The question of how to get parents involved emerged as the biggest unsolved challenge of the city’s school reform drive as four would-be mayors debated for the last time.
All four candidates running in the Sept. 13 Democratic mayoral primary gathered Thursday night for the education-themed debate.
The debate was hosted by Teach Our Children and Youth UnleashED at The Children’s Community Programs of Connecticut, Inc. at 446A Blake St.
The debate featured Mayor John DeStefano and all three Democrats—Tony Dawson, Clifton Graves and Jeffrey Kerekes—who are challenging his quest for a record 10th term. All four candidates will face off in Tuesday’s primary.
Parental involvement emerged when the floor opened for questions from the audience. The topic has proved among the more challenging aspects of a wide-ranging effort launched in New Haven to overhaul public schools and close the achievement gap.
Kerekes suggested the city take some lessons from the Harlem Children’s Zone. Dawson called for creating a “contract” with parents. Graves called for more “sticks” in addition to carrots to encourage parents to do well.
Those comments drew a rebuke from Alderwoman Migdalia Castro, who objected to “throwing rocks” against parents.
DeStefano cited gains in parent turnout at Katherine Brennan School, and touted a program called BOOST that’s supposed to connect families with social science agencies.
The rest of the two-hour debate covered textbook supplies, the constitution of the school board, and how much a mayor should know about the school curriculum.
DeStefano started out on the defensive, with some pointed, personal exchanges with Kerekes, and ended with a call for unity.
Read the blow-by-blow in a live blog below:
6 p.m. Kerekes and Dawson are in the room. Graves’ younger brother is fixing the candidate’s orange and silver tie.
6:05 The mayor just arrived. He’s looking for some water before we begin. There are about 20 people in the crowd, including city Corporation Counsel Victor Bolden, criminal justice activist Barbara Fair, and several school administrators.
6:06 Kerekes fans have joined the room, complete with signs they were holding outside.
6:08 TOC’s Nilda Aponte introduces the group.
TOC was embroiled in some pretty ugly battles with the school district for a while over issues like translation in schools. Those public battles have subsided in recent years.
DeStefano takes a sip of water. He’s been campaigning on his record in the schools, and has made his nascent school reform program a major plank of his reelection quest. The crowd includes some pretty strong critics, as well as some supporters, like a few principals, school reform czar Garth Harries and schools spokesman Chris Hoffman.
6:15 Shirley Fullerton announces the rules: Opening statements will be limited to 3 minutes.
6:17 Graves opening statement: New Haven has made “baby steps” with school reform, but “we have a long way.” Says he knows of a student who wants to be a doctor, yet her physics book won’t be here until October. (He doesn’t say which school, because he sees administrators here.)
Graves calls for extending the school day [as the city tried at Katherine Brennan, but scaled back that experiment] and separating kids by gender in schools.
A lot more people are filling in, maybe 60 total.
6:19 DeStefano: New Haven has engaged in one of the most aggressive school reform efforts, period.
He goes through the main tenants of school reform—managing schools differently according to their needs; new teacher evaluations designed to help struggling teachers improve; BOOST, which is supposed to connect kids to social services; and New Haven Promise, the college scholarship program backed by Yale and the Community Foundation.
He mentions again a statistic he’s been using a lot—that the rate of improvement on standardized tests by New Haven high school students this year was two and half times the state average.
That statistic is true—as far as it goes. The gains were welcome news, but are quite small. New Haven students start far below the average student in the state, and the achievement gap is still wide. (Read more here.)
6:23 Dawson: DeStefano has done well with the school reform drive, but not with “transparency.” Need a hybrid board where some people are elected, not just appointed by the mayor.
6:25 Kerekes: 75 percent of kids are not reading at goal—that’s “unacceptable.” Mayor was long resistant to people calling for reform. Now he’s doing school reform, but not enough input from parents. “You had to drag him kicking and screaming” to listen to your ideas.
Kerekes to the mayor: “I’m glad you’ve finally come around to improving education. It’s very important.”
Superintendent of Schools Reggie Mayo has walked in, along with lots more folks. The desks here are full now.
6:28 Question: If you have to cut the schools budget, where would you cut?
Graves: Administrator salaries. Send some of them to the classroom as part of a plan to extend the school day.
Graves says he wouldn’t touch school supplies.
6:29 DeStefano: The most important support is in the classroom. Where I’d look to save money is employee health and pension costs, to have them more resemble the private sector.
