from a federal 21st Century Learning Center grant. Breland said Wexler/Grant plans to expand school hours from 2:15 to 5:15 p.m. Students will stay for homework help and science workshops with staff from the Eli Whitney Museum, she said.
Breland said she hopes that if Wexler/Grant puts the new resources to good use, it will be in a position to attract more money to support the turnaround.
“What we’re getting here is going to help,” she said, “but we need more. There are so many more things we need.”