Students “wander” and “run” in the hallways. Classes have a “low level of rigor.” And staff is divided as to whether a new principal is rescuing or wrecking a neighborhood school.
Those observations emerged in a state audit of Lincoln-Bassett School, a neighborhood school serving 355 kids in grades pre-K to 6 in the Newhallville area.
Based on years of poor performance, New Haven is nominating Lincoln-Bassett to be the next city school join the state Commissioner’s Network—a network of failing schools that sign up to be overhauled with extra oversight and money from the state. There are 11 schools in that network, including two in New Haven: High School in the Community and Wilbur Cross High.
The audit was complied by the state Turnaround Office as part of the school’s application to become part of the network. It involved one six-hour on-site visit in January and interviews with parents, students and staff.
The audit reveals that the school’s new principal, Yolanda Jones-Generette, is facing resistance and “strained relations” with her staff as she tries to make “urgent” changes to address plummeting test scores and soaring chronic absenteeism.
Jones-Generette declined to be interviewed for this story; she referred comment on the audit to Superintendent Garth Harries.
Harries said the audit depicts “a moment in a journey of change and improvement at the school.” The audit will inform the work of a new “turnaround committee,” which plans to draft a proposal by April 7 to ask the state to fund major changes to the school starting next fall.
Click here to read the audit, which is dated Jan. 23.
A “Deteriorating” School
In frank narratives, the report describes the challenges facing a new school leader in her first principal job. The school district last June tapped Jones-Generette, an assistant principal at Barnard Environmental Studies Magnet School, to take over Lincoln-Bassett and begin work on a plan to overhaul the school. Jones-Generette replaced retiring Principal Ramona Gattison, who presided over Lincoln-Bassett for a whopping 16 years. Even before school started, Jones-Generette sent a message that she wanted to bring new energy to Lincoln-Bassett: She went door-to-door introducing herself to families and delivering books to children in the neighborhood.
Jones-Generette took on an ambitious job last year, taking over a school that New Haven had flagged as “deteriorating.” Absenteeism was high. On a given day last school year, 1 out of 10 students was absent, a rate that’s higher than the district average. One in 5 kids was chronically absent, meaning they missed at least 10 percent of school. Thirty-five kids were issued out-of-school suspensions.
The teacher evaluation had been so poorly executed that there was no reliable data from previous years, according to the audit. Four out of 10 teachers simply received no rating. Test scores had been sinking across the board for several years and were among the lowest in the district. Only 6.7 percent of 3rd-graders could read at grade-level, according to last year’s Connecticut Mastery Test.
Lincoln-Bassett had failed to adopt some parts of the districtwide curriculum, including Reader’s and Writer’s Workshop, a method that includes one-on-one “conferring” with kids on their individual goals. Literacy coaches were not granted access to classrooms to model that new method.
Last year, the school lacked a clear discipline policy. “Teachers established their own behavior rules and expectations. If students were sent to the office, they were often placed in in-school suspension in the cafeteria – many times for very long periods of time – or sent home,” the report reads.
Jones-Generette made some swift changes to address these problems, the audit found. She allowed literacy coaches access to the classrooms—a change that teachers and parents reported is helping with instruction. She began to “reliably” implement the teacher evaluations. She “made it a priority to make a significant change in the way student discipline is managed.”
In an interview, Jones-Generette conveyed to auditors a “heightened sense of urgency to positively affect student achievement.” A range of people—district leaders, teachers, students, and parents—agreed she is showing “dedication and drive to improve the school,” the audit states.
“The principal has made an active and concerted effort to reach out to parents and make them feel welcome in the school,” the audit added.
Many problems persist, the audit found.
Teaching “Below Standard”
During their visit, auditors found students “running” in the hallway on the way to the cafeteria. Two of the students had a “physical altercation.” The “noise level was high” during transitions to and from the cafeteria, and “two young girls were observed wandering outside of the cafeteria for nearly five minutes without being re-directed.”
Concerns persist about the safety surrounding the school. There have been several shootings “in close proximity of the school,” including in the parking lot. Parents reported that the school playground is “effectively unusable because it is used by drug dealers,” the report reads.
Auditors gave the worst reviews to what was going on inside the classroom. On job evaluations, 57 percent of teachers rated “proficient” or “exemplary” last year, and the rest were not rated. But there was no thorough documentation to support those evaluations, and the high marks did not match the declining test scores, nor what auditors found in the classroom, they said.
