“Troubling” Stats Prompt Call To Action

Melissa Bailey PhotoFor every 10 New Haven middle-schoolers, nine say they want to go to college, but only five actually go, and only two get a degree.

Schools Superintendent Garth Harries (pictured) unveiled those numbers Monday night as he announced some early conclusions he has reached since taking over the public school system on July 22.

Mayor Toni Harp called the statistics “dramatic and frankly very troubling.”

The numbers came as Harries released a report stemming from a “listening tour” in which he heard from hundreds of people in a series of weekly meetings from September to December. The report recaps what he heard on that tour and outlines the direction he aims to take the city’s nationally-watched effort to improve its schools.

Click here to read the report and click here for an accompanying letter.

Harries shared some details of the report in an interview Monday afternoon, then unveiled it publicly at the school board’s meeting Monday evening at Hill Regional Career High School.

The report offers two big ideas. First: The school district’s four-year-old reform effort has been too focused on top-down “accountability” and not enough on shared responsibility. Second: New Haven needs to focus not on “proficiency”—being “good enough” in reading and math, as measured by the federal No Child Left Behind Act—but on “preparation,” ensuring kids are ready for the next step in life.

In his letter, Harries made two numerical observations that highlight a lack of preparation.

First: He said 88 percent of students in grades 6 to 8 reported on a survey that they want to go to a 2- or a 4-year college. But only 71.4 percent of the Class of 2013 graduated from high school in four years. Only 70 percent of the Class of 2011 enrolled in college in the first two years after graduating from high school. And only 23 percent of the Class of 2007 earned a college or technical degree, Harries wrote.

“What does this mean? For every 10 middle school students, nine say they want to go to college, but only five of those students actually go, and only two get a degree,” Harries wrote.

“These are stark numbers. They should shock us. But they shouldn’t surprise us,” he wrote. The numbers are on par with the national average, he said, but they are still unacceptable, because kids have the potential to do better. “The vast majority of those students can fulfill their dreams as they state them.”

Kids’ performance in middle school gives a hint of what’s to come, Harries wrote: Of this year’s 7th- and 8th-graders, 44 percent had a D or F on their transcript by the end of the 2nd quarter of the current school year, Harries said.

“These numbers should spur us to action,” he wrote.

Harries outlined a new set of priorities—but no specific actions—for what to needs to change.

Harries proposed the following objectives:

• Students need to master basic reading before they enter 2nd grade. Harries offered two main suggestions on how to ensure they do: Hold kids back for a year if they are struggling with reading. Or shrink class sizes for young learners—possibly at the cost of maximizing upper-grade classes that are under-enrolled. Class sizes in lower grades are at the maximum allowed by contract, while they get smaller in the upper grades. He said that’s the opposite of suburban towns, which often have smaller class sizes in lower grades, where smaller class sizes are shown to matter most. (Click here to read a full story about those proposals, which Harries floated publicly last month.)

• Ensure students “demonstrate maturity of personal development” by the end of middle school. He’s talking about skills like resilience, self-discipline, and perseverance—skills that, research shows, are more important than SAT or IQ scores in predicting long-term success. Harries suggested teachers start focusing more on these skills with their students. Students might start assessing themselves on these skills, Harries said. He stopped short of endorsing any specific method, such as a character report card employed by schools in the KIPP charter network.

• Make sure students are on a path to succeed after high school. This means students need to “master foundational skills”—such as pre-algebra—“before they find themselves in college remediation,” Harries said. He said the district needs to address its high-school attendance rate. Currently,  high schools have a 90 percent average attendance rate. That’s on par with the national average, Harries said, “But what employer would accept someone who missed one day [of work] every two weeks?”

Schools May Ditch “Tiering”

Harries also called for revisiting a system he created of grading all city schools. For three years, the system has placed every school into one of three “tiers” based on student performance on tests, school climate surveys, graduation rates, and how graduates fare in college. Harries said upon reflection, he feels the system focused too much on “accountability” and not enough on support. The system failed to give low-performing schools extra help, Harries conceded. And it failed to take into account the different populations that different schools face, he said. He called for a more equal distribution of students and resources among schools.

