Students and teachers at a “turnaround” school got a double lesson in democracy: They voted to overturn a ban on hats and hoods in hallways, only to see top district officials swing back against their claim to newfound decision-making.
The vote took place Monday at High School in the Community (HSC), one of the district’s “turnaround schools,” which theoretically receive extra autonomy to set rules and experiment with new ideas as part of New Haven’s heralded reform initiative.
Rickey Traynham (in top photo) was one of 233 HSC students and teachers who took part in the special election. They voted overwhelmingly, 191 to 42, to overturn a dress code prohibiting kids from wearing hats and hoods inside the school’s hallways and cafeteria.
The vote came on the heels of a formal debate in which students weighed their constitutional rights to free expression against the school’s right to curtail disruptive behavior. HSC leader (aka “Prinicipal”) Erik Good agreed to open up the question to a school-wide vote—and abide by the results, provided that the “powers that be” didn’t intervene.
That turned out to be a big if.
The plan hit a snag later Monday when schools Superintendent Reginald Mayo announced major reservations about letting HSC change its dress code.
The question then ignited a spirited debate at the school board during a special meeting Monday evening. It posed a challenge: Just how much autonomy is the district willing to give its new turnaround schools as part of school reform?
Reform Rhetoric Vs. Reality
HSC is a public school in New Haven’s school district. But under a turnaround experiment aimed at overhauling one of the city’s lowest-performing schools, HSC assumed new management over the summer. It is now allegedly run directly by the teachers union instead of by the district’s central office. The school has taken advantage of that freedom to let teachers rewrite curriculum, reinvent what “freshman” and “homework” mean—and reexamine school rules.
Mayo said Monday that changing HSC’s dress code would take the school’s autonomy too far. He warned against creating a “loose environment.” He insisted that all schools abide by a long-standing rule in the student handbook that bans kids from wearing hats and hoods in school except for medical and religious purposes.
“Even with a turnaround, you still are beholden to the Board of Ed,” Mayo said. He said he plans to meet with Good and teachers union leader Dave Cicarella Tuesday in search of a “middle ground.”
Mayor John DeStefano, meanwhile, stood up for the school.
“On that one, I would disagree with Doc [Mayo],” DeStefano said, asked about the hat vote before a special meeting of the school board at 54 Meadow St. Monday evening. (The meeting was called about another matter, an update on the proposed sale of the old Martin Luther King School, not about the hats.)
He said the issue boils down to one question: “What are the limits of autonomy?” He tackled that theme recently in a speech at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C.; he used thatl platform to send a message home that the school district central office needs to “relinquish power” to local schools and parents and teachers.
You have to draw a line somewhere in granting schools autonomy, DeStefano acknowledged Monday night. He said allowing hats in the hallway “doesn’t seem to me to fall across the bright line.”
Mayo warned against letting one school out of 48 skip out of a district policy. “What kind of message does it send” to the rest of the schools when one school can bend the rules? he asked.
The majority of board members backed him up.
The schools need to examine “lots of security issues” before we “go with the whim of letting the children” decide whether they can wear hats, argued board member Ferdinand Risco.
“I’m against the hats,” said Myra Jones-Taylor, the board’s newest member. She said kids shouldn’t be allowed to wear them unless there’s a “clear cultural logic” behind the rule. Board member Liz Torres agreed.
Board member Alex Johnston (pictured) spoke up in favor of letting the kids’ vote stand. He said there’s a whole network of schools in New York where hats actually bring students together—every student wears a yellow baseball cap. If the district is going to create turnaround schools, it needs to let the schools establish their own culture, he argued.
“If everyone else can understand why they want to do it, then why not?” he asked.
The “I Forgot” Exception
Susan Samuels (at left in above photo), who wore a winter hat for the duration of the 10-minute board meeting, said she opposes letting kids wear hats in school. She said the only exception should be if a student puts on a hat directly before exiting the building. She said the same should go for adults at the school board.
Asked why she was wearing a hat, she said she “just came from a meeting” and “forgot” to take it off. She said her hat-wearing fit into her exception, for people who are about to leave a building: “I’m dressed to go.”
Will Clark, the schools’ chief operating officer and an attorney by trade, warned against letting a turnaround school start opting out of district policies.
“Which policies do you allow them not to vote on?” Clark asked.
“I say we stick by the longstanding policy,” Risco agreed. He said you can’t give a turnaround school “carte blanche” to change rules.
Turnaround schools are supposed to have more support from central office, not more autonomy, Clark added.
Board member Mike Nast (pictured) agreed. When students go out to the workplace, he added, they won’t be allowed to wear hats.
As he left the meeting, Johnston elaborated on his reasoning for supporting the teachers and students: “If you are a turnaround, part of what we’re saying is you need the scope to do things differently,” he said. He said other schools can understand that HSC is a “special situation” with its own culture.
