After Blistering Audit, School Gets “Support Plan”

Melissa Bailey PhotoMore truancy officers. A full-time social worker. A “restorative justice” room for kids who get in trouble.

The school system rushed to put those pieces into place at Lincoln-Bassett School in the wake of a state audit revealing “serious concerns” about the education there.

The school district has begun to implement those changes, and others, over the past week, Superintendent Garth Harries announced at Monday’s school board meeting.

The changes come on the heels of a recent state audit, reported in this March 14 Independent story, which cited concerns about kids’ behavior, teacher attendance, student safety, and a “low level of rigor” in the classrooms.

The audit revealed that staff in the school are divided over whether they support the direction the new principal, Yolanda Jones-Generette, is taking the school. The audit was part of Lincoln-Bassett’s application to become the third city school to join the state Commissioner’s Network, a new network of failing schools that receive extra oversight and money in exchange for launching “turnaround” efforts.

Harries Monday said a turnaround committee of teachers, parents, and state and city officials is still working on a redesign plan, which is due to the state on April 7. The plan will include “re-crafting” work rules and expectations for leaderships, teachers and staff. Staff won’t have to reapply for their jobs, Harries said. They will have to decide: “Given these new work rules, do they want to be part of the transformation?” If they don’t want to, they’ll be guaranteed work elsewhere in the district.

Meanwhile, Harries (pictured) said the district has jumped to make some immediate changes at the school.

“We have been concerned about the current state” of the school, he said. “It’s in the midst of change from a long-term leader to a new leader,” and from a failing school to one that is planning for a “transformation.”

Jones-Generette took over last summer from retiring Principal Ramona Gattison, who led Lincoln-Bassett for 16 years. Jones-Generette, a first-time principal, was tapped to plan for a turnaround at the school.

Reached Tuesday at the school, Jones-Generette once again declined to be interviewed. She referred all comments to the central office spokeswoman.

Meanwhile, a team of administrators—including school security supervisor Lt. Dwight Ware, special ed supervisor Typhanie Jackson, and former Director of Schools Charles Williams, who retired in 2012—was on hand lending extra help to the school. Williams is not employed at the school district at this point, according to school spokeswoman Abbe Smith. Two cops were stationed outside Lincoln-Bassett Tuesday to provide extra security, due to an incident the night before in which two teens were shot, one fatally, on the sidewalk right outside the school.

Harries Monday said central office staff “mobilized” last week to give the school extra supports and oversight for the rest of the year.

Florence Caldwell, a former Lincoln-Bassett custodian whose children and grandchildren attended the school, on Monday welcomed the extra supports for the school, especially as it relates to student behavior.

The school has declined in recent years, she said: “It’s not the Lincoln-Bassett that it was when my children and my grandchildren were there,” said Caldwell, who sits on the turnaround committee.

To help with student attendance, the district has increased the amount of time truancy officers are spending at the school. The school used to have a part-time truancy officer; now it has a full-time officer plus extra part-time support. Last year, one of every five students at the school was chronically absent, meaning they missed over 10 percent of school days. This year, the school is making progress in that area, according to the state.

The following extra resources are “in progress” of being implemented at the school, according to an Immediate/Short-term Support Plan Harries distributed at the school board meeting:

• Hire a part-time “dean of social skills.” This position was already budgeted for but had not yet been filled.
• Convert a part-time social worker to full-time.
• Create a new “refocus room” for kids who get into trouble. Set up staff who would focus on “restorative justice” approach, which focuses on repairing any harm that was done, instead of punishing kids.
• Give teachers extra coaching in reading and math.
• Give the principal extra leadership coaching.

In addition, the school is “exploring” bringing in an outside mediation service, such as Community Mediation, to help with “community building” among staff. The audit found staff is split 50/50 over whether they support the principal; the audit identified adult discord as potentially dangerous for the schools’ improvement.

Donna Aiello, the district’s supervisor of staff and organizational development, has been assigned to find ways to address concerns of absenteeism among Lincoln-Bassett staff. She will also prioritize Lincoln-Bassett when assigning substitute teachers.

“Come Together”

Meanwhile, district central office staff have begun plans to better communicate with parents and staff. Harries met with staff at the school on Monday of last week, then sent a letter to school staff on Monday of this week. His letter sets expectations for adult behavior, pledges extra support, and calls for an end to the division among staff.

“I ask that everyone at the school set aside differences and come together as a team with a common mission of supporting, educating and caring for students,” the letter reads, in part.

Click here to read it.

In the letter, Harries urges “collective responsibility for raising this school up.” And he concedes he should have done more for his part, too.

“Lincoln Basset is a school with significant needs, and I have been slower than I should have been through the course of the year to fill those needs,” Harries writes. “You have noticed increased presence in the school last week, from both central office and support staff such as the truancy team. We intend to continue that this year.”

