When she got her new appointment to run the Metropolitan Business Academy, Principal Judy Puglisi had just six weeks to get ready for the first students to arrive at school. She packed her bags, took seven staffers in tow, and set to work on a new program for freshmen.
Puglisi, who’s been with the public school district since 1989, was appointed principal on July 22 of the business-themed magnet school with the new home at 115 Water St. For the past five years, she served as assistant principal of Wilbur Cross High School in charge of CT Scholars, a small satellite program for middle-performing 9th and 10th graders.
After weeks of planning by old and new staff, the first big event of the school year went off smoothly last week, as 60 freshmen arrived for a two-day orientation session called High School Success. The workshops aimed to get them ready for the first day of school this coming Wednesday.
Thursday and Friday of last week, the freshmen took classes, did team-building drills and got tours from older students, who just moved into the school’s new building in April. The school, which serves kids in grades 9 to 12 from New Haven and surrounding towns, is expanding this year from 167 to 320 students.
Puglisi said she found out about her new appointment about a week before she was officially promoted on July 22. Shortly after making the move, she found out the school was supposed to create a new, five-day freshman orientation program. She said she didn’t have the money for a full five-day experience. She called a meeting, and her staff quickly got down to planning a two-day session.
Puglisi credited a team of teachers and school leaders with putting it together: “I sat in on the first planning session, but after that, I felt as if it was in good hands.”
At the orientation, which is new this year, students learned how to use a graphing calculator and a computer program called Geometer’s Sketchpad. They took classes in communication and followed older students through a class schedule. And, in perhaps the most fun part, they threw balls and built towers with staff from the Post-Traumatic Stress Center (PTSC) on Edwards Street.
Two leaders from that center ran team-building exercises in a third-floor classroom Friday. Students formed “companies” then worked in teams to build towers from Dixie cups, straws, balloons and tape. The staff from the PTSC are trained drama therapists and trauma therapists;
on Friday, however, they said they were acting in a non-clinical setting, as drama educators.
At a 10:30 a.m. session, a group who called themselves the Corner Store (pictured) quickly worked out an efficient production system: The two boys, Andy Kawaya and Romeo Rodriguez, blew up balloons while four young ladies taped pairs of Dixie cups to make a tall fortress. (In photo, from left: Kayla Willis, Aja Diggs, Shawna Bobbitt, and Jamesha Rumley.)
Leaders Nisha Sajnani and Kim Jewers-Dailley took the edge off the competition by asking each team to compliment each other’s creation. The aim, said Sajnani, was to get students comfortable with each other—and start building skills that would position themselves for the business world, such as communicating and being leaders.
The two trauma therapists are new to Metro, but they’re not new to Puglisi. She’s been working with the Post-Traumatic Stress Center for the past three years at CT Scholars. At CT Scholars, the trauma therapists designed a freshman elective, ran an after-school program, a summer program, and provided one-on-one crisis intervention for to kids at school.
They proved to be a huge help, Puglisi said. When one student came into school the day after his father was shot, the therapists were there. They take care of all sorts of problems, from a teen who many feel excluded by peers, to a student who’s grieving over a death in a family. They also help calm down kids who have outbursts during class. After 20 to 30 minutes with a therapist, she said, the students are usually ready to go back to the classroom.
At Metro, staff from the Post-Traumatic Stress Center will run team-building lessons with new teachers and start an after-school drama club. Two of them will spend 20 hours per week at the school for crisis intervention, she said. During the two-day orientation, students got to meet the staff in a crisis-free setting.
Jewers-Dailley (at right in photo, with Vincent McPherson), whom the students call “Ms. Kim,” will be one of the two staff at a new, school-based crisis intervention clinic at Metro. She and other staff will also help out in other ways, such as training teachers Monday in “how to understand adolescents.”
Jewers-Dailley showed a bit of adolescent understanding Friday, as one student tried to distract her with a question to buy more time while she was counting down the last 10 seconds in the tower-building contest.
“You’re not going to stop me,” she warned with a smile.
The therapists are one of several support systems Puglisi is taking with her as she transfers to Metro. As she moves to the new school, Puglisi is taking four teachers, two administrators and one secretary from CT Scholars with her.
Another method Puglisi piloted at CT Scholars is the student-led report card night, a twist on the standard parent-teacher report card night, where teachers tell parents how their kids are doing. Under Puglisi’s preferred method, students are empowered to give “progress reports” in front of a teacher and parent or guardian. They discuss their grades, show off their best work, then lay out a plan for improvement.
Puglisi said she canvassed the Metro’s 29 teachers to ask if they’d be on board with switching to the student-led method.
“The whole Metropolitan staff enthusiastically accepted it,” she said. “I was very pleased.”
As part of the method, teachers agreed to act as an advisor to 12 to 15 students, and help them with the student-led “progress reports” three times per year.
Puglisi began her career as a special education teacher at Wilbur Cross High School. She said the methods she’s bringing come not just from CT Scholars, but from lessons learned over the course of 21 years with the district.
Puglisi joins Metro at a time when the superintendent has flagged the school as in need of extra support. On a school survey filled out in the spring by 20 teachers, only 42 percent of Metro teachers said they feel safe at school. Only 37 percent of teachers said the school “has high academic expectations for all students.” Click here for the full results.
State test scores released in July showed Metro sophomores lagging behind other city high schools, with 3.6 percent scoring at goal on science, 6.9 percent at goal on math, and 10.3 in reading. Only 29 sophomores took the Connecticut Academic Performance Test; this year, with the school expanding, there will be more students taking it.
Puglisi said her long-term goal is to “continue to grow the rigor of the program” at Metro.
She and her staff have already made some changes, including adding writing and physics classes to the curriculum. The school is getting more new science classes thanks to a federal grant. It will also get more social service support, since it was recently named as one of five pilot schools for a program called BOOST.
Meanwhile, back at the principal’s desk Friday, Puglisi was reminding a staffer to swing by Nica’s Market to pick up plates for a pizza lunch for the freshmen.
“Hopefully, that first day, when they come in,” she said, “there will be less anxiety. They’ll be more comfortable.”
Of her own six-week orientation to the new school, Puglisi sounded comfortable and upbeat.
“It’s a tight schedule,” but “manageable,” she said. “I feel like I have a great team.”