He added that the matter falls under the purview of the superintendent, not the school board.
Superintendent Mayo said the student handbook, which contains the hat ban, is a combination of policies directly approved by the board and administrative directives that did not come from the board. He said he didn’t know the origin of the hat ban.
A Vote For “Freedom”
Meanwhile, back at HSC, students have already been enjoying some wiggle room: Inside school classrooms, teachers can decide whether to let kids wear hats. In the hallways, hats and hoods are prohibited, thought the rule is “unevenly enforced,” Good conceded.
Students from Jack Stacey’s elections class took the matter to the voters Monday through paper ballots they created and distributed throughout the school. At around 9:30, students dispatched to classrooms to collect the ballots.
Student Gloria Cruz knocked on Gail Emilsson’s science class and gave students one last chance to vote.
Alex Robinson (pictured) filled out votes for president, U.S. Senate and U.S. House of Representatives, then turned over the ballot to answer the referendum question. A “yes” vote supported hats in hallways.
Alex, who was wearing a warm winter White Sox cap, voted “yes”—“of course.”
“If you just do your work, it shouldn’t matter” if you’re wearing a hat or a hood, he reasoned.
Inside Paul Jones’ science lab, Alexus Martin (pictured) agreed.
“I don’t see a harm in wearing a hat in the hallways or in class,” she said.
At the end of the period, Rickey (pictured at the top of this story) donned an Orlando Magic baseball cap in the hallway between classes. He said he usually sports one of four hats in school. His other hats promote the Yankees, Reds or the Raiders.
“It’s not distracting nobody from working,” he said.
Some students didn’t agree.
Junior Paul Corda said the school isn’t doing kids any favors by letting them dress down in school.
To prepare for the real world, he argued, “you’ve got to show you’re professional. You’ve got to show you’re mature.” He said the referendum avoided the real question at hand—whether hats should be allowed in the school at all. (He thinks they shouldn’t.)
Dabar Ratupenu (at left with tutor Judy Zurkus), a new student who recently immigrated from Indonesia, also voted “no” on the referendum question. He said students in Indonesia aren’t allowed to wear hats in school.
Back in Jack Stacey’s classroom, students tallied the votes around 10 a.m. The class divvied up the ballots into small piles and started counting. Democrats Barack Obama, Chris Murphy and Rosa DeLauro swept the presidential, senate and congress races.
On the referendum, Anthony Savino predicted a landslide in favor of hats. “You should have freedom in the hallway,” he argued. In his pile of ballots, he discovered two “no” votes.
The “nos” probably came from teachers, the senior surmised.
Elsewhere in the school, however, some teachers defied that assumption.
Magnet Community Coordinator Cari Strand said she was “very convinced” by an argument student Josh Huelsman made during the school’s debate: “If we are a business environment, we are certainly a business casual one,” she paraphrased. She said she felt conflicted, though, because she didn’t want to create a tough transition between a hats-on hallway and a hatless classroom. She ended up abstaining on the referendum.
Good, a teacher elected by his peers to take on the duties of a principal, said he voted in favor of lifting the hat ban. He said the question boils down to whether hat-wearing is disruptive behavior.
“How disruptive to the educational environment is it to allow kids to wear hats in school?” he asked. Even if teachers don’t like hats, he said, “how do we decide whether to impose dominant cultural values on kids?”
He said changing school policy would require nuance—teachers should retain the right to ask a kid, for example, to “please take your hat off while talking to me” in the hall.
Later that evening, Mayo said he won’t outright deny the school from changing its rules, and he won’t get anyone in trouble.
“I’m not taking anyone’s heads off,” he said. In his meeting with Good and union President Cicarella Tuesday, he said he hopes to find a “middle ground.”
“I appreciate that the students are embracing their law and social justice theme and engaging in debate about ideas,” Mayo wrote in an emailed statement Monday. “We want our students to use critical thinking and to master the skill of effective communication. However, there is a process in place for setting district policy, which must be approved by the Board of Education. This particular policy has been in place for many years and has been followed by schools with little incident.”
Amid their good-natured disagreement Monday, Mayo passed his Blackberry over to DeStefano. On the screen was a photograph of DeStefano wearing a pirate hat that same day—inside the John C. Daniels School.
“See, you started it,” Mayo teased.
Previous Independent stories on High School in the Community:
• Students Invoke Free Speech In Great Hat Debate
• Guv: End Social Promotion
• History Class Hits The Streets
• “Misfit Josh” & Alex Get A 2nd Chance
• Guess Who’s Assigning The Homework Now
• On Day 1, HSC Students Enter A New World
• Frank Reports Detail Experiment’s Ups & Downs
• School Ditches Factory “Assembly Line”
• State “Invites” HSC To Commissioner’s Network
• Teachers Union Will Run New “Turnaround”