Student, Candidate Spar Over Longer School Day

Melissa Bailey PhotoRefusing to “pander” to an audience of schoolkids at a mayoral candidates’ debate, Matt Nemerson called for lengthening the school day, raising the bar to qualify for Promise scholarships, and holding back kids until they’re ready to compete with China. He found himself getting into not one debate, but two.

Nemerson (pictured above with student Mahogany Mathis) was one of three candidates—and one candidate’s surrogate—to show up Wednesday afternoon for a debate at the Metropolitan Business Academy on Water Street. He was joined by East Rock Alderman Justin Elicker and former city economic development chief Henry Fernandez, who all are seeking the Democratic nomination to replace 10-term retiring incumbent Mayor John DeStefano. Four other candidates seeking the nomination didn’t make it. One of them, state Rep. Gary Holder-Winfield, sent his campaign manager on his behalf.

Candidates fielded questions from members of the city-wide student council before a crowd of about 60 people in Metro’s high-tech auditorium.

Nemerson, a former Chamber of Commerce president, emerged early with a theme he has been employing at past debates, framing himself as the guy with business sense who won’t just say what the audience wants to hear.

The question at hand: What’s the first thing you’d do as mayor?

Elicker named early childhood education as one of three areas he’d focus on. By the time a kid is in 3rd grade, his academic ability is a predictor of whether he’ll be headed to prison, Elicker noted. “That’s a crime.” He said he’d focus on expanding social and emotional supports for kids in schools, including teaching anger management and conflict resolution skills.

Chris Campbell (at right in photo with Fernandez), Holder-Winfield’s campaign manager, apologized that his candidate could not attend the event; he said Holder-Winfield was wrapped up in an important meeting at the Capitol. He said he wouldn’t take a stance on Holder-Winfield’s behalf.

Fernandez said the first thing he would do is to “come back here and have a conversation with you” about how to improve the city. He called for a better training program to “make sure we have the absolute best principals in the schools.” He called for changing the school’s complicated system of grading schools, which he said you need a PhD to understand. Instead of the three “tiers” the school system uses, each school should get a simple A-F report card, he said, so that parents and students could be “aggressive advocates” for their education.

Nemerson began bluntly.

“I’m not going to pander to you,” he said. He said unlike Fernandez, “You’re not going to be the first people I talk to” once in the mayor’s seat. He said the first group he would talk to would be businessmen who are “willing to choose New Haven” to bring in new jobs and start companies.

“I’m not pandering,” Fernandez later replied. He said as the co-founder of the youth agency LEAP, “I get tremendous energy from young people” and would sit down with them “every week” during his mayoralty.

Nemerson (pictured) returned to his tough-talk approach when a student from Sound School asked what the city should do for kids who get Bs and Cs.

He called for a longer school day and a longer school year, eliciting some groans and laughter from the crowd.

“I told you I wasn’t going to pander to you,” he said.

He said the city should extend the school day “from kindergarten on up” so that kids who are not at grade level can catch up. “We should make sure these buildings are open at night.”

He denounced a recent move by New Haven Promise, the city’s college scholarship program, to lower the bar for kids trying to score college scholarships. Promise recently opened up 20 scholarships to kids with a GPA between 2.5 and 2.9, instead of the requisite 3.0.

“It’s wrong” to “knock down Promise standards,” Nemerson said. “We need to have higher standards.”

He called for an end to social promotion, where kids are passed through school without showing mastery of skills.

“If we’re not giving you the education you need, we need to keep you here,” he said. When kids go out into the world, he said, they will be competing with kids who are “trying desperately to get out of their tiny town in China.”

The answer, he said, is not to raise the minimum wage, or lower the bar in city schools, but to give kids a solid education so they can go out and make $30 per hour at a high-skilled job.

The suggestion—the $30-per-hour part—earned a rare round of applause from the audience.

The other candidates shied away from stressing “standards” and brought up non-academic supports. Elicker (pictured) called for more character education, emotional supports and early childhood ed. Campbell touted Holder-Winfield’s work on involving parents in governing schools and in a K-3 reading program. Fernandez called for an investment in the type of activities not measured by tests—the arts, band, and student council. Those activities help kids stay engaged in school, he argued.

When the clock struck 2 p.m., the debate ended. But not for Nemerson.

Metropolitan students Mahogany Mathis and Christine Puglisi (pictured) engaged him in a second round.

Christine, a junior, objected to Nemerson’s call for an end to social promotion.

“My concern,” she told him, “is that won’t people at our school feel disenfranchised?”

Nemerson replied that the answer is not to “dumb down the school system,” but to “bring up the standards.” “The instant we say a B-minus is good enough, we’re dead.” Those kids will never land jobs in emerging fields at companies like Google, he said.

“Google isn’t the goal for all kids,” Christine replied.

Nemerson said while not all kids will be destined for Google, they could still write computer code for a local company.

“I think we’re letting teachers off the hook. We’re letting Garth off the hook,” he said, referring to Assistant Superintendent Garth Harries, who attended the debate. He called for empowering teachers to rewrite curricula to align with modern day jobs.

