1 Week, 2 School Boards

In her debut appearance on a different kind of school board, Mayor Toni Harp was welcomed as a champion for charter schools—and opened her pocketbook for a requisite donation to the cause.

Harp (pictured) made her first appearance Wednesday night as the newest member of the board of directors governing Amistad Academy, the flagship school in the Achievement First (AF) network of charter schools.

At her first meeting, she learned that all board members are “required” to pay what they can toward the cause. Harp opened her pocketbook and cut a $100 check for Amistad Academy.

The fundraising plea was just one difference between the charter school board and the New Haven public school district board, both of which held meetings this week. The meetings, like the parallel government-funded school systems themselves, are breeds apart. (Click here for a previous story on how the charter board runs.)

Harp attended both meetings as part of her new duties since she left the state Senate and became mayor in January.

Harp’s appointment to the charter school board comes due to a 2012 law that requires each charter school governance board to include a designee from the school board for the local town’s school system. Harp, who appoints New Haven’s school board, replaces former Mayor John DeStefano, who joined the board in a new chapter of collaboration that followed years of bitter fighting between the public school district and Achievement First.

Harp arrived at the meeting at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday to Elm City College Prep Elementary School—a school she was instrumental in opening through her role as a state legislator. Achievement First (AF) runs five schools in New Haven under two separate state-sanctioned charters; the boards for the two charters meet together every two months. The location rotates between the schools.

Harp climbed the stairs to an upstairs conference room decked out with inspirational posters with messages such as, “Excellence is a habit.” She shook hands with her new fellow board members and was offered some dinner. The New Haven school district meeting she attended Monday night at Career High offered meat patties in hamburger buns. AF offered a spread of spinach salad, sandwiches, carrots and hummus, and thinly sliced bagels. 

Harp grabbed a sandwich and some salad and took a seat at a large horseshoe of tables. She encountered many more people at those tables than at New Haven’s school board. New Haven public schools, which serve 20,000 students, are overseen by a board of eight people. (That board has one vacancy at the moment). Achievement First’s New Haven charter schools, which serve about 1,700 students, are overseen by two 16-person boards (plus a third board in Bridgeport that oversees the Bridgeport kids who attend Amistad High).

The board Harp joined Wednesday oversees the state-sanctioned charter that governs Amistad Academy Elementary, Amistad Academy Middle, and part of Amistad High. (In a complicated organizational setup, Amistad High is governed by three charters, each corresponding to one feeder middle school.) The schools accept public school kids from New Haven via lottery; they are operated by an independent, not-for-profit agency through state permission and state funding.

Harp sat in a folding chair next to Melinda Hamilton, the Amistad Academy board chair, and Jane Levin, who was discussing her upcoming move to California with her husband, former Yale President Rick Levin, who just took a job at Coursera, the online college course company. (Levin said the couple plans to remain “bi-coastal” with a house in New Haven as well as California.)

Dick Ferguson, chair of the Elm City board, opened the meeting by asking for any public comment. He looked around the room. As usual, there were no members of the public to be found. The charter school boards are public boards authorized by the state; their meetings are public but tend to fly under the radar of public attention. In New York, Achievement First charter school board meetings receive no press coverage, according to AF governance director Tony Siddall.

New Haven’s public school district board tends to attract a small crowd of diehard parent and teacher activists as well as upper-level administrators to its meetings at Career High. The board is the only one in the state that’s appointed by the mayor instead of elected, though that will change somewhat next year as it adds two elected seats.) New Haven typically escapes the boisterous public showdowns that often occur in cities with elected boards, such as Bridgeport. On Monday night, New Haven’s board saw relatively robust public participation, as nine parents spoke out against a proposal to move Hyde School.

After passing over the non-existent public comment portion Wednesday at the charter board meeting, Ferguson called on two principals to make reports. At each meeting, the AF school boards hear detailed reports from two of their five charter school principals. The board packets used to include written reports with lots of detailed attendance and testing data; on Wednesday they offered a verbal overview of how things are going in the school.