DeStefano rails against Kerekes for missing facts. [Kerekes had said the dropout rate was 50 percent. I’m not sure where that came from—last we checked, it was 27 percent. Also: Unlike at the last debate, the mayor is getting prickly early, here, attacking Kerekes for his tone.]
“Leadership isn’t about tearing people down, it’s about bringing people together,” DeStefano tells Kerekes. “It’s unfortunate that we have to rely on a campaign that tears everything down.
6:32 Kerekes is getting personal now. He says if you’re going to talk about demeanor, why “throw cell phones” at your IT people when your phone isn’t working or yell at your press person for having lunch in front of other people? [He’s attacking DeStefano for “demeaning” his employees. I wonder how those employees feel about Kerekes going public with those anecdotes.]
6:34 DeStefano defends himself: All these comments and innuendos just “short-sell us for what we could be because of anger and fear.”
In response to a question about the constitution of the school board, DeStefano finds himself defending his appointed school board members as not pushovers, but credible experts in the field. [This is getting contentious pretty quickly.]
Dawson: Let TOC and Youth UnleasED have a seat at the Board of Ed. “We have to get some regular grassroots people on this board.”
6:35 Kerekes: There should be a hybrid board of ed, but it should be weighted toward mayoral appointees so that the mayor can get things done.
6:36 Graves: If you expand the board, how about appointing or electing a student to the board?
6:38 Question: How much of a priority is it to you to maintain and update school supplies?
Dawson: Take some money back from the firefighters who just endorsed DeStefano and put it toward the schools.
Kerekes: [He’s back to attacking the mayor here.] The mayor has an “entourage” who follows him around, wastes money on school construction overages instead of books.
Graves says the district should renegotiate better prices with providers of supplies.
DeStefano: When I took office, they were having classes in “closets and in hallways,” in buildings with leaky roofs. “I don’t apologize” for creating 35 new schools. “No school district in America can compare” “not only to how we educate these kids, but the kind of facilities we provide.”
Next question: How to revamp the school curriculum?
Kerekes: Need to spend money on teachers and classrooms, not on “bloated” budget with high-paid administrators.
Graves: The failing of the school construction program was that it doesn’t include a vo-tech school. The city needs to prepare kids for jobs, not just college.
DeStefano: New Haven has “one of the most aggressive and robust curriculums.” [He’s pretty fired up about defending the schools.] The state prevents New Haven from operating its own tech school, but we should be pursuing that with Hamden.
6:45 Question: How do you propose to hire, train and evaluate teachers and paraprofessionals?
Graves: I would stress that cultural competence be integral to teachers’ hiring and training.
DeStefano: Gives an impassioned defense of the city’s new teacher evaluation program, which has prompted some poor-performing teachers to leave. [The district still hasn’t released the numbers on this. Officials promise to do so at the next school board meeting.]
Dawson: The city needs more African-American teachers. (Gets some applause.)
Kerekes: Need to spend money in the classrooms. “Teachers are what makes it happen.”
Kerekes promotes a “come back home” program to incentivize teachers to move to New Haven and buy homes here.
6:52 Question: How can the city provide community learning centers?
DeStefano swings back against Dawson’s and Kerekes’ points. His wife and sister are teachers. “I don’t think where they live reflects their interest in a kid.”
“Race doesn’t define a teacher’s interest in the kids” either, DeStefano says. The best “community learning centers” are the schools, he says.
Dawson: Let’s concentrate one school on serving dropouts.
Kerekes: Agrees with Dawson that libraries need to be open later.
Graves: We need to support and expand community learning centers. Put new resources into these entities. Keep the libraries open later. Let’s reopen the ex-Martin Luther King School, which sits empty in the heart of Dixwell, to offer GED training for the reentry population. [He gets applause here.]
6:57 Audience questions open, with a warning: This will not become a circus.
The first question comes from Merryl Eaton (pictured) of Christian Community Action: What will you do to support parental involvement?
[Eaton runs a Parent Leadership Training Institute which has trained moms like Nilda Aponte to become advocates for issues they care about. After many years, the city and school district still have no formal relationship with the PLTI.]
Kerekes: City should model itself after the Harlem Children’s Zone, a New York charter school that offers a nine-week parenting workshop called Baby College for expectant parents, then supports families as their kids go through school.
Graves: Parents need a carrot and a stick. [He calls for more sticks.]
DeStefano: Let’s be realistic about programs, because in dire budget times there’s a limit to what we can do. The answer is in making schools comfortable and inviting to parents. Also: Let’s evaluate the city’s pre-K program and “carve out a way to engage parents” at that level.