Mahogany, a senior headed to Howard University next year, listened politely. She later called his remarks out of line with her experience in city schools. Kids in city schools are far behind grade level, she noted. She said it’s not because they’re not trying.

“I’m a B student,” she said. “I work hard and I’m not at the top of my class. I did what I could to get out of the environment I’m in,” she said. Kids at Metro already stay after school for clubs and activities, but they shouldn’t be “punished” with a longer academic day, she argued.

“Some kids aren’t going to go to college,” she added. Schools should prepare them for careers, not start holding them back if they don’t get As.

Nemerson’s remarks met more support from junior Jordan Bryant, who hung around to ask if candidates would “follow through on all the promises” they made. Jordan lives in Hamden, and doesn’t qualify for Promise. She said she stands with Nemerson against lowering the threshold to get into the program.

“Handing out money” to kids with below a B average is “unfair,” she said. “You should strive for excellence.”

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posted by: Noteworthy on May 16, 2013  8:12am

Nemerson is absolutely correct on education. Raising the standards, not lowering them is the way to go. If it takes a longer school year or a longer school day to get the kids up to grade level, then so be it.

posted by: Tim Holahan on May 16, 2013  8:32am

Mr. Nemerson should consult the evidence before proposing policy.

The evidence is that, in the absence of changes to the mode of education and significant additional resources, extending the school day is not effective:

To put it more simply: we’re not having great success with what we’re doing now. Doing more of it isn’t going to help matters, but it’s going to cost a fortune that we don’t have.

We need to try new things within the public school system. The approval of a Montessori school is a promising start. The involvement of a high-ranking teacher’s union official in that project is exciting to see.

Lecturing kids (and their teachers) about how they need to be preparing to be computer programmers is not a recipe for success here or anywhere. Any kid who wants to be a programmer should be given support in becoming one, but technology is not the cure-all for New Haven’s woes.

Helping kids to learn to think, and to love learning, might be. The mayoral candidates, and the NHPS administration, need to pay more attention to that goal.

posted by: Curious on May 16, 2013  9:17am

I applaud Nemerson for his frank honesty.  Too bad he’s not as open about his campaign contributors.  I think he would make a great development officer to a Mayor Elicker or Holder-Winfield.

As to the woman asking about whether or not holding kids back until they learn the material is disenfranchising or not, I would ask her what is more disenfranchising, graduating high school at 20 and being able to get a job, or graduating at 18 and being unemployable?

posted by: THREEFIFTHS on May 16, 2013  9:22am

Nemerson began bluntly.

“I’m not going to pander to you,” he said. He said unlike Fernandez, “You’re not going to be the first people I talk to” once in the mayor’s seat. He said the first group he would talk to would be businessmen who are “willing to choose New Haven” to bring in new jobs and start companies

He called for a longer school day and a longer school year, eliciting some groans and laughter from the crowd.

“I told you I wasn’t going to pander to you,” he said.

This guy is sounding more and more LikeNew York Mayor Michael Bloomberg who New Yorkers call Mayor Moneybags.Beware of the Trojan Horse.

posted by: IvyFollower on May 16, 2013  9:48am

Candidate Nemerson is off base in his assertion that New Haven Promise “lowered the bar” for the Scholarship. It simply created a new pathway for students to PROVE themselves.

The recipients of the Passport program will receive complete support ONLY after having COLLEGE success. It was pretty clear in the announcement, which he should make an effort to either read or re-read for his own clarity.

And why on Earth would a candidate attack a privately-funded education initiative for city students? It is arrogant and mind-boggling.

He should be taken to task for believing that his narrow perspective on life is indicative of the majority of folks who reside in the city — the people he claims he’d like to represent.

An out-of-touch candidate will certainly not be a successful one. We should be thankful for that.

posted by: The Miz on May 16, 2013  10:25am

Lol. Anyone else get the sense that Nemerson is playing the “dad” role? He’s going to do what’s best for you and though you might not see what he’s saying now, you’ll thank him later? His inability to relate will be his downfall. But at least he’s honest about it.

Fernandez kind of pissed me off. I absolutely cannot stand when candidates say, “I’m going to talk with you blah blah.” That actually is pandering to the lowest common denominator of voter and its sad that vague, bs answers liek that get people elected.

Elicker really impressed me with this. If the field remains as-is, he has a very good shot at winning. I don’t think he has the best overall answers, but he’s pretty dam solid and the most genuine of all the candidates (to me).

posted by: Curious on May 16, 2013  10:49am

IvyFollower, Nemerson isn’t the only one thinking that Promise is lowering the bar.  See the comments in that article.

