Toni Harp called for reinstituting a 160-day attendance rule at James Hillhouse High School—and in the process took a swipe at one of her rivals in the mayoral election.
Harp, one of five Democrats running to replace retiring 20-year incumbent Mayor John DeStefano, made the remarks in a press release issued Tuesday. The missive represents her most direct attack so far on Hillhouse High Principal Kermit Carolina, a fellow African-American mayoral candidate who is vying for many of the same votes as she—and who has been attacking her forcefully in recent weeks.
She released it on the same day that her campaign issued a fund-raising email message entitled “Toni is under attack: Let’s defend her!” “Donate now to reward Toni’s integrity and punish Kermit’s dishonesty,” it urges. A second section accused Carolina and another candidate, Henry Fernandez, of being “bullies.” It faults Fernandez for pressing criticisms of Harp for supporting a state budget deal that included expanding Keno electronic gambling to city establishments. “Donate now to stand up to them,” the release urges.
In her press release Tuesday, Harp called for all city high schools to adopt a “160-day rule.” The rule, instituted at Hillhouse High by former Principal Lonnie Garris, holds kids back a grade if they miss more than 20 days of school (“with exceptions for medical conditions and other serious circumstances”).
Carolina ended that policy after he took over the high school in 2010.
Harp recruited Garris (pictured) to help build a case for the 160-day rule—and therefore, against Carolina’s leadership.
Carolina dismissed the critique. “Her attack lets me know that she’s threatened by my presence in this race,” he said. “She and her campaign are realizing there a lot more people out here who support my candidacy than she originally thought.”
Garris, who retired in 2010, is quoted in Harp’s release claiming that the 160-day policy led to a 10 percent increase in attendance. Kids showed up to school more when they were threatened with being held back, the logic goes.
“It was born out of necessity, and it was an excellent policy,” Garris said in the statement.
Harp first sent out a release blaming Carolina for an alleged 20-point drop in the graduation rate, from 61.2 to 41.8 percent. Then the campaign revised the release after the Independent pointed out a factual error. Harp’s release had gotten its years mixed up: The drop in graduation rates took place under Garris’ leadership, not when Carolina took over.
District data show the graduation rate actually rose by 12 percentage points under Carolina, from 41.8 percent in 2009-10, before Carolina took over the school, to 53.5 percent in 2010-11, to 53.9 percent in 2011-12.
After the Independent pointed this out, Harp’s campaign issued a second press release revising its attack: This time, the campaign charged that Hillhouse’s average graduation rate under Carolina is lower than Garris’ average graduation rate.
“We can do better, and our kids deserve better,” said Harp, who’s a state senator. “We can implement a 160-Day rule that keeps our kids in school and keeps them on track to graduate. Not every absence is truancy, but struggling parents should get the support they need to make sure their kids are in classrooms. We need to show that we’re using the best policies and that they work for all of our kids. Every child deserves a fair chance.”
Her release ignores the fact that, beginning with the Class of 2010, the state overhauled the way it calculates its graduation rate. The new rates give a more honest appraisal of the true graduation rate, resulting in lower rates all around. Read about that here.
Harp’s campaign also referenced a report by attorney Floyd Dugas that investigated allegations of transcript-tampering at Hillhouse under Carolina’s tenure. Harp cited Dugas’ report, which found that one student-athlete at Hillhouse had moved up to senior year despite missing 45 days of school.
Carolina replied that many students in the school—not just student-athletes—were promoted despite missing more than 20 days of school.
He said when he took over as principal, he reviewed policies that Garris had implemented. The 160-day rule was not required by the New Haven Public Schools: The city school board policy says “a student may be retained in a grade with an absence of 20 or more days from school,” not must be retained.
Carolina took issue with the rule on two fronts: First, “I thought it was unfair to kids first and foremost because there are a number of extenuating circumstances that need to be dealt with on an individual basis.”
Second, he said, the rule “takes the power away from teachers.” The teachers’ contract “clearly states that teachers shall be the expert in determining the grades of a student and whether the student has met expectations,” Carolina noted.
Finally, Carolina said, Garris “didn’t even enforce his own rule.” More than 15 percent of students who graduated in 2010, in Garris’s final year, missed over 20 days of school, Carolina said.
Carolina (pictured) served a three-day suspension in connection to the transcript-tampering probe. He is fighting the punishment through a labor grievance; an arbitrator is set to rule soon on his case, he said. He has maintained his innocence in the case: Click here to read a document outlining his defense.
Carolina swung back at Harp and Garris.
He said when he took over Hillhouse, “there were a lot of things I had to clean up here at the school that had gone unattended to.”
“I’m disappointed in Garris’ attempt to join the Harp team in the effort to discredit my hard work at Hillhouse. If anyone knows the difficult challenges that a leader faces in changing a building like Hillhouse, it’s Garris,” Carolina said. “I’m disappointed that he has allowed himself to be used by Harp’s campaign this way.”
Carolina noted that despite other declines in satisfaction on school surveys, parents gave positive feedback: 78 percent responded favorably about the school, which was a couple of points higher than the district average for high schools. Ninety-one percent of parents said they feel the environment supports learning.
He charged that Harp’s 20 years at the state Capitol have left her out of touch with New Haven.
“When has Toni Harp ever cared about what happens in the New Haven Public School system?” Carolina said. “I don’t know if she’s ever been in Hillhouse High school, much less any other high school in the city, to show concern.”
“She’s been missing in action for way too long,” he said.
“Her own children didn’t attend public schools. They went to private schools,” said Carolina, whose son attends Hillhouse. “For her to try to give the appearance that she’s concerned about people in public schools is absurd.”