A new plan for Hillhouse High calls for hiring two new principals to run schools-within-a-school, separated by physical barriers, and shifting half of the student body away from the supervision of Principal Kermit Carolina.
That proposal is outlined in applications for a state grant money submitted by New Haven school officials this month.
Attached to the proposal is an audit detailing long-standing problems that make a case for overhauling the school.
New Haven is asking for $1 million in state money to revamp the physical building and the academic program at Hillhouse. The request includes $500,000 in state bonding to build two lab spaces—a “Fabrication Lab” and Design Shop with a 3-D printer and other equipment; and a Public Safety Lab equipped with a firefighter’s pole—to fit the new schools’ themes.
The state money would supplement a proposed $1.7 million plan to hire 10 new teachers, four new administrators, and a host of new technology to staff two new autonomous academies at Hillhouse.
The IDEA Academy and the Law, Public Safety and Health Academy would each be led by a principal, a project director, a dean of students, and a team of teachers assigned only to that academy. They would operate independently but would technically still be part of Hillhouse High.
The idea isn’t new: Just four years ago, Hillhouse created four “small learning communities” as part of a different state-funded turnaround plan. Those academies never became true schools-within-a-school, Harries said, in part due to space limitations and a lack of teachers.
The new plan calls for scrapping the existing “small learning communities” and creating new academies that would have more autonomy and a stronger academic theme, Harries said. The plan calls for hiring two new principals this month to begin work on the academies, which would start this fall with 240 students in the 9th and 10th grades; each would grow to include 480 students in grades 9 to 12 in a self-contained school.
Carolina, who currently oversees the entire Hillhouse High School, would be put in charge of an “Upperclassmen Academy” comprising just the 11th and 12th grades, according to Harries.
The point of the proposal is to make Hillhouse an attractive choice for kids instead of a default option. Harries said the new academies aim to give kids a “personal experience” with classes that relate to their lives.
“We want Hillhouse to be a place where students are well-known” and receive “purposeful, meaningful and deliberate instruction,” Harries said.
Harries stressed that the plan submitted for the state grant is not set in stone; the proposal may change.
In an interview this week, Carolina endorsed the changes.
“We’re at the next phase of our school transformation,” he said.
The new plan comes on the heels of an internal audit that revealed low levels of classroom rigor, concerns about high absenteeism, and some dissent among teachers about a lack of “unity” among staff. The audit makes the case for why Hillhouse, a 960-student comprehensive high school, needs a dramatic overhaul. A team of school system higher-ups, led by Director of Instruction Iline Tracey, conducted the audit by visiting the school and reviewing data on April 2 and 3.
Click here to read the audit.
Hillhouse scored “proficient” (a 3 out of 4) for its “leadership effectiveness,” student behavior, family engagement, support of special populations, and the existence of adequate instructional time. It scored “developing” (2 of 4) in most other categories, and “below standard” in student attendance and in differentiation of instruction to different levels of kids.
Hillhouse, founded in 1859, is “noted for its athletic achievement,” the audit begins. Its graduation rate and other academic data are “trending up,” but it remains one of the state’s lowest-performing schools on standardized tests.
The audit notes some troubling statistics: For every 10 students who enter the school, fewer than six finish in four years; 42 percent of kids are chronically absent (missing over 10 percent of school days); and 69 percent of kids have a D or an F on their transcript.
A series of classroom visits found that students were “ritually compliant” and learning “passively,” the audit states. “The level of rigor was average. There is a sense of sacrificing content to maintain order.” Teachers asked students “yes or no” questions instead of challenging them to think hard.
Most teachers “were observed doing all the work,” instead of running a student-focused lesson. “Some students reported that the material is recycled from middle school and that the work is not challenging.”
In some classes, students were “engaged in their work.” One did not want to leave the room before finishing the task at hand. In others, kids were bored.
“I disrupt a certain class because it is boring, and I was never that kind of student,” one student told auditors.
“Staff did not take responsibility for the lack of learning or failure,” the audit found. “Both students and teachers alluded to the content being watered down.”
Teachers are respectful to students, the audit found. “However, there is a dynamic of not wanting to demand too much from students for fear of upsetting them.”
“Most teachers in this building have high expectations for kids,” Carolina responded in an interview this week. “Unfortunately, there are teachers in this building who need to develop” higher expectations.
“We have some teachers who are in need of serious improvement,” Carolina said of the concerns about academic rigor. “We’re working very hard to address those issues. That’s part of the transformation at Hillhouse.” He said the low-performance of a few teachers should not reflect poorly on the “majority of teachers” who are doing their job well.
Carolina and teachers interviewed for the audit cited rampant student absenteeism as a major obstacle to teaching kids.
Teachers said kids’ chronic tardiness and absenteeism means they fall behind and have trouble catching up.
Carolina shared some recent stats at this week’s citywide “Youth Stat” meeting: 440 students have been tardy at least 20 days this school year. Twenty-five kids have missed over 20 days of school. Student attendance hovers around 88 percent, as it has for several years.
“Most of the failures are the product of an empty chair,” Carolina said at the meeting. He said the school has trouble tracking down parents, because their cell phone numbers change and they are “disengaged” from their kids’ education.
A small survey of students gave auditors mixed reviews of the school. One student reported, “I love the school because teachers care, and the principal has high expectations for us”. Another said she wants to transfer out because “the work is too easy.”
