After parents objected they were kept in the dark about a “disappointing” plan to move Hyde magnet school to Hillhouse High, schools Superintendent Reggie Mayo agreed to reconsider.
Dawn Gibson-Brehon (at left in photo), a “football mom” at Hyde magnet school, raised several concerns about the proposed move at Monday night’s regular school board meeting at 54 Meadow St.
The exchange was one of two times Superintendent Mayo came under criticism Monday for the way he deals with parents.
The rebukes came at a time when Mayo and other officials have declared an intention to involve parents more in school reform.
Gibson-Brehon, an active and effective parent leader, appeared at the board meeting Monday with fellow parent Antoine Jackson (pictured above). They both have kids at Hyde School of Health Sciences and Sports Medicine, a small interdistrict magnet school camped out in a Hamden swing space.
Gibson-Brehon objected that the first time she heard of the district’s new plans for Hyde was in this March 19 Independent story. The story reported the district is applying for city and state funds to build a 20,000 square-foot addition to Hillhouse High to house the Hyde magnet school. The $41 million project, $17 million of which would be paid for by city bonds, also includes renovating Bowen Field at Hillhouse and installing new turf at the Wilbur Cross High School athletic field.
Beaver Hills neighbors said “hell no” to the proposal at a public meeting on April 20 of the aldermanic Finance Committee. They cited concerns about traffic, the loss of green space, Dumpsters, and gang rivalries.
In the public comments section of Monday’s school board meeting, Gibson-Brehon added to that list. (Click here to see the letter she read to the board.)
She said moving next to Hillhouse would result in a “loss of identity” for Hyde, which just received a magnet grant in 2010 to focus on sports medicine and health sciences. She recalled that the district’s old plan was to give Hyde a permanent home on the site of the former Martin Luther King School on Dixwell Avenue. Kids would have had their own building, walking distance from Bowen Field.
Gibson-Brehon said parents are “disappointed” in the proposal to annex Hyde to another school.
“We feel this new plan would jeopardize Hyde’s ability to build its own identity,” she said.
She also took issue with the district’s move to take away money allocated toward the Hyde building and put it towards renovating athletic fields at Cross and Hillhouse. She said the school needs more support for its new magnet theme. The school “doesn’t have enough space, science equipment or supplies for next year,” even as the district expects the school to add science classes and boost enrollment.
Finally, she took aim at the district’s omission of parental involvement. There were no neighborhood or parent meetings regarding the proposed move, which would take place in 2016. Gibson-Brehon said unlike other schools her other kids attend, Hyde does not have a building committee comprised of architects, administrators, teachers and parents to advise the school construction project.
She called that fact “extremely problematic.”
She questioned the district’s claim on its website that its $1.5 billion school construction project has a “high degree of community involvement” when parents were left out of the loop.
“Where is the transparency?” she asked.
“We don’t believe that reading about the school’s construction plans in the the New Haven Independent first before receiving any information from the district is the best way to build parent confidence or support.”
The Independent story was based on a proposal submitted to the Board of Aldermen as part of the budget process. It was approved by the citywide school rebuilding committee, whose meetings few members of the public typically attend.
Gibson-Brehon called on Superintendent Mayo to work with parents to come up with a new solution. She suggested the campus of Southern Connecticut State University as a potential building site. And she asked that the school move forward with creating a building committee.
Superintendent Mayo (pictured) listened and agreed to reconsider the plan.
“We’ll go back to the drawing board,” he said.
Mayo said he was out of town during last week’s meeting when public outrage emerged. He said he has since followed up with Beaver Hills Alderwoman Claudette Robinson-Thorpe, who rallied neighbors to show up to that meeting and speak up about the plan.
Mayo said the original plan to build a new home for Hyde would have cost $60 million. As the district looked at saving money, officials noticed that Hillhouse High is under-enrolled by 300 students, he said, so the possibility arose that Hyde could become “a school within a school” at Hillhouse.
Mayo said the principals of Hillhouse and Hyde were consulted on the move. He said the district was not able to inform parents or hold public meetings about the proposal because it was under a time constraint to get the request in to the Board of Aldermen and the state. He called the move a proposal, not a decision already made.
He said he would set up a meeting within the week with aldermen and others concerned about the move. He didn’t say the district would abandon the proposal, but “we will be sitting down and going to the drawing board” in search of a new solution.
“We’ll work out something for Hyde,” he pledged.
Earlier in the evening, a board member rebuked Mayo for how he dealt with an angry parent at another school.
The board member, Alex Johnston, intervened in an ugly back-and-forth Mayo had with a pre-K parent. Johnston urged Mayo not to get so personal in his remarks toward parents who come before the board.
Maurice Holness (pictured with fellow parent Danielle Hamrick) addressed the board to air “concerns about day-to-day operations” of Head Start and “the quality of parental engagement” in the program. He said parents on the Head Start Policy Council are not given enough input on matters like the budget or school food.
“The higher-ups in Head Start really monopolize the decision-making,” he said. Holness urged the school board to intervene. “This is our last resort.”
Mayo responded by publicly airing Holness’s personal history with the district. He said staff has made great efforts to meet with him, answer questions about how Head Start is run, and make special food accommodations for Holness’ son because of a religious diet. Mayo said he has spent “literally hours” with Holness. Mayo began to recount how Holness’ son was isolated from his peers at lunchtime at his father’s request.
“I think this is getting a little personal,” Holness objected.
Johnston stepped in to mediate after Holness got into a heated exchange with board member Susan Samuels, both of them interrupting each other.
“I am really troubled by this whole exchange,” Johnston said.
“Dr. Mayo, I’ve heard what you have to say,” Johnston said. But he said Mayo should not have brought up the context surrounding Holness’ kid. The parent “expressed concern in a general way” about Head Start, and then “the conversation took another turn.”
Mayo sits with the board during meetings and often answers public comments, though he is not a member. Mayor John DeStefano, who is a member of the board, was absent from the meeting.
Johnston said he hopes other parents in the room won’t be dissuaded from bringing up concerns to the board because of the way Holness was treated. “I don’t want to get into a situation of challenging people” in front of the board.
Holness ended on a bitter note: “Thank you for giving me the opportunity for Dr. Mayo to attack me and my child.”
“The board has asked me not to respond,” though “I would love to,” Mayo said.
Earlier, Mayo said the parent had “humiliated” school staff, despite all efforts to help him.
Mayo ended the exchange by turning to Johnston.
“I’m sorry,” he said.