The tone was friendly. Katie Poynter announced that she has “5,000 percent” more experience than she did in September, when she made her debut before board members as the newly minted principal of Amistad Academy Middle. Poynter was tapped to raise morale and test scores at the network’s flagship school.

“I feel really great about the groundwork we’re laying,” she said. And “I feel we have a long way to go.”

She said her focus has been first to improve staff culture and second to improve student culture.

Last year, the average teacher missed seven days of school, she said. That’s more than twice as high as the AF network goal, which is three absences per teacher.

“It was a tough year for us” last year, Poynter said. (She wasn’t at the school at that point.) “People were burnt out and exhausted.”

Poynter reported improvement on that front. Wednesday was the fifth day in a row that teachers had perfect attendance, she proudly announced. The school has 27 teachers serving about 330 kids in grades 5 to 8.

Poynter said this is the first year that teachers at Amistad Middle are being asked to turn in lesson plans, so that their coaches and supervisors can check them and offer feedback.

“This is becoming a staff that is very comfortable with feedback and accountability,” she said.

In another highlight, Poynter recounted how staff, beset by a “brutal winter” that led to many snow days, worked together by conference call on one of those snow days, turning a wasted day into a productive one. Poynter said the school is making a big effort to improve student reading skills, which had slipped in recent years.

Rebecca Good, principal of Elm City College Prep Middle School, gave the second report. She is the most veteran principal among the five New Haven charter schools. Good joined Elm City in 2006 as a founding teacher and became principal in 2009. She reported progress in a difficult area: staff retention. Good recalled that in her early years as principal, she had to replace a large portion of her staff each year due to high turnover.

Now, “I’m excited about staffing,” she reported: Over 85 percent of her teachers are planning to return, she said.

Good offered another highlight: In a recent check, Good found that 84 percent of kids had their homework ready. Students are given two hours of homework a night, and sometimes have to stay for mandatory study hall, which takes place after every school day for 30 to 40 minutes, she said.

Among challenges, Good said the school has trouble recruiting parents to parent meetings. And students are reeling from a recent homicide, in which two half-brothers were shot just a few blocks away from the school. Some students are family members of the victims, Good said.

Harp quietly listened to the reports—a regular feature that New Haven’s school board, which has 44 schools, does not offer.

Principals in New Haven’s school systems rarely speak at their school board meetings. A couple of them sat in the audience Monday night as the superintendent discussed plans to overhaul their schools.

Charter Champion

Harp briefly became the center of attention Wednesday when Pat Sweet, who works for AF and for the Northeast Charter Schools Network, gave an update on the political landscape for charter schools. Sweet began by thanking Harp for the work she did in her 20 years as state senator.

As state senator, Harp was supportive of Amistad Academy, the first AF school. She was instrumental in passing legislation to enable AF to open Elm City College Prep in 2004 under a second charter. Harp later helped the school expand the maximum student enrollment and has supported AF along the way.

“If Mayor Harp had not fought so many battles for charter schools, we would not be here today,” Sweet said.

Sweet gave a political wrap-up from Hartford: This legislative session is not a “do-or-die” session for charter advocates, she said. They are “just trying to hold the line on funding,” which next year will be $11,000 per pupil. Sweet said she is concerned that several “stalwart” charter supporters—Republican state Rep. Marilyn Giuliano, House Minority Leader Larry Cafero, and Democrat state Sen. Ed Meyer of Branford—are retiring at the end of this year. State Sen. Andrea Stillman, chair of the legislature’s Education Committee, is also retiring. Sweet called Stillman’s record more “mixed” on charters, but Stillman recently helped AF secure funding for its new Amistad High School building, which is under construction on Dixwell Avenue.

“We need to look carefully at who is going to fill those seats,” Sweet said.

Sweet also reported that New Haven state Sen. Gary Holder-Winfield may get appointed as co-chair of the Education Committee. And New Haven state Sen. Martin Looney is in line to become president of the Senate.

