Teach For America? Not the answer.
New Haven school reform? Too soon to celebrate.
Gary Holder-Winfield, who is running for the Democratic nomination for mayor, gave those frank replies at a campaign stop inside the fortress of Yale’s Branford College. The event, hosted by Yale Students for Gary Holder-Winfield, was billed as a discussion about education reform.
Of the current field of contenders seeking to succeed John DeStefano when he steps down at the end of the year, Holder-Winfield has branded himself as the education candidate. Holder-Winfield, a Newhallville state representative, is expected to face former economic development director Henry Fernandez, East Rock Alderman Justin Elicker, and Newhallville plumber Sundiata Keitazulu in a Sept. 10 Democratic mayoral primary. Hillhouse Principal Kermit Carolina and Probate Judge Jack Keyes are also expected to enter the race.
School reform promises to be a central issue in the campaign.
In the casual discussion with a dozen Yale undergraduates Friday afternoon, Holder-Winfield drew from own childhood and his time at the state legislature to outline his credentials and positions on education reform. He colored his platform outside the customary lines of the education-reform debate. And he didn’t always say what the audience was prepared to hear.
Don’t Believe The Hype
For instance, a student asked him his thoughts on Teach For America (TFA), the national not-for-profit that hires recent graduates of elite universities to be classroom teachers in inner cities and rural areas.
The audience Holder-Winfield addressed represented TFA’s ideal demographic: TFA has surpassed law school as the number one choice of employment for Yale students the year after graduation.
Holder-Winfield did not urge students to sign up in droves for TFA. He said he applauds anyone who signs up to teach in public schools. But he highlighted a drawback: Teachers often don’t stick around after their two-year commitment. (Click here to read about that.)
“Young people in the school system need consistency,” Holder-Winfield said. When teachers leave after a short time, “the kids that they touch can’t grow with them.” Kids have to adjust, again, to significant adults in their lives leaving them.
Another student asked Holder-Winfield’s opinion on New Haven’s “school change initiative”—language coined by the school district to promote changes that sprang from a landmark 2009 teachers contract and a broader effort to reinvent public education. The effort has gained national press in the New York Times and Wall Street Journal, mostly for the way it has involved the teachers union as a partner in reform. Speaker after speaker proclaimed school reform a shining success at Mayor John DeStefano’s recent retirement announcement.
Holder-Winfield didn’t bash the school system in his Yale talk. But he didn’t go along with the hype. He noted that the changes brought about by the union contract have been in place for less than three years.
“We should be cautious” in celebrating too early, he said. While the district is heading in the right direction, he said, “let’s not become overjoyed.” When you do so, “you stop thinking about what we’ve done and you stop analyzing it.”
“We need to make sure we are applauding for actual success,” Holder-Winfield said, “not just potential for success.”
Holder-Winfield said he derives his perspective on public education from his own experience. He grew up in a housing project in the Bronx. The nearest school “wasn’t that great,” he told students.
“Getting an education in that environment was literally a fight,” he said—in that students would often get into fights at school. So his mom did what he said many parents do, faced with few good choices: She lied about their home address to get him into a better school.
Holder-Winfield said one obstacle played a large role in shaping his views on how to help kids in urban schools. Growing up, Holder-Winfield faced a hearing problem that manifested itself as a speech impediment. As a result, he said, he stopped doing well in school and became socially isolated: “I withdrew.” He didn’t get the help he needed, he said, because staff assumed that his behavior was “what young black boys do.”
Instead of asking him what was wrong, he said, staff at the school assumed he was slow. The school moved to put him into special education classes. His mom “raised holy hell,” he said. He proved staff wrong on placement tests that showed he was reading at the 4th grade level while in kindergarten.
Holder-Winfield said he has brought that experience to the state Capitol as a legislator.
“I had an issue that was a barrier” to a good education, he said. So when he took office in 2009, he began asking, “what are those barriers” kids face in school?
Urban “Battlefield” PTSD
One answer, he said, has been to emphasize so-called “wraparound services” that tend to the social and emotional roadblocks that get in the way of kids’ academic success.
He called for a comprehensive look at kids’ social and emotional needs, one that focuses on the trauma that so many kids in cities like New Haven face. Studies show childhood trauma changes the brain, making it harder for kids to pay attention in class and exert self-control.
Holder-Winfield said kids in New Haven face a lesser-known kind of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) than the one most commonly discussed. Most people discuss PTSD in the context of a soldier who experiences trauma abroad, then leaves the battlefield and gets treated back home. However, kids in places like New Haven face a different challenge. They may find refuge in a psychiatrist’s office or a school, but when they go home, they often return to the environment where they have experienced so much trauma.
“Kids stay on the battlefield,” he said.
He said New Haven has gotten off to a good start by addressing the problem with a program called BOOST! The city has also formed a “trauma coalition” that aims to take a more systemic approach to the problem.
Holder-Winfield said he drew from his mother’s experience as a high-school dropout when he got to the Capitol, and pushed to raise the state’s dropout age from 16 to 18.
In addition to his prominent role as leading the charge to abolish the death penalty, Holder-Winfield has taken a lead role on several education issues, often advocating a different approach than the one New Haven pursued. Citing a huge “word gap” between low-income kids and their wealthier peers by grade 3, he pushed for a new K-3 literacy program, which has been piloted in several school districts (New Haven chose not to participate).
He advocated engaging parents by giving them more power over schools. He spearheaded a new state law creating “school governance councils,” panels made up of seven parents, five teachers and two community leaders, all elected to their posts, to advise principals on school policy. The law includes a version of the “parent trigger”: If the council believes the school is failing during the council’s third year, members can call for the school to be reconstituted. The decision is only a recommendation to the school board, but it would trigger a public hearing within 10 days of the vote—a measure intended to give weight to the group’s input.
New Haven has disagreed with the state over whether the city’s version of the governance councils qualifies under state law. Holder-Winfield said he believes it does not.
On other topics, he took a middle ground. He said he approves of the city’s taking over failing schools as “turnarounds,” replacing the staff and in some cases lengthening the school day. The city has tried out a variety of ways to manage the schools: some are in-house; others are run by the teachers union, a social services agency, and a for-profit charter operator.
Asked if he supports the governor’s proposal to fund nine new charter schools in the next two years, he gave a qualified answer. He said the decision will likely be negotiated by legislative leadership as part of a larger budget package, not through a separate item in the Education Committee, so he likely won’t vote directly on the matter. “If it’s in the budget to increase funding for charters, and if I don’t see the traditional schools being hurt” by that move, he said, he would lend his support.
He said while he has been branded as “pro-charter school,” “I’m not pro-charter” or “anti-charter.”
“I’m open to the possibility of choice,” he said.