That’s $20k on kids who are barely not failing their classes, and that could be spent on helping out more high-achieving kids.

posted by: westville man on May 16, 2013  11:07am

Are we saying that students who gets B’s or C+  will NOT be successful college students? That they shouldn’t have access to tuition assistance?
Why are we so punitive when it comes to our kids? I know many kids who were “average” grade students in high school and went on to college and are gainfully employed.
Thank you IvyFollower for having our children’s backs- I find your posts refreshing!

posted by: Jill_the_Pill on May 16, 2013  11:09am

We don’t need a longer school day; plenty of time is wasted during the existing school day and school year.  It’s not just standardized tests and test prep, but practice tests, pre-tests, post-tests, district-tests, and so much learning time lost to teacher training days.  I can’t count how many days my kids have come home from an extended study hall with substitute teachers—a complete waste.  Why can’t teacher training happen during CMT’s?  Have administrators proctor the tests, rather than keep exhausted kids in school more hours with diminishing returns.

posted by: Samuel T. Ross-Lee on May 16, 2013  12:22pm

If Nemerson and the other candidates really wanted to be frank with the students, the public, and the voters about education, they would be bold enough to admit that there are simply some things that the public schools, i.e. the government, cannot do to improve student performance.
This dishonest conversation that we keep having in America about education is not getting us anywhere.  It is only keeping us where we are, with those in the know on top and those without resources stagnate.

But wait…perhaps that’s the point after all, and titular heads of Public School Districts merely give lip-service to “closing the achievement gap” as a means to serve their real masters…the maintainers of the status quo, who ultimately are not interested in the added competition that would come from real progress in educating so-called “underprivileged” kids.
Until we have an honest conversation about what needs to be done/established OUTSIDE of the classroom, i.e. AT HOME, which includes not blaming teachers for the lack of assistance/motivation their students get in completing homework assignments, or for the attitudes about learning the kids bring to school in the first place, then we will just be spinning our wheels in a quixotic attempt to “compete with China”.

Longer school days and a longer school year might be great, if they are buttressed with better assistance outside the school, as well.  Who’s going to be “frank” enough to say THAT to the voting community? And then who from our communities are willing to help those parents who can’t help themselves help their children, and stop expecting the school system to be totally responsible for educating the next generation?

I’m in.  Are you?

The Rev. Mr. Samuel T. Ross-Lee

posted by: Brutus2011 on May 16, 2013  1:48pm

A lot of good opinions posted here.

I would like to add that raising standards should begin before high school.

A stated and clearly understood and enforced promotion policy needs to be implemented in the middle grades.

When did all this become a scam or was I just naive?

posted by: IvyFollower on May 16, 2013  2:16pm


How is a 2.95 GPA deemed “barely not failing?” That logic is difficult to follow and even more difficult to address.

posted by: JohnTulin on May 16, 2013  5:13pm

Tim hit the nail on the head:  “To put it more simply: we’re not having great success with what we’re doing now. Doing more of it isn’t going to help matters, but it’s going to cost a fortune that we don’t have.”

Fix the system and then have a longer day of that kind.  There is no way the NHFT would agree to a longer day without more pay (naturally), you would just be paying teachers to spin their wheels longer while spending more and achieving nothing.

posted by: Tom Burns on May 16, 2013  8:04pm

Curious—no social promotion? how about graduating at 35 or 95 for that matter—some individuals will NEVER master the material for a plethora of reasons—and guess what—that’s OK—-not every horse runs in the Kentucky Derby either—anyway, each individual has their own strengths and gifts that may not coincide with what WE deem success—-I want us to get to the place where students enjoy learning just for the sake of learning—Holahan—Perfect!!—and Rev. Ross-Lee—you are right on also—-By the way the New Haven Reform effort is real and it features ideas and initiatives found nowhere else in the world—-get on the train, we can’t do it alone—but together we can—Tom

posted by: Hemp_Shirt_Rocker on May 17, 2013  6:32am

“...letting teachers off the hook”?? Nemerson wouldn’t last an hour as a teacher in New Haven. TB is right - not every horse runs in the Kentucky Derby and not every kid wants to work for Google. As usual, the elephant in the room - severe income inequality and poverty - is ignored in favor of pushing standard corporate reform ideology that instead vilifies teachers and, in this case, the Assistant Superintendent. Teachers give it their all every day for the kids of New Haven and want to see nothing more than success and fulfilment in their students’ lives. It’s cheap and easy to criticize those on the front lines when you are not even in the supply trench! Don’t fall for plutocratic stuffed shirts who stand to gain power and $$ by selling out teachers.

posted by: Curious on May 17, 2013  7:53am

“The Promise board also voted to lower the threshold for college grades from 2.5 to 2.0 during freshman year so that more kids could keep their scholarships.”

Lower than that usually puts you on academic probation.  Should a kid get a scholarship for being barely able to stay in school?  Or would that money be more well spent to better help a better student? 

Just getting the numbers of up of kids in college, when those kids aren’t performing even at a C+ level, is almost just another form of social promotion.

posted by: Jill_the_Pill on May 17, 2013  11:24am

“Lower than that usually puts you on academic probation.  Should a kid get a scholarship for being barely able to stay in school?  Or would that money be more well spent to better help a better student? “

I’ve been working at a university which gets a number of graduates from the Hartford schools.  Many are at quite a disadvantage in writing ability and reading comprehension, and it can be a year or more before they catch up with their better-prepared peers.  Scholarships contingent on minimum grades cause counter-productive stress and lead to cheating. 

New Haven schools are working hard to make their graduates those better-prepared students, but until we get there, give the freshmen a little transition time.