“That’s good news, right, Mayor Harp?” Sweet asked about Looney.

Harp replied with approval.

Harp listened to other updates:

• AF is part of a Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation-funded project in which established charter school management organizations like AF are helping small charter operators, especially those run by minorities, start new schools.

• A new program aimed at developing principals is going well, reported Amistad Academy board Chair Hamilton. The program began four or five years ago, after some rough transitions in leadership and some principal selections that did not work out well, she said. AF now places aspiring leaders in a two-year “residency,” where they work in schools and train to be principals, before actually taking the job. So far, 176 people have been through the program. One third have become school leaders; others have returned to the classroom with extra expertise.

Donation “Requirement”

The joint meeting broke up at 7:10 p.m. The Elm City board members went downstairs. Harp stuck with Hamilton (at left in photo) and her new colleagues on the Amistad Academy board. She heard from parent activist Khadijah Muhammad about a meeting she held with New Haven Superintendent Garth Harries, in which three charter school parents asked Harries for more of a voice in how the school system is run. Harries invited the three parents to send representatives to various groups, including the Citywide Parent Leadership Team, an organization of parents from New Haven public school district schools, she reported.

Harp reviewed a detailed financial report, which included these highlights:

• Overall, the $13.5 million budget for the Amistad Academy schools (the elementary school, middle school and one third of the high school) is in good shape, with a slight projected deficit of $13,592 as of the end of February. The budget includes $2.1 million in philanthropic dollars, without which the deficit would be much larger.

By comparison, Harp learned Monday that New Haven’s public school district is still digging out of a $3.5 million hole discovered earlier this year in its $392 million budget: Superintendent Harries has identified $1.8 million in new cuts that would essentially finish closing the gap. Harp has publicly criticized the superintendent for not offering enough detailed financial information at board meetings; she has called on the board to take a more active role in overseeing the budget.

• Enrollment is full at the elementary and middle charter schools, while the high school has 12 vacant seats because fewer Bridgeport kids enrolled than was expected. Charter schools are funded on a per-pupil basis based on how many kids are in the seats on Oct. 1. New Haven’s state funding is linked to student population through a complicated algorithm that weighs other factors, so that high-poverty cities get more money per pupil than wealthy towns.

• There were fewer performance bonuses issued to charter school staff this year than expected. The bonuses, funded by the federal Teacher Incentive Fund program, are part of a new evaluation system that grades teachers based in part on students’ growth on test scores. Staff at the elementary and middle schools did not receive bonuses this year, while staff at the high school received a total of $285,917, according to a budget document.

Teachers at New Haven schools do not receive performance-based bonuses; they are being offered extra stipends to become “super tutors” and other roles.

Another major difference in the two school boards: Achievement Firsts’ charter boards have a clear role as fundraisers, as many not-for-profit boards do. Hamilton announced a new system that will track board members’ attendance and their participation in the organization. Just as teachers are facing extra accountability, board members will, too, Hamilton said.

Hamilton mentioned one requirement of being on the board—donating money. Board members, especially parent and teacher representatives, can give as little as they wish, she said—“even five dollars.” There is a “100 percent donation requirement” of board members.

“Please give as much as you can,” she said.

Harp, the newest board member, immediately grabbed her black purse from under the table. She quietly wrote out a $100 check made out to Amistad Academy.

Harp has said her unique role as a member of both a charter school board and the public school system board will enable her to share information with both sides. Her first impression, she said, is that New Haven’s board offers more “comprehensive” information from a bird’s eye view. The charter board meeting, with its principals’ reports, gives “the ability to get more in-depth info from those who are on the ground doing the work.”

On her way out of the room, Harp stopped a woman who was putting away materials from the meeting.

“Are you staff?” Harp asked.

Yes, the woman replied.

Harp handed the woman a folded-up check. “This,” she said, “is my donation.”