Auditors visited seven classrooms and found that most had “a low level of instructional rigor.” “Only one lesson demonstrated a focus on accessible and challenging content and students engaged in higher-order thinking through teacher facilitation,” the report reads. “Of the other classrooms observed, half were assessed as ‘below standard’ and half were rated as ‘developing’ based on evidence of teacher-centered instruction and students being engaged at the comprehension level of thinking and understanding.”
Students and parents said the school needs to raise its expectations for teaching and learning, the audit found.
Auditors also made the following observations:
• Classrooms “lack basic resources such as white boards, SMART boards, and projectors.”
• On a given day, between two and seven of the school’s 28 teachers are absent, and several teachers are chronically absent, the report found.
• There is not enough support for the 4.8 percent of students who are learning English as a foreign language, the report further found. Several newcomers from foreign countries have joined the school. They have no full-time English-language-learning (ELL) support; the ELL teacher is there only part-time.
In an interview Thursday, Superintendent Harries acknowledged safety concerns around the school. “Lincoln-Bassett is oftentimes the subject of lockdown,” he said. “It’s not uncommon for people fleeing police to cut through” school property.
Damaris Rau, the district’s executive director for schools, who oversees Lincoln-Bassett, said kids couldn’t use the playground because guys from the neighborhood were hanging out there during the day. Cops helped clear the guys away during the day, but people would return at night and leave drug paraphernalia. Eventually police and school custodians got the area secure enough to begin allowing kids to use the playground for recess last fall, Rau said.
Harries said having two out of 28 teachers absent on a given day is not unusual for New Haven public schools. “Teacher attendance is an issue of around the district,” he said. It is less than 95 percent. Absenteeism may be on the rise this year, he surmised, because teachers are feeling frustration and anxiety about some of the changes in the school.
A “Divided” Staff
The report warns of a harmful “divide” among the adults in the school, who are split over some of the changes Jones-Generette has made.
In the past, the school used to pull special education students out of the classroom in order to teach them. This year, Jones-Generette “set out new expectations for the special education teachers to provide more support for students within the mainstream classroom and to make every effort to serve them in the least restrictive environment possible.”
“Not all staff members are on board with the change,” the auditors wrote, so “this change is still a work in progress.”
Some teachers told the auditors that the school is being inconsistent and unclear about its discipline policy.
“Administrators are asking teachers to conference with students more and not just send them out of class; however, there seems to be a lack of clarity on the staff’s part as to when they may call for administrator involvement,” the report reads. “Additionally, some teachers do not feel that they have the support of the administration in managing student behavior and that there are mixed messages about how they are supposed to be responding to inappropriate student behavior. Some teachers reported consequences are being administered inconsistently. That there are mixed messages about how they are supposed to be responding to inappropriate student behavior. Some teachers reported consequences are being administered inconsistently.”
“The urgent press to improve the school and ‘catch up’ in basic areas is also creating a divide among the faculty,” the report reads. “There is also some evidence that the professional rapport between the administration and some teachers has become strained.”
Some teachers protested they feel “less empowered as they are being told what to do about everything from handling discipline, to instructional approaches, to the goals specified for their evaluation.”
There is “50/50 divide among the faculty in their support for the school leadership’s effort to quickly make changes at Lincoln-Bassett,” the report concludes. “Teachers who support the new direction demonstrated positivity and optimism about the changes; those who do not talked about how things weren’t so bad before and how there was more of a ‘family atmosphere’ last year.”
“Overall, there appears to be some tension between teachers who are more comfortable with the pace of change and those who are not yet sure that so much change is needed,” the report avers.
“If not managed carefully, this divide and tension could impede the school’s short- and long-term progress.”
Dave Cicarella, the teachers union president, said the audit “fairly accurately captured the situation in that building.”
He said he has received repeated, consistent reports from teachers in the building that they feel they are being “treated poorly” by “heavy-handed administration.”
Those feelings were exacerbated by a decision Jones-Generette made in October to fire a rookie teacher after less than two months on the job. The union did not get involved because the teacher was within her 90-day probationary period, where an administrator can let a teacher go without following a teacher evaluation, Cicarella said. He said the principal felt the teacher “had absolutely no control” of classroom behavior.
