Backed by parents, charter advocates and teachers, New Haven’s new superintendent won approval to remain in charge of city schools for another three years.
The approval came at Monday’s school board meeting at Hill Regional Career High School.
By a unanimous vote, Mayor Toni Harp and her six fellow school board members agreed to keep Garth Harries as schools superintendent. They empowered the board chair, Carlos Torre, to negotiate the terms of a new, three-year contract with Harries, who currently makes $193,000.
Harries (pictured), who took office on July 22, came up for a swift evaluation because of a city law that limits first-term superintendents’ terms to one year. The board agreed to let Harries know by March 1 whether it would keep him on. For a while, it was touch and go: Mayor Harp threatened not to renew his contact in March due to concerns about the schools budget, then reversed her position hours later after receiving assurances that he would close this year’s deficit. Torre also took heat for giving parent leaders a last-minute invitation to distribute surveys to their schools regarding Harries’ performance.
Monday’s approval followed a mid-year evaluation compiled by school board member Alex Johnston. The evaluation rated Harries “effective” or “strong,” a three or four respectively on a five-point scale, in four categories.
Click here to read the evaluation, which was based on “hundreds” of surveys sent in by parents, staff and community members, according to Torre.
At Monday’s meeting, nine members of the public urged Harries’ reappointment. No one spoke against him.
Harries arrived at the meeting with one constituency—charter school advocates—already visibly supporting him. Before the meeting, charter school founder Rev. Eldren Morrison and ConnCAN, the charter-aligned education watchdog group, released statements supporting Harries. Members of ConnCAN and Families For Excellent Schools, a New York-based group the Achievement First charter network has hired to organize parents at its charter schools, attended the meeting.
Jessica Light (pictured), who teaches at Davis Street School, said she was inspired by a message Harries sent out after Nelson Mandela died, reinforcing a sense of urgency to help city kids.
“He has brought heart to the job,” she said.
Tonya Jackson (pictured at right at the top of this story), mother of a child in an Achievement First school, praised Harries as a supporter of school choice and charter schools. On a personal level, she said, she was impressed by how he went to the bedside of a student who was shot outside Hillhouse High School after a basketball game.
Zeidy Cruz (pictured), the mother of two special-needs kids at East Rock Community Magnet School, was effusive.
“I am very excited about the superintendent. I love him,” she declared, drawing laughter.
“I have a situation with my student,” who has autism, she explained. “He took his personal time to call me” and help resolve the problem.
She said unlike his predecessor, 21-year Superintendent Reggie Mayo, Harries is accessible. “He don’t have the wall, like, I’m sorry, the other superintendent” had, she said.
Megan Ifill, a parent activist from Teach Our Children, a group that for years had bitter public fights with Mayo, said her group has not always agreed with Harries. But “we’ve been able to hear each other, respect each other,” while disagreeing, Ifill said. “I still see that things are really moving in the right direction. Parents can be included if they choose to be, just by contacting the superintendent’s office. I would love to see Garth here for the duration.”
Lauren Koster, a public school teacher, said she is “acutely aware of painful discrepancies between buildings” and other challenges in the school system. She said she has faith that Harries will address them.
“He believes in us,” she said. “Let’s now believe in him to carry forward a new era of input, dialogue, transparency,” and “ultimately student success.”
“We have to give people a chance,” said Hazel Pappas (pictured), a Title I parent leader who often defended Superintendent Mayo at public meetings. “I believe that he and the mayor will do an excellent job working together.”
East Shore Alders Sal DeCola and Al Paolillo also spoke in favor of keeping Harries, even as he heads into difficult budget negotiations.
After public comment, members of the school board retired to a back room for an 80-minute closed-door session to discuss Harries’ reappointment. Harries joined them for the latter portion.
They emerged holding the evaluation they had come up with. It generally matches Harries’ self-evaluation, except the board downgraded him by one mark on the five-point scale in a couple of areas.
Among his strengths, Harries credited himself for: shifting to a new Common Core-aligned curriculum; empowering the student council to become a “student cabinet” that tackles school policy; settling four labor contracts; setting a welcoming tone; engaging all kinds of people in the school system; and outlining a vision for the school district.
Harries also cited the following challenges: reaching “disengaged youth”; the need for “stronger rigor” in awarding class credits and diplomas; finding more time to spend in schools instead of in the office; connecting with undocumented parents; and closing the budget gap.
In its evaluation, the board overall did not dispute these characterizations. It offered the following observations:
• The district has made a “commendable head start” in shifting to the new Common Core national standards, though much work remains to be done.
• New Haven’s new way of grading teachers and principals is off to a good start, but Harries needs to make sure the evaluations actually help educators improve their skills and their leadership.
• Some turnaround schools—low-performing schools that are overhauled with new management—are working; Harries needs to pay attention to the ones that have not shown improvement yet, and be willing to take “bold actions” in other failing schools.
• While many parents feel the district is improving its customer service, “even isolated instances of poor customer service in schools or in the central office when parents feel unwelcome can put that positive momentum at risk.”
• There isn’t enough data to show the trajectory of student performance this year, but Harries should keep an eye on “flat or slightly rising trends” in mid-year absences.
The board discussed the evaluation privately with Harries before emerging and voting on his reappointment.
Harries said the message he takes from the evaluation is that “there is work that we need to do” as a city.
“There are strong elements, there are areas to work on,” he said. “Ultimately the mandate is to improve the education for our kids.”