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posted by: robn on March 28, 2014  1:19pm

Not all non-profit Board’s of Directors have a fundraising role. That’s usually more emphasized in smaller, non-revenue bearing NPs like arts organizations. Missing from the financial analysis in this article is a per pupil cost comparison with public schools, including the portion of cost born by fundraising as opposed to public reimbursement.

I’d also like to know the reasons for such large churn in faculty.

As for the mayors $100 donation; I’ll leave that little chestnut for other commenters.

posted by: THREEFIFTHS on March 28, 2014  4:31pm

When you take the kings meat.You must do the king bidding.

posted by: THREEFIFTHS on March 28, 2014  4:40pm

My Bad I forgot this.The real deal on Charter Schools.

Infographic: Why Corporations Want Our Public Schools
Where’s the big money in privatization? Take it from the teachers.


In the rush to privatize the country’s schools, corporations and politicians have decimated school budgets, replaced teaching with standardized testing, and placed the blame on teachers and students.
Document Actions
by Dean Paton


posted by: concernedcitizenNewHaven on March 29, 2014  8:08am

When a mayor says, “Our high schools don’t work” at a Board of Education meeting one wonders how many schools she has been in.

She insulted not only teachers, who all put in their best effort to make the schools of New Haven work, she insulted every single graduate of New Haven public schools.

Our students have gone on to many things from being happy raising a child all the way to graduating from the most prestigious colleges and universities in the world. Yes, some students didn’t graduate from New Haven schools (some went on to get their GEDs and some went on, to well, other things), but the majority (more than 50%, as statistics show…last year’s graduation rate was 70%) did graduate. How does that prove that our schools are not working?

I encourage Mayor Harp to stop listening to whomever she is listening to and come into our schools so she can see us just sitting there, facing the whiteboards doing no work. Only then can she claim that we are not working.

posted by: Callisto on March 29, 2014  8:14am

Funny that there are no public representatives on the charter board(s) but our publically funded school board is rife with charter advocates. The fix is in. The invasion is on. Privatization is here. The standardized computer testing regimen controlled by Gates et al is being “field tested” at our expense right now. The charter movement has failed in New York leaving the most segregated public school system in the country in its wake (http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2012/05/11/nyregion/segregation-in-new-york-city-public-schools.html?_r=1&). The writing is on the wall. We are next.

posted by: SteveOnAnderson on March 29, 2014  9:28am

“AF is part of a Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation-funded project in which established charter school management organizations like AF are helping small charter operators, especially those run by minorities, start new schools.”

You know what else is a Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation-funded project? Common Core and the restructuring of public schools. I gotta go Three Fifths on this one: Wake up, people.

“While exact numbers are hard to pin down, since 2008 the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has spent at least $2 billion…on efforts to ‘reform’ America’s system of education by promoting charter schools, pushing the use of standardized testing, lobbying for teacher evaluation programs based on student’s standardized test results and other corporate-driven initiatives.”

And in New Haven? Gates’s Million Will Build Teacher-To-Teacher Network:

I’m not surprised about Mayor Harp’s championing charter schools, and I think all of the major mayoral candidates would have done the same thing. It’s deeply disappointing. We need a real progressive candidate to run for mayor—one who will take stands for the city and its people and not just govern in the interest of private capital accumulation.

posted by: THREEFIFTHS on March 29, 2014  6:33pm


You hit is out of the park.Read this.

New York Schools: The Roar of the Charters
Diane Ravitch


posted by: Nashstreeter on March 29, 2014  11:52pm

What struck me about this story is the fact that Amistad Middle has 27 teachers for 330 kids. That’s about 12 students per teacher. My guess is that practically every teacher in the NH Public School system would kill for a class that small.

And then we see that the NHPS has to cut another $1.8 million from it’s budget. Toni should give her $100 to the public schools and try to get the state to direct the Amistad money to public education. Maybe then our so-called “failing” schools would have a fighting chance to reduce their teacher/pupil ratio down to 1:12.

posted by: Bishop on March 30, 2014  4:33pm


The ratio isn’t the problem. Charter schools actually get less per-pupil funding under the ECS formula than public schools spend in New Haven ($10.5k v. roughly $16k). The difference is that there are fewer entitlement protections for teachers in charter schools - no bad teachers with tenure you can’t remove, no massive sick day banks, etc. On top of that, NHPS still gets funding for the students served by charters even though they don’t attend NHPS schools.