“There’s no question that that incident”—having a teacher here one day, gone the next—“was traumatic for the community,” Harries said.
“There’s no question that incident prompted some fear among the rest of the staff. But it was the right decision to make for the kids in that classroom.”
Harries said the tension among adults in the building isn’t totally new.
“There have been divisions in that staff over the past several years,” he said. “Part of the struggle facing both the leadership and the new school community is how to build effective teamwork”
He said the fact that the principal is making changes has exacerbated a sense of anxiety among some staff. When a school community is “in transition,” “there are frictions in that,” Harries said. “Change is hard on all sides.”
“We’re supportive of the work she’s doing,” Harries said of the principal. “It’s an extraordinarily difficult situation. There’s a huge amount of work to do.”
Solving problems “does not mean all of the adults being comfortable,” he said.
He said the audit highlights a need to “focus that on what I think is a common goal—to significantly improve that environment for both students and staff.”
Cicarella said he believes there have been “missteps” by both the administration and by teachers. In retrospect, he said, it was unfair to put a “brand-new principal” into such a challenging school. “There’s an awful lot for her to do.”
Cicarella said he supports the district’s application to the Commissioner’s Network, because it could open up new resources for the school. He said he does not support launching an official “turnaround” at that school, in the sense it is used in the New Haven teachers’ contract. That kind of “turnaround” enables the principal to replace whichever staff she wants and change work rules. Cicarella has argued that kind of change is too disruptive and the jury is out on whether it works.
The state has a looser definition of “turnaround,” which includes other ways of overhauling schools. New Haven is pursuing a plan to expand Lincoln-Bassett into a community center open from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m.
An official “turnaround committee” will come up with a proposal before April 7 for what the school will look like, according to Rau. The committee consists of: Rau; Andrew Ferguson (state education commissioner appointee); Florence Caldwell (grandparent and superintendent appointee); Mendi Blue (City Hall staff and superintendent appointee); Richard Fazzuoli (Lincoln-Bassett teacher and union appointee); Jennifer Wells-Jackson (teacher union appointee); and Dominique Dawson (Lincoln-Bassett parent and union appointee).
Harries said the school district used to receive a lot of complaints from parents about Lincoln-Bassett. This year, those complaints have fallen dramatically, he said.
A poll of a half-dozen parents Thursday revealed mixed reviews on the school.
Carlton Heath, Jr. , who was dropping off his grandson at the school Thursday, said the school is much better than it was in the 1970s, when he was a student there. He called the teachers “really, really dedicated.” He said he has not met the principal.
Ezekiah Harrison, father of a 5th-grader, expressed outrage at the academic offerings.
“They not learning what they need to learn,” he said. “No kids have a proper education. This is not school.”
Harrison did give rave reviews for the school security guard, Mary Moody—as did many other people whom auditors interviewed, according to the state report.
Elizabeth S. of Westville (she declined to give her full last name) said she was in for a surprise when she enrolled her 2nd-grader in Lincoln-Bassett in January. Her family had just moved here from out of state.
She said she enrolled her child in Lincoln-Bassett because there were no seats open in the popular magnet school, Davis Street, closest to her home.
“I feel the neighborhood schools suck because all the attention is given to the magnet schools,” she said. “There’s so many discipline problems, it’s a distraction. Kids can’t learn.”
“You can tell the teacher tries,” she added. But one teacher has a class full of over 20 kids and no other adults. In other towns, she said, schools would have a teacher’s aide in the class to help with behavior management. (New Haven schools offer teachers’ aides in all kindergarten and half of 1st-grade classes, but not in upper grades.)
“I was trying to be open-minded” about Lincoln-Bassett. “If it’s good enough for other people’s kids, it’s good enough for mine,” she reasoned. But after a bad experience the past two months, she plans to pull her daughter out at the end of the year.
Meanwhile, Newhallville Alder Delphine Clyburn expressed confidence that the school is heading in the right direction. She commended Jones-Generette for starting off the year by knocking on families’ doors. Clyburn said she meets every Tuesday morning with the principal to check in on the school.
“We have a great principal,” she said. “She is working very hard, diligently, with the parents, to change for the better for our students.”
Clyburn said the parents she talks to like the new principal. “They’re grateful to have her, and I am too.”