The audit rates the school’s “leadership effectiveness” as “proficient.” It cites positive feedback from parents, and places emphasis on factors outside of the control of Principal Carolina (pictured at a recent gathering of high-school role models and middle-schoolers) control—common challenges of running a comprehensive urban high school.
Unlike magnet and charter schools, Hillhouse accepts mid-year transfers the entire year. It is the default school for kids who live in the western half of the city and who fail out of other schools or strike out in the magnet lottery.
The school has a “revolving door” of students, and the “gangs, drugs and gun issues” in the community spill over into the school, the audit states. The audit notes that Hillhouse has become a dumping ground not just for students but also for teachers and administrators who struggle in other environments.
Teachers most often join the school late in the summer. The district sends them to Hillhouse when they are displaced from other schools. When Carolina took over in 2010, the school had four “displaced administrators,” two of whom have since been “removed,” the audit states.
Carolina said he has brought higher expectations to Hillhouse and has faced some pushback from some staff.
“There’s been some resistance to the changes in this building. There’s a higher expectation for more to be done,” he said. “In years past, the only expectation that some had for this building was to keep a cap on the problems in this building”—in other words, make sure kids didn’t fight. “This is a different mindframe.”
Carolina this year hired two new administrators, Zakiyyah Baker and Heriberto “Eddie” Cordero, who are leading the freshman and sophomore academies. The audit reports that the school is doing better at evaluating teachers, and has a more cohesive administrative team, with those new leaders in place.
Teachers interviewed by auditors cited concerns about how the school is run.
Teachers reported that they don’t get any school-wide professional development or time to collaborate with staff from different grade levels.
“Teachers seem anxious about the central body of authority [of the school] and cite there is no unity,” the audit also found.
Carolina later replied that that remark “does not reflect the opinion overall of teachers in this building.”
Teachers also expressed concern not only about student tardiness, but about making sure kids are in class when they do show up. “Even students who come to school are often not in class, according to a few teachers interviewed.”
Carolina said the school has made huge strides, including in boosting its graduation rate, reducing the number of suspensions, and increasing parental involvement under his tenure. He acknowledged the school still “has a long way to go.”
2 New “Academies”
After outlining these challenges, the district made a case for why the state should invest $1 million in revamping the school.
The plan asks for $250,000 to train and hire staff for each “academy” and another $500,000 to outfit the physical space. Each academy would start this fall with 120 freshmen and 120 sophomores.
The Hillhouse IDEA Academy would focus on “Innovation, Design, Entrepreneurship, and Action.” It would aim to “unleash the inventor, designer, entrepreneur and technician that exists within our students.” Students would do lots of hands-on projects that “connect learning to real-world problems.”
The Hillhouse Law, Public Safety and Health Academy would target students who want to become cops, firefighters, or other law enforcement officials, or work in homeland security or health care. Students would study topics like forensics, computer security, hydraulics and criminal psychology.
Students in the two academies would get a lot of extra time in school. They would start with a four-week summer session, take just a two-week summer break, then return to Hillhouse for a two-week orientation before school. Students in the two academies would attend school for seven hours per day. Twice a week, students would stay after school until 6 p.m. in a career-focused program.
Each academy would be headed up by a principal—likely two of the assistant principals already working in the school. The school has two “principals on special assignment,” Leroy Williams and Andre Duprey, who plan to retire this summer from $130,000-plus jobs, freeing up some money that could pay for the internal promotions.
Harries said creating new principal positions at Hillhouse would create an important career pathway for rising leaders within the schools. He said the new principals would not report to Carolina; they would be principals of their own schools. Carolina would be in charge of the Upperclassmen Academy, which would work to prepare 11th and 12th graders for college and career. That academy would be phased out as the IDEA and Public Safety academies grew to include the upper grades.
All three “academies” would still be part of Hillhouse High in name, but school district proposes physically separating them through new partitions and separate entrances.
That has prompted some concern that Hillhouse would lose its sense of identify and family.
Michelle Edmonds-Sepulveda (pictured at the top of the story), president of the school’s PTO, said she doesn’t have a problem with the physical barriers. But “I want to make sure that it remains a whole school.”
She said parents are already talking about ways to hold joint parent events so that Hillhouse “maintains its identity as one school.” She said she also believes that Hillhouse should retain one leader who oversees and works with the principals of the academies—which is contrary to the plan Harries described.
Students in all three academies would still be part of Hillhouse and would play sports on the same teams, according to Tracey.
Harries said he has heard concerns that splitting up Hillhouse would take away its identity.
“We want to celebrate Hillhouse’s long history, while recognizing that kids may need a personal experience,” he said.
Edmonds-Sepulveda spoke up at a recent school board meeting, protesting that parents were not consulted on the grant application submitted to the state.
Announcement of the new plans also drew some criticism from teachers in a meeting two weeks ago, according to a teacher present in the room. Some teachers expressed a feeling of déjà vu: Just four years ago, they learned of a rushed plan to split the school up into four smaller parts; why scramble to do that again to try to chase new money? Others expressed skepticism that the plans to significantly change the school’s physical plan could realistically be complete before the fall.
Harries responded that the district was working under a tight deadline to send in the grant applications, and plans to include parents, teachers and students in the planning process going forward.
“We want to include parents, we want to include teachers,” he said, “but ultimately we need to be at a place where Hillhouse continues to rise.”
He said the grant applications do not give a definitive picture of what changes will occur at the school; it is “one version” of potential changes there. He said the school system will move forward with some version of those plans if it strikes out on the state grants.