Dawson: Hold parents responsible for kids’ behavior.
7:02 Question: What about recreation for these kids?
Graves calls for more after-hours and weekend activities.
DeStefano: A third of kids go to summer school and 3,000 go to summer camps. Chef Tim’s healthy food program feeds them well. Schools are open after hours and on the weekends. That said, “city government can’t do everything.” The city needs to coordinate with community groups who are already doing this work.
Dawson: Bring back physical ed to the public schools. [Dawson is the most brief of all the candidates. DeStefano, by contrast, keeps running over his allotted time.]
Kerekes: Some parents don’t know how to get kids into summer school. Too many Youth@Work jobs go to kids from the suburbs, he argues.
7:06 Questioner shares an observation: Mom of three kids says computers at schools have weak software offerings—no one gets a job because they know Microsoft Word. Poor curriculum, she says.
DeStefano: It’s worth knowing the curriculum and having schools show their improvement with school improvement plans. “That’s why I go to Board of Ed meetings.” It’s worth the time and effort to stay on top of what’s going on in the schools, he says.
[DeStefano didn’t always strike this note. When he was running for governor in 2006, he was the most truant member of the school board, where members missed 37 percent of meetings.]
Fair Haven Alderwoman Migdalia Castro: Candidates are “throwing rocks” at parents here. We need to give parents more chance to participate. What would you do to engage parents around New Haven Promise? [Castro is another graduate of Eaton’s leadership group.]
7:13 Dawson: Parents need to sign a contract about expectations for the school year.
Kerekes: We know which kids are showing up to school “dirty or stinky.” Let’s engage those parents. We need a system “that listens to them.” [He suggests the current administration doesn’t.]
[This is the biggest unsolved challenge of the city’s school reform drive. Top officials have acknowledged they still haven’t developed this component of reform.]
Graves: First priority is to empower the parent and help the parent.
DeStefano: Most parents do a good job. Most are effective advocates for their kids. How do schools engage them? He points to Katherine Brennan, which went from one of the lowest to the highest rates of parental involvement. [This must be based on turnout at report card night. However the school still failed to find any parents to serve on a PTO or to take part in a school governance council as required by state law. While the school made big strides this year, Principal Karen Lott has said parental involvement remains a huge challenge.]
DeStefano also touts BOOST, which is supposed to connect families with resources the city already has, without spending the money.
7:20 Kerekes: At Katherine Brennan, “they got rid of the people and started over.” “That’s what we’re asking you to do on Tuesday.” Replace the people with poor results—[like the mayor]—with fresh energy.
Question from Mario Callahan, a senior at Hillhouse High School who put on fine threads for the occasion. There’s a lack of emphasis on learning foreign languages. What will you do about this “crisis”?
Applause for Mario for how he presented himself—and a thumbs up from Mario’s principal, Kermit Carolina, who has supported Youth UnleashED’s organizing efforts. [Most of the members of Youth UnleasED come from Hillhouse, perhaps because of the welcoming environment there for kids who speak up, even in dissent.]
Graves: City kids need to learn Chinese. The city needs to incorporate more languages in the curriculum.
DeStefano: Are you a Promise scholar?
Yes, Mario says. [That means he’s aiming for a partial scholarship to in-state schools if he keeps his grades up.]
DeStefano: The question is really about preparing kids to work in the world. Ultimately, it’s about getting a job and having choice in your life. [That comes from a college degree, he argues. He’s making Promise a big part of his reelection campaign. The program is just starting to be phased in, with the first class of 110 students getting 25 percent scholarships to in-state public schools.]
Kerekes: Can’t promise more $$ for foreign languages, but he can promise more money for the classroom. We need to fix this problem, first: 51 percent of kids dropping out of school and lots of young kids can’t even learn. [This time Kerekes cites a report in Education Weekly on the dropout rate; I’m not sure what he’s referring to.]
7:31 Comment from Teacher Steve M.: “I resent hearing that we should turn around more schools.” Given the national teacher-bashing, what would the candidates do to keep the dialogue open with unions and not peg us as part of the problem?
DeStefano: We signed an agreement in October 2009 that was a big risk.
He’s already hailing the first year of teacher evaluations as a success. [I hope they will share information publicly soon to support that claim.]
Dawson: I would invite more people to the table, to be more “transparent” than DeStefano has been.
