They set out to invent a new kind of school. They created a national model—then failed to keep up with a changing student population. Their school hit the skids, only to reemerge with a new plan and new support to make a fresh start.
“They” are teachers at New Haven’s High School in the Community (HSC). They made headlines in the 1970s by creating a new kind of teacher-run school “without walls,” where students’ schooling melded into city life and teachers went by first names. Decades later, HSC’s performance fell so low that the state rushed to support an emergency “turnaround.” Starting with the first day of the school year Wednesday, HSC is reemerging as a new kind of idealistic experiment, with teachers still at the helm.
How did the school soar, plummet, then start over again?
A state audit and a 65-page plan released this month give a frank look at how that happened.
A teacher-run school since its inception in 1970, HSC two months ago became the city’s sixth school tapped to undergo a dramatic overhaul as a “turnaround.” The 250-student magnet school on Water Street is now part of a new network of schools the state aims to help recover from high dropout rates and low test scores.
As a turnaround school, HSC got special permission to replace staff, extend the school day, and break away from direct school district management. In a move that defies national trends, the school became directly managed by the teachers union.
Forty-two years after its founding, HSC now finds itself on the brink of another gutsy experiment—to ditch the factory “assembly-line” that automatically promotes kids through high school.
“We want to continue to be the school that is pushing the thinking” about public education, said Erik Good, the school’s building leader (aka principal).
Teachers With First Names
The school’s roots trace back to a group of teachers who broke from Hillhouse High School in protest of the administration’s “clampdown” response to racial conflict, according to a history written by the late Matt Borenstein, a longtime HSC teacher who took a turn as school leader.
Teachers landed a one-year grant from the Mott Foundation to set up a new “school without walls.” When the school launched in 1970 with 100 students in an abandoned car-parts store, teachers took their students out into the world, holding classes in community spaces. In the early years, the school camped out at a firehouse, the basement of the Strauss-Adler Bra and Girdle Factory on Olive Street, and the Dixwell Community “Q” House.
HSC also landed a federal grant, which gave it flexibility to work outside the confines of local school district bureaucracy.
Teachers got rid of “all the things we hated about traditional education: grades, calling teachers by their last names, bells, attendance, the same schedule every day, and no attention to cultural and political diversity,” wrote Borenstein in a chapter of the book When Workers Decide: workplace democracy takes root in North America.
In the early days, HSC students were “either adventurous outcasts or academic outcasts,” wrote Borenstein.
By 1978, the federal government was holding up HSC as a national example to be replicated around the country.
The school in 1995 became an interdistrict magnet school with a “service, activism and social justice” theme. Enrollment swelled to 300, then 350, with a quarter of kids busing in from the suburbs.
A turnaround plan HSC submitted to the state in July recounts how the project fell from that height. Erik Good, the teacher elected by his peers to lead the building, was the lead author of the plan.
“At the strongest points in its history,” HSC was a place where a strong, vibrant team of teachers had the freedom to innovate and give students a “first-rate education,” wrote Good. Students “fit this model – independent-minded, intrinsically motivated, willing to play an active role in their individual education and in how the community functions.”
Choosing To Go Elsewhere
However, as more magnet schools opened up, HSC’s “typical” students began to choose other schools. At the same time, the school earned “a reputation for success in working with students with extreme challenges,” and began to draw in many students with special needs.
Over the years, the student body began to “include more and more students with need of intensive academic remediation in addition to social and emotional development,” Good wrote.
Over the past five years, white, suburban kids stopped choosing the school, and the number of kids qualifying for or reduced meals, a measure of poverty, shot up from 52 to 88 percent. Meanwhile, the number of students with disabilities grew from 11 to 19 percent.
Teachers launched “small-scale” efforts to help these new students, but as a whole, the school failed to adapt to the “slow but inexorable change in population,” Good wrote. “Consequently, outcomes have declined in virtually every traditional measure of student and school success.”
“In recent years, as the school’s identity and reputation have changed within the development of New Haven’s magnet program, HSC has faced increasing levels of absenteeism, tardiness, and academic disengagement,” Good wrote.
Enrollment hit a seven-year low last academic year, with 243 students, according to the state. The school is starting out the year with 250, which means it will probably drop off to below last year’s level by the end of the year, Good predicted.
A July 20 state audit quantifies the decline.
Since 2006, HSC has had trouble retaining students throughout their high school careers, the state found.
“Ninth grade students do not consistently stay the full four years and graduate,” reads the report.
Only 63 percent of students in the Class of 2010 made it to graduation in four years, according to the state. That’s about average for the district.
The annual dropout rate in 2009-10, the most recent year for which the state has data, was 5.5 percent.
Four in 10 kids were “chronically” absent, meaning they missed at least 10 percent of school.
In five years, the number of sophomores reading at grade level fell from 22.4 to 8.7 percent, according to the Connecticut Academic Performance Test. Science scores sank, though writing scores rose and math scores stayed roughly stagnant.