Harries said he finds one aspect of tiering—the overhaul of some low-performing schools as turnarounds—to be valuable. He suggested New Haven continue with plans under way to overhaul two more schools where kids are struggling: James Hillhouse High School and Lincoln-Bassett School.

Harries’ announcements stirred an unusually broad-reaching discussion at Monday’s school board meeting.

Board President Carlos Torre (at left in photo) said he agrees with Harries that the district needs to stop focusing on “proficiency” and start focusing on making sure kids are prepared.

“Proficiency” is the baseline level of math and literacy by which the federal No Child Left Behind Act held schools and districts accountable. It’s a lower bar than “goal,” a measure of whether kids can do work at grade level.

Torre said New Haven started focusing on “proficient” because the media kept reporting test scores only by the “at goal” measure, and that made the district look bad, because very few kids were meeting that threshold.

“What we need to worry about is not so much public relations,” Harp replied, but whether kids can reach their goals. “If proficiency doesn’t mean that a person can have a goal that they can achieve, then … we’re really not taking them where they need to go in our society,” she said.

“The fact that we have these numbers”—two of every 10 kids earning post-secondary degrees—“frankly, are embarrassing,” Harp said.

She called for the district to raise its expectations. “If little slave children could learn to read by reading the Bible, then we can teach our children to read.”

Board member Alex Johnston pressed Harries to act with more “urgency” and to focus more on individual schools as the “unit of change.” To say that every high-school kid needs to be on a path to success means nothing until there’s a concrete plan involving educators in a specific school, he said.

He said unlike successful groups elsewhere—such as Unlocking Potential in Boston—have made much more progress in turning around failing schools in a shorter time period than New Haven has with some of its turnarounds.

New Haven has launched six “turnaround” schools, where management can replace teachers and change work rules in effort to revamp failing schools: Hill Central School, Brennan/Rogers School, Domus Academy, Wexler/Grant School, Roberto Clemente Academy and High School in the Community. Most are being run by New Haven district staff; two are being run by outside organizations that operate charter schools; one is being run by the teachers union.

“Not all of the times that we’ve intervened to get something done have we actually moved it,” Johnston said. “It’s not true” that turnarounds take five years to show results, he said. “If you’re not seeing results in one or two years, you need to think twice about whether that intervention is strong enough.” (He later declined to say which turnaround schools he believes are not showing improvement; he said Brennan/Rogers showed early signs of progress.)

Harp said she agrees. “We have some of the best schools in the state,” and “there are some schools that need 80 percent of our attention.” She said her personal story—she was raised by great-grandparents who were not involved in her education—proves that schools can do the heavy lifting of teaching kids to read. “It’s really what happens in the schools.”

Harries plans to continue discussing this report on a new listening tour. The first stop will be on Wednesday, March 26 at Wexler/Grant School. The time has not yet been set.

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posted by: connecticutcontrarian on March 11, 2014  2:25pm

Why don’t New Haven schools have an advisory board made up of people who are actually involved in higher education and able to speak directly to the challenges students face in pursuing higher education? Not just college Presidents who need a way to justify their bloated salaries but student life personnel, admissions counselors, professors, disability advocates, etc. Is it school readiness? economic challenges? the need for more college prep courses? recruiting? There must be more to the equation than a useless tiering system that rewards schools for convincing parents to submit glowing survey comments.

It’s obvious that the business model approach to public education isn’t working. It’s time to reach beyond yale and focus on prepping New Haven students for success in college, trade schools, the work force, etc

posted by: Teachergal on March 11, 2014  6:03pm

Harries said upon reflection, he feels the system focused too much on “accountability” and not enough on support. The system failed to give low-performing schools extra help, Harries conceded. And it failed to take into account the different populations that different schools face, he said. He called for a more equal distribution of students and resources among schools.

WOW, about time. Teachers have been saying this for years. Our poorest students go to the lowest tiered schools. They need support NOT punishment. Thank you Garth for finally stating the obvious. And yes, the lower grades must have smaller classrooms if they are to succeed!

posted by: concernedcitizenNewHaven on March 11, 2014  6:29pm

This is the most troubling line in the whole article: “The numbers are on par with the national average, he said”

Then why the urgency? There is no urgency. We are doing just as well as every where else. Of course kids want to go to college in middle school BECAUSE all teachers and members of society do is say to them at a young age, “You want to go to college, right?”

