Principal Peggy Moore, who was placed in charge of Wilbur Cross High School on Aug. 10, gave those updates during a PTO meeting in the school lobby last week. It was her first meeting with the parent group since taking the helm of the 1,466-student comprehensive school on East Rock’s Mitchell Drive.
On short notice, Superintendent Reggie Mayo moved Moore to Cross from Betsy Ross Arts Magnet School, a 480-student magnet middle school she led for 14 years. Mayo promoted Moore to the new leadership position after failing to find a suitable candidate in a national search.
In an hour-long presentation before a dozen parents and two staff members last Tuesday night, Moore outlined some of the changes Cross is undergoing—and some that have yet to take place.
The principal joined Cross at a time as it prepared to launch a dramatic reorganization into “smaller learning communities,” which are self-contained wings of the school governed by separate leadership. The changes are funded by President Obama’s $3.5 billion School Improvement Grant (SIG) program that aimed to “turn around” failing schools. The money comes with strings attached, including grading teachers and principals based on student performance and using data to guide learning. In return for the money, schools have to change the way the school is run, using one of four specified models.
Cross is one of four schools to receive the grant. New Haven got a total of $7.38 million: $2.1 million each for Cross and James Hillhouse High and $1.59 million each for Hill Central Music Academy and Brennan/Rogers, which are both K-8 schools. The money will be spread out over three years; Cross will get $700,000 this school year, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
Cross and Hillhouse are using the “transformation” school model, which calls for replacing the principal, increasing learning time and boosting the “effectiveness” of staff. It was good timing for the district: The principals at both schools happened to retire at the end of last school year.
Standing at a podium in the school lobby while the basketball team played nearby, Moore acknowledged a delay in implementing some changes.
Joining Cross just before school opened “is a little bit impossible,” Moore said.
“When I arrived here, I was told that there was a grant in place, and you need to read this binder” detailing the transition plans, Moore said.
“There was a period of confusion,” Moore said. “We had to work that through.”
Before Moore joined Cross, a transition team from Area Cooperative Educational Services (ACES) and the central school system office planned a way to implement a wide array of changes, all built up around the small learning community model. (Click here to see the grant application, which details all the planned changes.)
Some members of that team were gone by the time the school year started, Moore said. She and a new leadership team were left to determine how to proceed.
After Moore joined the school, at the end of September, Jaime Ramos from the Fair Haven School joined as an assistant principal.
Out of three new administrators, Moore said, “none of us were high school people. I can’t tell you we walked in and knew everything.”
By comparison, Moore noted that Hillhouse High, which is undergoing similar changes, began working on its transition plans about five months earlier, when school staff had a hunch that then-basketball coach Kermit Carolina would get the principal’s job. Unlike Carolina, Moore started the year with few existing relationships in the school.
The snowy Tuesday evening gathering last week was the first time Moore met the parents in the room, including active leaders in the PTO. She introduced herself to parents by running down her biography.
“I was born in Illinois,” the eldest of seven kids, she said. She has two sons; her husband is a New Haven native who attended Hillhouse High. She has worked for the district for nearly 30 years. She taught at Hill Central, Helene Grant and Davis Street schools, became a literacy coach at Beecher, the assistant principal of Betsy Ross, the principal of the Dwight school, before running Betsy Ross as the principal for 14 years. In her last year at Betsy Ross, Moore was chosen by Magnet Schools of America as the Region 1 Principal of the Year.
Moore is the president of the administrators union and sits on the school reform committee guiding a citywide school change campaign that emphasizes accountability and student growth.
She compared Cross to the way she said Betsy Ross was 14 years ago: “in need of improvement.”
Cross has “outstanding” programs for special ed and honors kids but it “needs more for average kids who need to be motivated,” she said.
Moore said so far Cross has rolled out a credit retrieval program for kids who are falling behind and has been giving teachers extra support in how to “differentiate” teaching to kids of different levels. She expressed faith in the new small learning community model’s potential to reach more kids.
Some parents in the room told her that the changes are too slow to come.
One parent asked about a new student advisory program that parents were told would begin at the start of the school year.
What happened to the program? a mother asked.
“It’s not ready yet,” Moore replied.
The program has been delayed, she said, because she found there was confusion surrounding how it would operate. She said some staff wanted to run the advisory one way, and others differed.
“I think people thought it was something you could just implement overnight,” Moore said. She said she has two staffers in training on how to run an advisory.
Moore said she hopes to implement the program “before the year is out.”
“I don’t want to implement programs when we don’t know what we’re doing,” Moore said.
A teacher stood up and announced the program would begin in March.
Moore outlined for parents a new way of involving parents as well as other community members in the day-to-day operations of the school. It’s called a school governance council. According to a new state law, each school has to elect a team of of seven parents, five teachers, and two community leaders, to give recommendations on how to run the school—read more about it here.
Moore said she is determined to have parents who represent the diversity of the student body—not just leadership from the existing PTO. She said she has received seven names for parent candidates.
By law, the school must hold an election for the parent leaders. “It needs to be in place by the 15th of January,” Moore said.
“It won’t be,” she said. She said she would get it done as soon as possible and plans to email parents with short bios on the candidates.
Another parent asked what the principal’s policy is for communicating with parents and students.
“I have an open door policy,” Moore said.
“I don’t feel the change when my daughter comes in here,” one parent told Moore.
Moore replied that except for three new administrators, most of the staff at Cross carried over from last year. She said she is “not so sure everyone was on board” with the school’s overhaul.
Despite the delays, Moore said she’s committed to involving as many parents as possible.
“I don’t think that we’re a failing school,” she said, “because there’s no school that has a better AP [Advanced Placement] program,” Moore said. She said her goal is to boost kids’ learning so that they can all take honors classes.
“We want a school of AP students,” she said.