Kerekes: The mayor has “refused to listen to your suggestions,” city workers. We need input from everyone. “I’m willing to listen and I’m willing to talk.”
He gets applause for this line: “Let’s make the city work for the people who live here, not just for those who run it.”
Graves calls for a 10 percent cut for all department heads and the mayor himself. There needs to be “shared sacrifice.”
7:36 Hillhouse Principal Carolina: You’re sitting in the living room of one of our young black or Latino men who was killed by gun violence. What do you say?
Dawson says he’s been there in the Yale-New Haven Hospital ER when parents learn their kids have died from gun violence. His aunt’s grandkid was shot in the head on Kensington at age 16. That was one of the hardest things that’s happened in his life.
Kerekes: I’m a psychotherapist. I’ve worked with cops and other folks who have been traumatized by gun violence. I talked to kids after their parents have just committed a murder-suicide. You have to listen and be available. When kids are being killed in the neighborhoods, what’s happening? Nothing! Not the response that happens when shots are fired downtown. [He gets applause for this.]
Graves: We have no idea the short-term and long-term impact of the trauma on our families. Need to address gun violence, give these kids something to do.
DeStefano: We’ve been in those living rooms. There’s not much you can say. But you start by acknowledging there is a problem of violence in the city. We have to deal with people flooding back to the city from prison. You need to talk to those two [Hillhouse] kids who were in that car on South Genessee Street and urge them to speak the truth.
[DeStefano sounds confident here, emotional, not on the defensive.] No matter if we mayoral candidates are successful or not, this is a value we all share—protecting our youth. He says New Haven Promise is part of the solution, as much as ending the no-snitching code.
7:45 Question: How can we make sure New Haven kids get pre-K slots, and aren’t edged out by out-of-towners?
Kerekes is on the attack again, bringing up random ways that DeStefano wastes money on in his opinion, such as spending $175 per hour on snow removal. He doesn’t give a clear solution to the question.
Graves is not offering a specific answer to the question. His time is up!
DeStefano: First of all, I’m not going to give you someone else to blame—such as suburban kids. Here’s the truth: We get more money for New Haven kids by admitting suburban kids. It’s $3,000 per kid from the suburbs. Also, by state law, magnet schools need to allow some room for regional kids. That’s part of how the schools are funded and designed. DeStefano runs out of time, too. He stops when someone objects.
[“You’d lose money,” the mayor whispers to Graves, continuing his point.]
Dawson: We could have LCI workers survey how many kids are in neighborhood homes. [I’m not sure where he’s going with this.] Let’s reassess the entire thing to make sure neighborhood kids can get into school.
7:52 Closing statements.
Graves thanks Dr. Ben Chavis, well-known civil rights leader, for sitting through the debate. [Chavis was due to give a speech at 7:30 with Graves—looks like they’re going to be late.]
Graves: Let’s thank DeStefano for his “great service” by giving him a banquet. We need a “new vision.”
Graves touts his experience of two prior mayors—I didn’t work for Mayor [DeStefano, as is alleged in a new attack flyer from Dawson], by the way—I was just a contractor for the Board of Ed doing tutoring for at-risk kids.
DeStefano: We’ve had many “frank discussions” with Youth UnleashED and TOC [to put it lightly]. Thanks for that.
DeStefano ends on a conciliatory note, pitching himself as a uniter (while also suggesting his opponents are being divisive).
“It’s a scary time all over America. We need to find ways to work together, to see self-interest in each other. I will never demagogue on a group. I will never react differently in one neighborhood” over another one. I won’t penalize parents. I stand up for immigrants, whether they’re here illegally or illegally. “At its core, what we have is one another. Acknowledging our problems where we have them, but appreciating our self-interest in each other.”
Dawson: “John, you did a wonderful job and we need to move on.” He says he’s learned a lot from DeStefano. “They trained me well and now I’m going to run the city.” He’s touting his crime credentials. No one’s going to want to come to New Haven “until we get this crime wave under control.”
Kerekes: “Fifty-one percent of kids are not making it through our schools.” Too much money wasted on school construction overages. We prioritized creating a war chest to run for governor [through the school construction program] instead of training New Haveners to get good trades jobs.
[Graves left early with Chavis to give their speeches on Dixwell Avenue; he doesn’t get closing remarks.]
That’s a wrap, folks.
Students from Youth UnleashED give an extra thanks to their principal, Kermit Carolina, for his support.
“Now I’m well-informed to make my decision” on Primary Day, Nilda Aponte announces.