Thirty new students showed up last-minute at Principal Margaret-Mary Gethings’s door on the first morning of school. She found a place for each of them.
“I’ve never had a morning like this morning with all those people,” Gethings said.
The new arrivals came to Fair Haven School on Wednesday, as most of the 22,000 New Haven Public School kids attended their first day of the school year. (Kindergarteners don’t start until Friday.)
The hectic morning highlighted Fair Haven’s role as one of the district’s true neighborhood schools. It accept kids on a continual basis instead of by annual lottery. And it serves as a welcoming center to transient families and new newcomers from around the world, a crucial public institution for an immigration-rich neighborhood.
Students poured in the doors shortly after 8 a.m., many arriving by foot. Fair Haven is one of 21 “neighborhood” K-8 schools, meaning it accepts kids from a geographic area, as opposed to magnet schools, which accept kids by competitive lottery from across town and, in some cases, from the suburbs.
Gethings, who’s entering her third year as principal, spent the morning whirling around between families, teachers and staff, making sure all the kids got settled in. She did it with a brisk step and a continual smile.
Gethings (pictured) spent the morning helping staff at the front office handle an influx of families seeking last-minute placements at the school. The school’s secretary of 32 years, Rose Fabrizio, was out sick. So Gethings helped two secretaries, and a parent volunteer, handle a flow of late registrations.
At about 8:15, Gethings greeted a mom with two new students. The kids were already dressed in the school’s uniform, with white collared shirts and navy pants. The students were coming from Columbus Family Academy, a neighborhood school just a few blocks away up Grand Avenue. The school just disbanded a bilingual 3rd-grade classroom, according to Gethings.
“I knew students would be transferring from Columbus. I just didn’t know who,” Gethings told the family.
“It’s you, Steven,” she said, bending down to kid-level. “You look very good in your uniform. Muy guapo.”
“What grade were you in last year?” she asked another boy, who couldn’t find his classroom.
“No English,” he replied.
Gethings, 44, of Hamden, has picked up a few words of Spanish since she joined the school seven years ago as an assistant principal. Her school, built in 1928 at 164 Grand Ave., has a long history as a neighborhood mainstay. The neighborhood it draws from is now largely Latino; over three-quarters of Fair Haven kids are Latino and over half are learning English as a second language.
Gethings was brought to Fair Haven by former Principal Kim Johnsky, whom she had worked under at Nathan Hale School. The duo moved together from Nathan Hale to Fair Haven seven years ago. They’re credited with calming unruly behavior and improving school culture through a quiet turnaround built on strong leadership, teamwork and shared expectations. The transformation took place without a flood of extra resources or official “turnaround” reforms. Gethings took over as principal when Johnsky left three years ago. Gethings has worked for New Haven Public Schools for 12 full years; she joined after 10 years teaching in Stamford schools.
Wearing a polka-dotted shirt and black wedge sandals, Gethings marched Wednesday between the front office and the school auditorium, fielding questions from teachers, kids and parents.
In the hallway, she met a parent who wanted get her daughter into the school. The siblings are now separated between Quinnipiac School and Fair Haven; the mom wanted them both at Fair Haven. Gethings said she couldn’t help with the enrollment problem: “Central office controls that.”
At least two grades at Fair Haven are filled to their 54-student capacity, Gethings said. Enrollment is up to 765, making it by far the city’s largest K-8 school.
For over an hour Wednesday morning, parents filled the front office, trying to squeeze their kids in, too. The school accepted only those who had already registered through the district’s central office at 54 Meadow St. Unlike at magnet schools, where enrollment is largely firmed up through a March lottery, neighborhood schools like Fair Haven accept a constant stream of new students all year. Neighborhood schools bear the brunt of the 1,000 transient kids who enroll in new schools after Oct. 1 each year, arriving from places like Puerto Rico or New York, or just switching schools.
Gethings received 30 last-minute registrations Wednesday. She found a seat for all of them.
“You have some new added students today,” she told teacher Chrissy Bowman in an apologetic tone, “at least three of them.”
Late enrollments send teachers scrambling to put name tags on lockers and readjust seating plans. They mean teachers have no chance to check out a student’s academic record or consult with past teachers.
Gethings said the school has been particularly swamped this year with late enrollments. At parent orientation night, parents lined up like a “deli line” to find spots for new kids.
Gethings Wednesday welcomed new families in grades 1 to 3 in the school’s capacious auditorium. She added a gentle request for parents not to stand in the aisle. On her way out, she stopped to check in on a “starstruck” 1st-grader who looked overwhelmed with the whole experience.
“Keep an eye on her,” Gethings asked teachers aide Denise Mikolike.
By 9:30, an hour after school started, the crowd in the front office finally subsided.
Gethings took a moment to meet with a foster mom who had just taken in one of her students last month. Before the mom stepped into her office, Gethings already knew the back story: DCF had broken up a family, sending siblings to different homes. The meeting gave a glimpse at the challenges kids who attend Fair Haven face—about 8 in 10 qualifies for free and reduced-price lunch, a federal measure of poverty—and a glimpse at the close tabs Gethings keeps on her kids.