Three state auditors visited the school for clues to the decline. Because of the rushed timeline of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s new plan to rescue failing schools, they didn’t have time to see the school in session. They visited in early July, after school was let out. They talked face-to-face with 22 district leaders, teachers, union representatives, parents, teachers and students.
Auditors also checked out the schools’ own surveys for hints.
The surveys showed only 55 percent of students reported “feeling good about this school,” and only 40 percent reported “caring about this school.”
Good remarked that the “poor physical condition of the school,” combined with students’ “belief that they do not have resources equivalent to those offered at the new magnet schools,” contributed to students feeling that way.
The test scores and surveys led the district to downgrade HSC from a middle-performing Tier II to a Tier III school in the district’s three-runged ranking system.
Through the changes, the surveys show that the team spirit with which teachers started the school is still strong: Teacher satisfaction with building leadership and their “sense of support and empowerment as professionals was almost universally in the Satisfied to Highly Satisfied range” on the surveys, Good reflected.
The surveys flagged a shortcoming: Teachers weren’t getting enough training.
Professional development for teachers was “inconsistent” in structure and content, the audit found. Auditors concluded the school had failed to give teachers enough time to plan lessons together or enough support or tools to teach different types of students.
The audit found the school didn’t have an effective system for communicating between school and home; needs to do more to support kids social and emotional needs; didn’t make enough use of data in the classroom; and that the school schedule didn’t give kids enough time on task.
A “high percentage” of kids were earning failing grades, auditors said, evidence of what they called “improperly aligned course offerings.”
The audit also found the school’s “infrastructure is poorly maintained, including insufficient spaces for students and community use, scarce technological resources or upgrades, and inadequate maintenance of basic school facilities.”
Good and his coworkers took the advice in stride.
No More “Freshmen”
Good (pictured), who’s 40, is a teacher who’s been leading HSC for the past two years. His teachers reelected him to a second two-year term as “facilitator” in the spring. Over the summer, amid a redefinition of roles, he got re-dubbed “building leader,” to create a clearer management structure.
Good will now lead the turnaround of the a school that’s dear to him—it’s the only one he’s ever taught at in his 12-year career. Good, of Wyoming, graduated from Yale College in 1994 with a agree in theater studies and German; he later returned to Yale for his master’s in teaching. He started student-teaching at HSC and never left. He lives in the City Point section of the Hill.
After the school was tapped as a turnaround, Good took part in a panel of teachers, union officials, parents and administrators that re-interviewed all the staff at the school. All teachers had to reapply for their jobs; as a result, one third of the staff left. The school has 34 teachers now.
On part-time teachers’ pay, because there are no official, 12-month administrators at HSC, Good and his colleagues worked over the summer to put together a plan for the upcoming year.
The biggest change will be that freshmen won’t be called “freshmen” anymore—they’ll take part in the “foundation level” of a new competency-based learning system, where they can move up only if they show mastery of certain skills. Read more about that here.
In his 65-page application to take part in the state’s new Commissioner’s Network of turnaround schools, Good outlined a three-year plan to respond to the concerns outlined in the audit.
He proposed $1.7 million in new state money to pay for the changes, allowing the school to:
• Hire a truancy officer or “parent liaison” to help with chronic absenteeism.
• Hire former Wilbur Cross teacher Chris Kafoglis as a new “academic coordinator” focusing on student achievement.
• Hire a magnet resource officer to boost student enrollment.
• Hire a full-time substitute teacher, to cover classes when teachers are away at trainings.
• Pay teachers to stay after school an extra hour each day, four days a week, for training, planning, and, twice a week, mandatory after-school catch-up sessions for students. Teachers will also show up four days early for the school year, and stay four days after it ends, for prep work and data analysis.
• “Rebuild the identity of the school” as an “Academy for Law and Social Justice.”
• Upgrade technology, including: Smart Boards, iPad carts, Macbooks and iPads for teachers, iPads for students, computers, and in Year 3, a Mac computer lab.
Based on the application, the state Board of Education approved the turnaround earlier this month. HSC will receive between $1 to $1.5 million to pay for the overhaul, according to state Department of Education spokesman Jim Polites.
Teachers returned this week to start getting ready for the year before students return Wednesday.
“Returning students will notice the change in staff,” Good said. “Some of their favorite teachers are not going to be here, and there are going to be some new teachers they’re going to have to get to know.”
They’ll also notice new paint on the walls, and sparkling floors waxed by star custodian Licia Altieri, who got transferred to HSC from Nathan Hale when the city privatized a third of the school cleaning workforce.
Good acknowledged the year ahead will be an experiment. Staff will need to adapt the plan along the way.
“As big and daunting as this is, I’m ready to do the things that work,” he said, and “scrap the parts that don’t work.”
As a leader, he said, “I’ve never been afraid to fail.”
He said he’s entering the year “a little anxious,” and wishing he’d had a little more vacation time to rest. He’s looking forward to the challenge.
“This is the school that I always wanted us to be and always thought we could be. How could there be anything but a tremendous amount of excitement going into that position?”
Past Independent stories on High School in the Community: