Three years after it hired a New Jersey-based company to “turn around” Clemente Leadership Academy, the school system is bringing the school back in-house.
Schools Superintendent Garth Harries announced that news at Monday’s school board meeting at Betsy Ross Arts Magnet School.
The school district three years ago hired a New Jersey-based charter school management organization, Renaissance Services LLC, to take over day-to-day operations of Clemente, a 500-student pre-K to 8 neighborhood school at 360 Columbus Ave. in the Hill. The school remains a public school with unionized teachers who work for the school system; the top three administrative staff work for Renaissance.
All along, the school system planned to evaluate the program after three years, when a key grant that paid for the experiment is set to dry up. The company has been paid through a three-year, $2.4 million federal School Improvement Grant, which runs out at the end of this school year. The grant is paying for the salaries of a principal and two assistant principals, as well as a $800-per-pupil management fee that goes to Renaissance. The district renewed the contract with Renaissance twice amid an improved school climate and inconclusive test results. Then Harries announced earlier this year that he would examine how the experiment had gone and determine whether to continue working with Renaissance.
On Monday, Harries announced he has decided to end the relationship with Renaissance and take the school back under direct management of the school system—with the same staff that Renaissance had hired.
That means Pam Franco, the principal Renaissance brought in from Florida three years ago, will continue at the helm of the school.
The school board Monday approved hiring Franco as an official public school district employee with a salary of $129,945, beginning July 1.
The appointment won unanimous approval—after two board members raised concerns about a lack of public vetting over the decision on how to govern the school.
Harries announced his decision about Renaissance in a press release distributed right as Monday’s school board meeting began. In remarks before the school board, he cited two reasons for cutting ties with Renaissance: The grant money is drying up. And “there’s been good evidence” of “progress” at the school.
After landing on federal watch lists for failing schools for years, Clemente in 2011 became an official New Haven turnaround school, where teachers had to reapply for their jobs. A whopping three-quarters of teachers left. Renaissance hired new staff to replace them and new leadership to run the school.
Harries credited Renaissance with “stabilizing” the school environment and making “some progress academically.”
“We are grateful for the work that Renaissance has done,” he said.
Harries said he had met with school staff earlier Monday and told them he would be getting rid of Renaissance and keeping Franco.
Wait a minute, replied Alex Johnston (at right in photo). At a school board meeting earlier this year, Johnston had asked Harries to come back to the board with data on how the Clemente experiment has fared, so that the board could evaluate it. Harries had agreed to do so.
In characteristically polite and diplomatic language, Johnston said he wished Harries had followed through on that pledge.
“I wouldn’t second-guess your decision” to end the relationship with Renaissance, Johnston said. But “it struck me as a very consequential decision,” and one that the school board should have gotten the chance to discuss beforehand.
Che Dawson (at left in photo) chimed in. “We asked about this relationship specifically,” he said. “To get this decision now, without having any opportunity” to weigh in, is disappointing, Dawson said. Dawson and Johnston said they learned of the decision in the press release right at that meeting.
Mayor Toni Harp jumped into the discussion to back up Harries. She said Harries did mention briefly at a previous meeting that he was weighing his options with Renaissance. She said a superintendent needs to have the authority to make this kind of decision.
“It’s a nimble process,” she said of the negotiations with the outside firm. “I’m not at all disturbed by this. I support the superintendent in this decision.”
Harries replied that “there was anxiety to move forward at the school level, and the need to resolve the question with the set of actions that we’re recommending tonight.” He said in the future, the school board will set up a “governance committee” of school board members who will take a more active role in determining school district policy.
Board President Carlos Torre took a neutral, diplomatic stance: “I don’t think there’s any disagreement” in whether to keep Renaissance, he said. “Apparently there was some miscommunication somewhere along the line” about how the decision would be made.
The board unanimously approved keeping Franco on in her job.
In brief remarks, Franco recalled being “scared to death” on her first day of work three years ago when she realized how much work had to be done.
“We have come so far, yet we have so far to go,” she said.
School climate surveys over the past four years show that parents and students “feel safer and more welcome at the school” and teachers “believe order and discipline are more consistently maintained,” according to the school district. The latest school survey results have been released to principals but not yet to the public.
“There’s been some progress academically,” Harries said. The school saw gains on students’ Degrees of Reading Power tests. And students made “some small gains” on the Connecticut Mastery Test when most of the district and the state saw a decrease in scores.
“But those gains have not yet been transformative,” Harries acknowledged.
Harries said he is grateful to the company for its work.
“They led through the difficult transition years,” Harries said.
Click here to read a recent story examining the school’s progress.
Harries said he discussed with Renaissance whether the company should continue working with the district. Renaissance offered one suggestion: Convert Clemente into a “local charter” school, a school that is mostly funded by a public school district, and gets extra autonomy and state funding. Renaissance would stay on as a charter operator.
Harries said that was not an option the district was interested in.
Reached later Monday, Renaissance CEO Rich O’Neill confirmed he had made that suggestion.
“We felt we could have moved this school further, faster, with greater controls” that come with being a charter school, he said. Turning a school into a charter would have made the school “less dependent on [school system] Central Office” for support.
The partnership between Renaissance and New Haven’s school system “had its ups and downs,” Harries acknowledged.
O’Neill spoke openly to state auditors, and in the Independent, about frustrations with dealing with New Haven school system bureaucracy. Frustrations included not being able to fire a non-tenured teacher who was performing poorly because Renaissance did not follow the rules of a new teacher evaluation. O’Neill said the next time his company performs a non-charter school turnaround, he will make sure to “establish protocols with central office” beforehand regarding the operation of the school.
Overall, O’Neill said, “we’re pleased with our performance.”
“We understand that the funding didn’t last forever, and that’s just life.”
Past Independent stories on Clemente:
• Charter Co. Gets A 3rd Year At Clemente
• Nayelie Cools Off With Ms. Magaldi
• Teacher’s Return Causes Ruckus
• Clemente Cleans House
• School Board OKs Clemente Takeover
• Fine Print Released On Clemente Deal
• Illegal Meeting Aborted; Co. Starts Work, Anyway
• City Secretly Plans School’s For-Profit Takeover
• For-Profit Charter May Take Over Clemente
• Two Schools Become “Turnarounds”