In the letter, he asks adults at the school to “be professional and respectful in their interactions with each other and with parents and students.”

He calls for staff to “follow attendance protocols rigorously” and for the principal and assistant principal to “communicat[e] openly, clearly, and
supportively with all staff.”

Harries vows to “provide extra support to teachers who are handling students whose behavior is exasperated by trauma at home and stress at school.” And he calls for adults to be “pushing ourselves outside of our comfort zone and adapting to new strategies for instruction and behavioral interventions.”

He said the turnaround committee is coming up with new work rules for next year. A March 15 deadline in the teachers contract has passed, so the school district cannot make changes to the number of school days or the length of the school day, nor make Lincoln-Bassett an official contractual “turnaround” school, where teachers have to reapply for their jobs. However, the new teachers contract does include for an extra half-hour every day that teachers at all schools are supposed to spend on collaborative planning. And the contract allows the school district to change other work rules at “Tier III” schools, the lowest rating on the district’s system of grading schools.

“Once those work rules have been designed, staff who are unable or unwilling to abide by these new rules will be able to request a transfer to other schools within the district,” Harries wrote. The committee will also come up with a plan to add extra supports to the school day, so that students can be at the school for extended hours, such as from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m.

“Change is hard,” Harries wrote, “and we have to find ways to build teamwork among staff and focus our energy and attention on dramatically improving education for our kids at Lincoln-Bassett.”

At Monday’s meeting, school board member Alex Johnston encouraged Harries and the turnaround committee to “really be bold in their thinking.” With a school turnaround, he said, “there’s an opportunity to really rethink how that school works,” he said. But nationally, turnaround efforts have flopped, he said: “Unfortunately, 90 percent of these efforts don’t amount to anything that really meets the needs of kids.”

“We think the other turnarounds that we have done have been successful,” Harries replied, and “there’s a lot more work to do.”

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posted by: NewHavenTaxTooHigh on March 26, 2014  12:30pm

Sounds like an elaborate (and expensive) plan. The Board of Ed should be commended for their efforts. However, I’m a bit disappointed because I don’t see any aspect of this plan that asks or requires the parents to become more involved.

posted by: Brutus2011 on March 26, 2014  1:03pm

I thought the article reference to Florence Caldwell’s opinion that she supports the extra supports especially as it relates to student behaviors is telling and resonates with my experience as a former teacher in New Haven.

Student behaviors is the key. And it is where I believe all of the supports should be aimed. And not only at Lincoln-Bassett but at virtually all the schools in the district.

1. Increase the paraprofessional force so that there are at least 2 adults in each classroom.
2. Reduce the coach and lower level admin positions to help fund this essential change.
3. Increase the substitute teacher pay.
4. Require that teachers stop the Friday and Monday call in sick cow-pucky. (sorry but I always did not like to see my colleagues do this)
5. Institute changes that mandate that consequences for student mis-behavior be real and consistent.
6. Institute building administrative supports so that parents are told in no uncertain terms that their child’s shenanigans will not be tolerated. This is important because many parents simply will not hear any criticism of their child’s behavior. We all know that, as educators, we do not condemn the child but that we must send the message that misbehavior is not acceptable. Ultimately this is in the best interest of all of our kids.
7. District administration backed by the BOE and the Mayor’s Office must send the message that calm school-wide learning environments, and by default each classroom, will be supported by supporting each classroom teacher and building administrators as they institute consequences for student misbehavior.

Finally, I must say this: When my child was in third grade (she is in 9th now) she said:

“Dad, we kids know the difference between appropriate and inappropriate behavior.”

Our kids know they are playing us and it is up to we adults to stop the nonsense and establish the boundaries that they want and deserve.

posted by: NewHavenTaxTooHigh on March 26, 2014  3:00pm

Brutus -

Fair points, but why are you placing the entire burden on the school system? Good behavior begins at home. Any plan needs to include parent involvement and responsibility. Change the policy so that if a child misbehaves say 3 times, then the parent is responsible to come in and watch the child. Do that, and we have a better chance of ending the bad behavior.

posted by: heightster70 on March 26, 2014  4:51pm

Without parental involvement the old saying goes ” Nothing changes if nothing changes” I work in a school and it irks me to the core when parents pick up their children at 3 in the afternoon still in their pajamas.

posted by: joshmoejo on March 27, 2014  11:08am

Consider the idea that first you train all teachers and staff in Restorative Justice practices.  They model it for their students.  The students catch on and model it for their parents. 
Also consider that PJ’s at 3pm might mean they were still at work at 3am.  Until we show empathy, over and over again, how are they going to learn it?  I understand that in physical therapy it takes over 1000 repetitions to create a new habit.  We might only be on #367.  Model it, model it, model it.  “We have to imagine that our futures are linked.”—John Paul Lederach

JoAnne Wilcox