Connecticut actually has one of the highest rates of degree holding citizens. Connecticut also as the highest rate of income disparity. The rich are very rich and the poor are very poor.

Kids do not need to go to college in order to live a full life. In fact, some of our most successful human beings NEVER GRADUATED (some never graduated from high school and some never graduated from college).

Don’t let Harries fool you. There is no crisis. There is no urgency. Comer was right: It takes a support system…not a punishment system.

posted by: Hooker Mom on March 11, 2014  7:53pm

@concernedcitizen I think your comments are right on. The one statement of yours I would call into question is which comment is most troubling; our newly elected mayor says, “If little slave children could learn to read from the Bible….” SMH.

posted by: 14yearsinNHandgone on March 11, 2014  8:08pm

Are any of these kids being educated about becoming successful in a trade, like being an electrician or a mason?

If not, why not?  New Haven is building this fancy trade school, right?  Why bother when you’re not even talking about it with kids?  If you set them all up to want to go to college, of course they will look down on learning a trade.

I work at Yale, in medicine.  The mason who came and fixed my brick wall drives a nicer car than I do and sends his kids to private school.  How about telling these kids about that?

posted by: anonymous on March 11, 2014  8:58pm

71% graduated
23% earned any degree within six years

= 16% (not 20%)

If you take out the suburban kids, or look just at the large high schools, the numbers are dramatically lower than 16%.

I’m not sure why anyone would think that 16% is “similar to the national average.”  In many of the suburban districts surrounding New Haven, these figures are more like 40-60%.

posted by: Teacher in New Haven on March 12, 2014  6:37am

Concerned Citizen,

The state average for college graduation hovers around 40%.  When we are hovering around half that, it represents a problem.  There is urgency because there simply aren’t enough jobs as masons and as carpenters and as electricians in this state to handle the 60% of state kids who don’t graduate.  More over, simple economics tells us that if we trained all these kids to the trades, then we would lower the wage they could command with that training. 

Most importantly as home to a significant proportion (if not majority) of the region’s African American and Latino students, we would be committing a grave racial injustice if we argued that our kids should have lower aspirations than the kids of Woodbridge.

Lets not fool ourselves.  We know where the jobs are in our region.  Most of the jobs we would want for our own children require a college degree.

posted by: Wikus van de Merwe on March 12, 2014  8:10am

I know this isn’t completely on-topic but it’s at the very least tangential, and maybe this is obvious and known, but parental involvement is one of the biggest keys to success for students. 

Am I correct in believing that students do not go to the schools that are closest to them and are designated a school by lottery?

The thought occurred to me that my neighborhood should likely be high demand with two elementary schools nearby (there are like 3-4 houses with kids out of like 70).  And that if parents had to navigate their way through NH, where a 2 mile trip takes 45 minutes, to get to their kids’ school they’d probably be a lot less likely to so.  And that all these kids moving around unnecessarily probably contributes a great deal to our horrible traffic problems (not to mention public employees traversing the city to hand deliver slips of paper).

I know we had some kind of deal with some other agency in order to get the money to build the schools but maybe the way we are doing this is detrimental to our kids and our city and that needs to considered.

Or maybe I have no idea what I’m talking about…

posted by: positive on March 12, 2014  9:39am


Respectfully, you don’t know what you are talking about.

Students can go to their neighborhood school OR they can enter the lottery to go to a magnet school. If they enter the lottery, they have priority at schools that are close to their house (and extra priority if they have a sibling already at that school).

The federal government was the “other agency” that provided most of the money for the new schools. Both magnet and non-magnet schools were upgraded through that program (Worthington Hooker is an example of a neighborhood school that got a new building).

posted by: KennethReveiz on March 12, 2014  12:33pm

Gov. Malloy has recently highlighted a push for college affordability, which I think is a crucial and missing component of this conversation.

People right now in New Haven are hustling like mad for $9/hr with erratic hours and little respect on the job. If they’re barely able to meet their monthly expenses how do we expect them to even think about paying for college?

