“Look at the ACCUPLACER,” the newest member of New Haven’s school board told her colleagues.
They were discussing the fine points of a state law that will affect hundreds of city high school students—a law she had voted on, and a topic she has studied in depth.
The new member was Toni Harp—who is also New Haven’s new mayor, a position that automatically gives her a seat on the seven-member board.
Carpooling with Superintendent Garth Harries, Harp traveled to Hill Regional Career High School to participate in Monday night’s meeting. She offered a first glimpse of what kind of education mayor she might be—engaged, like her predecessor, and tuned in to the details.
Before a larger-than-usual crowd for a board meeting, including charter-school proponents present to push her on their issue, Harp sat down at a nameplate that read “Toni N. Harp.” Harries sat next to her and pointed out key members of his staff. Harp already knew many of them, like schools wraparound services czar Sue Weisselberg, who worked at the Capitol while Harp was a state senator.
Thus began a much-watched chapter of Harp’s mayoralty. Harp replaces 20-year Mayor John DeStefano, who in the latter part of his mayoralty became the architect of and driving force behind a nationally watched school reform effort. As Harp takes over, educators, advocates and observers have wondered: What role will she play in governing the schools?
In arriving to the mayor’s seat, Harp has inherited many works in already in progress. She inherited labor contracts recently settled by the teachers and administrators unions—contracts that carry on key elements of DeStefano’s four-year-old school reform drive, including a new way of grading educators based in part on test scores. She inherited a four-year-old effort to grade all schools and overhaul some failing schools each year as “turnarounds.” And she inherited Garth Harries, who took over the school district in July on a one-year contract.
Harp’s entrance alongside Harries Monday signaled she is willing to work with him. And her remarks at Monday’s board meeting gave the audience a taste for a new leadership style.
Harries arrived at City Hall at 4:45 p.m. Monday, as reporters from at least five news outlets were awaiting Harp’s entrance to a 4:30 p.m. press conference about a problematic nightclub. He chatted with her staff and waited for her for half an hour. Then they headed to Career High in the same car. Throngs of people who don’t often come to the meetings—including charter school advocates, students, aldermen, and dozens of school administrators—showed up to check out Harp’s first performance inside the school library.
Harp sat down quietly at the front of the room and waited for the meeting to start.
When the meeting started—about 15 minutes late, as usual—Harries welcomed Harp. He asked members of different constituencies—parents, students, administrators, advocates—to raise their hands. School administrators outnumbered all the rest.
Harries, who takes charge at board meetings, even though he doesn’t sit on the board, began with some announcements: The schools are publishing a new school choice guide on Feb. 3 that will include all city schools, not just the magnets. And he has been meeting with some student leaders about their priorities for the district, including making sure there’s enough money to pay for Advanced Placement tests.
Then Harries dived into a major policy change he said has not gained the public attention it needs: Public Act 12-40.
That’s a new state law concerning college remediation. The law directs state colleges and universities to end remedial classes, pushing the burden of remedial education back to the high schools. The law takes effect this year, in the fall semester.
That means current high school seniors who want to go to Gateway Community College in the fall—the most common destination for college-bound seniors in New Haven public schools—may be barred access if they don’t pass entrance exams in English and math. Gateway won’t offer remedial classes anymore.
“This is a big deal,” Harries said.
The law aims to address a problem: High schools aren’t turning out graduates with the basic skills they need to succeed in college. The burden of bringing them up to speed falls to colleges. Students who start out in remedial education are more likely to drop out, ending up frustrated and in debt.
The change affects a lot of students: 89 percent of New Haven Public School graduates who attend Connecticut public colleges and universities need to catch up in English and math before they can start earning credits, according to one “startling” recent study. That includes “remedial” courses, which will be discontinued, as well as “developmental” classes, which will still be offered.
Harries announced that to brace for the upcoming change, the district has partnered with Gateway to start offering those remedial math and English classes in New Haven high schools.
Students can now take these new remedial college math and English classes instead of their normal classes senior year, explained Dolores Garcia-Blocker, the district’s newly promoted head of P-20 learning (the pre-K to career pathway). She said the effort aims to align high school standards with college standards.
Harp, who had been listening quietly, spoke up.
“I wonder how the curriculum would be different” in the remedial classes instead of the normal high school classes, Harp said. “And do we have a way of knowing that that enhancement class will get the young people to where they need to be to pass” the entrance tests at a higher level?
Garcia-Blocker answered her. If high school seniors pass the courses, they will automatically be eligible to enroll at Gateway in the fall, she said.
“We are offering the exact course that Gateway would be offering to these students if we were to go there and need the remedial course,” Garcia-Blocker said.
So, “if they pass the class, they go right to coursework in the fall?” Harp asked.
Yes, came the answer.
In a conversation like this one, DeStefano would typically hang back and then drop in with a big question. He would ask staff to get moving on a broad policy and let school staff sort out the details. His major contributions—getting the state to fund a $1.6 billion school rebuilding initiative; recruiting American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten to draft a teachers contract that became the blueprint for a reform effort—were often grand in scale. At times, he got intimately involved in the minutiae of school reform—such as reading the Washington, D.C. teachers contract and boning up on new ways to evaluate educators—but he usually took a more big-picture approach to overseeing the schools.
At the school board Monday, Harp jumped into the details more than DeStefano typically did. Harp—who passed the law that the school board was discussing—drew on her 20 years as a state senator to add her piece to the conversation.
“I think it’s really important that you do take a look at the ACCUPLACER,” she said at one point, referring to the college entrance exam. “Different community colleges have pass rates set at different points,” she said.
In a public comment portion of the meeting, Harp accepted official welcomes from the heads of the administrators union and Delta Phi Kappa, a sorority of African-American female educators.
And she heard a message from Varick Memorial AME Zion Church Pastor Eldren Morrison, who has emerged as the face of the local charter school movement backed by the watchdog group ConnCAN.
“We thank you for the promises that you made around education,” Morrison said.
The “promises” he was referring to came an October campaign event, at which the Achievement First charter network organized parents to meet with Harp at one of its charter schools and ask her to sign a pledge.
Harp pledged to “support the growth of high quality seats for New Haven’s children through the opening of 3 new schools annually, including high-performing charter schools.”
Too many minority kids are failing in schools, he said, and the waiting lists are too long for schools of choice.
Morrison is seeking state support to open a charter school called the Booker T. Washington Academy next fall.
ConnCAN made big preparations for Harp’s first day. The organization conducted a telephone poll of 400 New Haven households, compiled a video, and recruited parents and other advocates to show up to Monday’s meeting. No other charter advocates besides Morrison spoke Monday.
After the meeting, Harp said she supports Morrison’s proposed school. She said she would be willing to send a letter of support to the state, but “it’s a state Board of Education decision.”
She was asked what her relationship will be with charter advocates.
“I’ll have an open door to everyone,” she said.