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.
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.
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.”