So many youth and families aren’t able to afford college, and we need to have some real talk about that in addition to building inclusive school culture as well as a college-going culture that is honest about the opportunities that are out there and equips people to create more opportunities for themselves and others. New Haven Promise and Passport to Promise are fantastic steps forward. We need to keep pushing. As it stands also, undocumented students have no access to needs-based financial aid in state schools—even though they pay into the same pool of tuition revenue. Who are we leaving out of these conversations?

Meanwhile, in at least 40 countries, post-secondary education is completely free.

I hope that as these important discussions move forward and folks commit to this deep listening that we also commit to a sensitive economic analysis and work to address the intersections between good jobs, vibrant neighborhoods, and good education.

posted by: connecticutcontrarian on March 12, 2014  3:57pm

The magnet vs neighborhood distinction is much less transparent than Positive suggests. There are some neighborhood schools in New Haven that are ALSO designated as magnet schools. Although kids in the neighborhood are given preference,  they are not guaranteed a slot in that school. Efforts are made to place them in a neighboring school but again there is no guarantee. There’s also quite a distinction between schools like Worthington Hooker that have essentially morphed into publically financed private enclaves and Edgewood that serve a larger and more economically diverse “neighborhood. “

In terms of preparing NH students for future employment,  why isn’t foreign language education mandated in all K-8 schools rather than select magnet schools?

Finally, it’s time to seriously consider consolidation and creating true “middle schools”

posted by: JohnTulin on March 13, 2014  11:00am

“We have some of the best schools in the state,”


By what standard Mayor Harp?  Have you walked the halls of Cross or Hillhouse lately?  You don’t need to - just search ‘Wilbur Cross’ on YouTube.

posted by: equal-education-for-all on March 13, 2014  5:58pm

Only 20% of our graduating class obtaining a College Degree is a BIG problem, especially considering the competitive nature of the job market today. Keeping in mind that the products of our Schools are a huge economic indicator for the future of our City.  As a New Haven resident, parent, and teacher I can tell you that the key to our children’s success is offering quality Pre-K programs to all of New Haven’s students.  Kindergarten is the new first grade. Students with no Pre-K experience are not only at a huge disadvantage, they are a huge disadvantage to their whole class’s success. If a teacher has even a few students in their Kindergarten class that have not had any Pre-K, the effort that is expended just trying to catch them up, takes away from the whole class. New Haven can not afford to not offer at least one year of Pre-K to all of it’s residents.  Offering Pre-K to just the students who “win” the lotto is not enough.  It is also unacceptable to give away 30% of the Pre-K seats at our top performing Schools to students from the suburbs, who in turn leave our Schools after Kindergarten 50% of the time. Once they are done using our free all day services they return to their own good Schools. Not acceptable when most of their families can afford to offer their children a Pre-K experience.  The point is most suburban children aren’t the children at risk of not attending College.  They for the most part come from generations of family members that attended College.  Getting to attend Pre-K at our Schools is not going to “make or break” them for life.  New Haven children, for the most part do not have the luxury of knowing or being related to an abundance of people with College degrees.  They can not afford to be turned away their own Public School System. Even though we get money from our federal and state government for each suburban student at our School’s, I believe we can not afford the loss of a seat for one of our residents who I assure you, needs it more.

posted by: FHResident on March 14, 2014  7:48am

Hooker Mom, what Major Toni Harp comment meant is that back then children desired to want to read, today’s generation of school children need to be as motivated as then when the bible was the most popular book to read. Today we have so many books and so called book fairs in the school kids are just not finding reading interesting anymore therefore I encourage for the motivation and fundamentals to Start in the home. I have three boys two in high school, Wilbur Cross and Eli Whitney and my third is in Jepson, I’m not sitting at home waiting for the school to teach my kids to read, the reality is that teaching begins at home and if a parent can’t provide the quality time to their children in helping them improve whether is reading, writing & even with development and or behavior, let’s not blame our teachers lets evaluate how much quality and productive time we are spending with our children daily, our guarantee you parents as well as the educational system will see a great improvement.  Remember the BiBle is a story book of great stories lets not criticize religious beliefs let’s respect one another thoughts and comments in a civil manner.