Bigger challenge for NHPS is entitlement reform, hiring flexibility, etc. I worked in NHPS a while back, there were teachers there at the top of the pay scale running lunch duty because principals didn’t trust them with kids but they couldn’t be removed. TEVAL is a start, but its fundamentally insufficient. Furthermore, the idea of assistant principals on “special assignment” is something that’s well known as a money suck within NHPS. Incompetent administrators who can’t be removed is an egregious waste of taxpayer dollars.

posted by: canadachris on March 30, 2014  5:40pm

Bravo Mayor Harp. My child attended a NH Public School and had a terrible educational experience. He is now in a charter school in New Haven and is thriving. $392 million budget is outrageous let alone a $3.5 million “hole” in the budget. Can you imagine how many excellent charter schools this amount of money would fund? The NH schools need a complete overhaul, starting with the school board. One culprit never mentioned in these discussions are the schools of education in our universities. They are simply cloning stations that seek to maintain the status quo.

posted by: THREEFIFTHS on March 30, 2014  6:29pm


How come the charter schools are afraid of this.They going to do this contract in New York.

The Charter Schools Act.

1. STUDENT RIGHTS – Charter schools MUST be required to retain Special Ed and
ELL students. No longer push out, counsel out or expel them out of the
2. PARENT RIGHTS – Every charter school board MUST have a parent
board member who is the President of the school’s independent parent
3. BILL OF RIGHTS – There MUST be a universal Parents Bill of
Rights and Students Bill of Rights for charter schools.
PARENTS ASSOCIATION – Every charter school MUST be required to have an
independent parents association.
5. CO-LOCATIONS – The state MUST develop a
better process in determining co-locations in public school buildings in New
York City because it is pitting parents against each other.
Part One.

posted by: Nashstreeter on March 30, 2014  11:17pm

Class size isn’t THE problem with what ails our school system. But it’s neverless critical—not financially (tho correcting it would be expensive)—but in terms of the quality of education. Especially, since NHPS is required to take on the difficult-to-educate kids that the charters can exclude, the smaller the class, the more likely there will be more successful educational outcomes.

I know it’s the trend these days to blame the “bad” teachers, but I’d prefer to focus on how they got that way. In the case of the administrators, I would tend to blame a decades-long culture of buddy nepotism and politicking in the superintendent’s office, combined with a hands-off attitude from mayors seeking to maintain a reliable base of support.

As for the teachers, I regard the “bad” ones as those who have lost all hope of a rewarding career and the respect that should go with it. I take it as a given that anybody who belongs to a union is responding to being under attack and needs the strength of their co-workers to survive. And the more picky and demanding the union’s negotiated work, seniority and sick leave rules become, the clearer it is how little respect and autonomy the workers get in their jobs.

As for “entitlement,” I think that’s basically a code word for “un-earned”—reserved for those who are seen as un-deserving. In the case of teachers, what you call an “entitlement” is a rule that prevents a teacher from being fired for belonging to the wrong political party, like they used to do in the old days. Things like banking sick days can get a person through months of chemo or weeks of surgery and rehab. “Entitlements” are what should be a given in any civilized professional job, but aren’t in the case of teachers and other under-valued public employees. Teachers have had to fight hard for these protections. And in this new charter school model of hiring temps and firing at will, the future of teaching as a profession does not look rosy.

posted by: Minivan mama on April 1, 2014  4:16pm

Will Harp be donating $100 to each of the public schools in New Haven?   
Let the teachers do their jobs, their job is to teach not oversee test prep.  Bill Gates should go make his money somewhere else, don’t use NHPS children as an experiment.  They are children not lab rats. Parents wake up! Your kids are getting the short end of the stick.