Assistant Police Chief Luiz Casanova, the former neighborhood top cop, stopped by to check on the school. He remarked how quiet the halls were.
Gethings said it wasn’t so quiet just 20 minutes before.
She said she didn’t like the “chaos” of the morning—she’s known for keeping halls impeccably quiet and orderly—but the traffic jam of parents couldn’t be avoided.
After the front lobby calmed down, Gethings and her assistant principal, Jaime Ramos, toured classrooms to introduce themselves and welcome students back.
First Gethings stopped to greet 3rd-grader Jetaly Torres (pictured), who was on her way to class.
On the first floor, Gethings popped in on Danielle Peterson (pictured), a new kindergarten teacher. Peterson, of Illinois, moved to New Haven three years ago; she got her master’s in education from the University of New Haven. She student-taught at Fair Haven School, then worked there as a long-term sub last year. When Gethings popped in, Peterson was leading kids in a “brain break,” stretching and breathing after doing some reading.
For a highly transient student population, the school has a stable adult staff: Only five of 65 teachers are new this year. All four teachers who left the school last year moved out of state, rather than transferring to other schools. Of the five new teachers in the school this year, four are not really new: They all student-taught or subbed at the school last year. The fifth, Zack Kafoglis, is a product of New Haven Public Schools and a former student of Gethings at Worthington Hooker School.
In another classroom, Gethings welcomed new teacher Amanda Lubin, who interned at the school last year through her studies at Quinnipiac University. Lubin had on a brand new dress for her first day of school. Gethings replied in, in good humor, that the days when she had time to buy a new back-to-school outfit are long gone, now that she’s the mother of three school-aged kids.
Literacy coach Lauren Canalori offered a take on why teachers who join Fair Haven School tend to stay: strong leadership and sense of teamwork.
Despite its recent downgrading on the school system’s annual report card (from Tier II to Tier III), Fair Haven School showed high satisfaction ratings on the latest school surveys: A whopping 93 percent of teachers said they’d recommend the school, compared to 68 percent across all K-8 schools. Students gave rave reviews, too: 97 percent of students feel “safe” at Fair Haven School and 90 percent “care about the school,” well above the district averages.
Mid-tour, Gethings got a call on her black walkie-talkie: Yet another parent was trying to get a kid into the school. Gina Ellis (pictured holding her 2nd-grade son, Joevony) asked to transfer her two sons from Strong School. She said she lives nearby Fair Haven; her kids could walk to school instead of taking the bus. Gethings had to turn Ellis away, at least for the day. She told Ellis to take her request to 54 Meadow St.
Nearly all the grades at Fair Haven are at capacity this year, Gethings said. She said she’s saving a few seats in each mainstream classroom for students who graduate from the “newcomer center” inside the school. That’s the place that welcomes all immigrants and refugees in grades K to 8 who join New Haven public schools within 10 months of arriving in the U.S. Fair Haven inherited the “newcomer center” from East Rock School four years ago.
While she was in the front office, Gethings stopped to greet four of those newcomers, brand new immigrants who were taking a tour of the school.
“Later on, we are going to use buses” to travel home, their tour guide and teacher explained to them.
This year, the newcomers are separated into their own classrooms. Right now, they have two classrooms, for grades K to 4 and 5 to 8. Students who showed up at Michelle Norwood’s newcomer class Wednesday hail from Madagascar, Congo, Iraq, Jordan and China. Another 11 kindergarteners are set to join the mix on Friday.
Students will learn academic subjects in their classrooms, then join their mainstreamed peers for art, music, lunch and gym. So far, 39 newcomers have joined the school. Some will graduate from the program and join mainstream classes throughout the year; meanwhile others will arrive. Gethings said she expects five to seven new immigrants to show up every month throughout the year, which may necessitate a third classroom.
In her travels through the school, Gethings kept a cheery emphasis on law and order: Walking in a straight line, not straggling in the hallway, and wearing uniforms.
Inside the classrooms, Gethings handed out gold stars to every class in which all students were dressed in uniform.
In another classroom, she sought to ease test anxiety that was already emerging on Day One.
“How is 4th grade?” she asked.
“Scary,” replied one student.
“Because you don’t know how you’re going to do on the CMTs this year,” said the student, referring to the Connecticut Mastery Test (which the district will likely toss out in favor of new tests aligned to the Common Core State Standards).
Gethings told the student to have fun reading and not to worry about the tests.
In a 7th grade reading class, teacher Mnikesa Whitaker was leading kids through a class theme song about bravery. Whitaker said the 7th grade is the quietest she’s seen. Gethings replied that they likely wouldn’t be quiet for long.
After making her rounds, Gethings sat down for the first time all morning. She picked up a bus list and focused on the next task: How to make sure all her new charges made it home safely at the end of the day.