A fast-rising star became principal of her own school within Hillhouse High, another principal got a promotion, and a Baltimore budget chief signed up to tackle New Haven’s schools budget, in a new round of Board of Ed appointments.
The school board approved five appointments of school administrators in all at its meeting Monday night at Hill Regional Career High School.
Zakiyyah Baker, an assistant principal who runs the Freshman Academy at Hillhouse High, became principal of one of two new “academies” there; Barnard Principal Mike Crocco got bumped upstairs to oversee a new “talent office”; Victor De La Paz became the city’s new chief financial officer; Donna Aiello obtained a permanent post as human resource and labor relations director; and Alissa Levy became principal of the Elm City Montessori School.
The board approved the new hires by a unanimous vote.
Board member Che Dawson approved the promotions with one note of caution: “While I trust your judgment, I note a lack of experience” among the candidates, except for the CFO. Baker was an assistant principal for just one year before becoming a principal; Crocco earned a top job in the district after just six years as principal.
“I have a huge amount of confidence” in these candidates, Harries replied. He said he stacked up their resumes next to the resumes of some candidates with more experience, and they won out.
“Experience is a big part of it, but so too is ability, and so too is potential,” he said.
Baker has made a quick rise to leadership since she started out teaching 10 years ago. At age 30, she was named the 2011 teacher of the year for her work teaching social studies at Cooperative Arts and Humanities High School. Baker then entered the principal training program run jointly with the school board and Achievement First charter schools. Last summer, she became assistant principal of James Hillhouse High School.
In her new job, Baker will start this fall with 120 freshmen and 120 sophomores and build her own school within Hillhouse High, according to a plan released last week. She will no longer report to Hillhouse’s current principal, Kermit Carolina, according to the plan. Carolina (at right in photo) showed up Monday to cheer her on.
Baker earned high praise from the superintendent and teachers union president Monday. Superintendent Garth Harries credited Baker with raising expectations and motivating those around her.
“Every environment we have put her [in], people’s jaws have dropped,” he said.
Dave Cicarella, the teachers union president, said he has received “nothing but positive feedback about Zakiyyah Baker and the work she’s done.”
“All of my interactions with her have been incredibly positive,” Cicarella said. He said she is taking an important role in “a place where we’ve needed to do some work.”
“I’m just excited to take it to the next level of revolutionizing the way that kids are educated,” Baker said.
Baker starts July 1 with a salary of $121,526.
Crocco (pictured), the new talent chief, got his start as a paraprofessional at summer schools during college. He landed his first full-time job in New Haven public schools 14 years ago, as a paraprofessional at Betsy Ross Arts Magnet School. He taught at Helene Grant School for a half-dozen years, served as assistant principal at Hill Central School for two, and has led Barnard School for the past six years as principal.
Crocco took over Barnard at a time when the school needed help. The staff was “somewhat fractured,” Crocco recalled.
In 2009, when the school district was launching a reform effort, Crocco begged higher-ups to “let me try something new” to dramatically improve the school, he recalled. Barnard became the first “Tier III improvement school,” a low-performing school in which teachers were not forced to reapply for their jobs, but had to agree to different work rules if they wanted to stay. Teachers signed up for a longer school day with extra time for teacher collaboration and lunch with students.
Through that plan, Crocco “has created a new culture” at Barnard without replacing staff, Harries said. The plan is based on a distributive leadership model, in which Crocco entrusts teachers with decision-making power.
In his new job, a new district-wide position called “talent supervisor,” Crocco will oversee the implementation of a five-year, $53 million federally funded plan to improve the way New Haven attracts, retains and develops educators. Crocco will work in four main areas: developing teachers to take on leadership positions; an “innovative professional development” program funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation; the city’s teacher evaluation program; and the retention and recruitment of top talent.
That’s a big job, Harries noted: The teacher and principal evaluation system has been the main reason New Haven has gained national kudos for its school reform effort.
Crocco won’t be “overseeing” staff in those areas, he said. “I see it as pulling a team together” in a “circle.”
That’s how Crocco has led Barnard, Cicarella said: “In terms of empowering teachers, that is exactly what Mike has done in that building. It was a really easy choice for us” to support his appointment.
Crocco, who’s bald, of North Haven, pledged to work hard. “I came to New Haven 15 years ago with a full head of hair,” which now has disappeared due to hard work, he quipped. “The one thing I think you get from me is a passion for the work I do.”
Crocco starts July 1; his new salary was not listed.
Crocco will work alongside Aiello (pictured). Aiello stepped up as interim human resources chief after James Prunty resigned last October. She was promoted Monday to director of human resources and labor relations with a salary of $135,114
Harries tapped Victor De La Paz (pictured) to become New Haven schools’ “chief financial officer,” a new position Harries created during a central office reorganization that took place after he became superintendent last July.
De La Paz will start work on July 14—after the school district has dealt with a remaining $1.8 million deficit for the current fiscal year; and after it has navigated unfriendly political waters to arrive at a budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1.
In a phone conversation Monday, De La Paz said he’ll start the job with two top priorities: Making the budget more “transparent,” and making funding more equitable between the schools. His salary will be $151,000.
De La Paz, who’s currently the CFO of the Baltimore public schools, cited three reasons for switching to a district four times smaller than the one he serves: There’s a leadership transition in the school system in Baltimore. New Haven offers “an opportunity to build something new,” to define what the CFO position will be. And New Haven is close to Hartford, where his wife’s family—the grandparents of his 1-year-old daughter—live.
Born in the Dominican Republic, De La Paz said he came to the U.S. at 4 years old. His mom, a widow with a 5th-grade education, raised him and three older sisters on her own in Union City, N.J.. He attended Rutgers University; spent a few years in the corporate world; got an MBA from the University of Virginia; worked in mergers and acquisitions at The Hartford and Aetna, two Hartford-based insurance companies; and then became a senior manager at Capital One bank. He left corporate finance in 2008 to become special assistant to the superintendent of Hartford Public Schools, according to an online biography at the Broad Residency, an educational leadership program which he (and Harries) attended.
De La Paz said he met Harries while he was working for the Hartford schools. As he returns to Connecticut to take over New Haven’s school finances, he enters a tough political climate. De La Paz said he has been following news coverage from a distance about budget battles between New Haven’s school system and city legislators, led by Alder Michael Stratton.
There’s a “narrative around New Haven public schools being somehow funded at a level that is higher than it should be,” he said. “All of the data I’m seeing, New Haven is pretty underfunded. I’m not really sure how that narrative is so loud. That’s concerning to me. I don’t think everyone is using the same language when they talk about school funding.”
De La Paz pledged as CFO to examine “funding equity gaps” between schools and to make the budget process clearer to the public.
Levy, the new principal of Elm City Montessori, was not present at Monday’s meeting. She recently was teaching in California; she has already started work at the Montessori school, which is set to start up this fall. She’ll make a salary of $100,000, which is on the lower end for school principals, Harries noted.