Six weeks before she is set to open an academy within Hillhouse High, Principal Fallon Daniels and her new assistant pondered a question: Would a first-period gym class lure kids to show up on time to school?
Daniels (at right in photo) and her new assistant principal, Garfield Pilliner (at left), considered that question at a “boot camp” for new principals held Monday at the John C. Daniels School. Daniels, who is set to open the IDEA Academy at Hillhouse next month, was one of six new principals who attended the training along with the leadership teams from their schools.
Also Monday, the school board appointed seven assistant principals and transferred five others, leaving only two more assistant-principal vacancies to go. The accelerated timeline for hiring school leaders, combined with the boot camp, represent a change from past practice, when school administrators were thrown into jobs in late August without time to plan ahead. In the past few years, the district has been making an effort to give principals more help and more time to plan for a successful first year.
Daniels and another fast-rising administrator, Zakiyyah Baker, are each principal of a new school set to open next month within Hillhouse, a 950-student comprehensive high school on Sherman Parkway. Hillhouse plans to split into three academies next year—two for freshmen and sophomores and one for juniors and seniors. Monday afternoon, Daniels and Baker continued to chart out the plans for what their academies will look like.
Daniels, a former Cooperative Arts & Humanities High School teacher who most recently worked in Hartford, is new to Hillhouse. So is Pilliner, New Haven’s 2013-14 teacher of the year, who came from the Engineering & Science University Magnet School (ESUMS). Monday was his first day on the job as a new assistant principal at Hillhouse. Pilliner typed a Word document on an iPad as they worked out a schedule for the estimated 253 freshmen and sophomores set to join their innovation-themed academy on Aug. 28.
One of their challenges is to tackle chronic tardiness among high-school kids. At a recent count in April, 440 Hillhouse students had been tardy at least 20 days in the past school year, according to Hillhouse Principal Kermit Carolina. Twenty-five kids had missed over 20 days of school. Student attendance has hovered around 88 percent for several years.
Looking for ways to reduce tardiness, Daniels made a proposal: Why not put gym class, and other fun electives such as a “maker” design lab, in the first period on students’ schedule? That way, kids might be more motivated to roll out of bed.
“They’re always on time for gym,” Daniels noted.
Another benefit of the proposal: If kids do come late, they won’t miss their core academic subjects. Daniels and Pilliner drafted that schedule and planned to pitch it to other school administrators to see if it would work for other kids.
They also discussed adding optional after-school math sessions to give kids a taste of—and an appetite for—higher math than what they’re currently studying. Pilliner, who taught engineering, said he has seen kids’ progress when they are challenged with higher-order problem-solving after school.
Daniels said she has been working with a team of 10 teacher leaders over the summer. One goal is to dramatically change the way kids are taught so that they become more engaged in class, she said.
She outlined plans to get parents interested in school, too. Her team of teacher leaders plans to launch an ambitious door-to-door canvass, with the goal of reaching all 253 students’ families before school starts. Teachers and administrators plan to start knocking on doors next week, she said.
Principal Baker (at right in photo with math teacher Octavia Oliver) said her team is planning a more targeted canvassing operation to families of students who have repeated grades or otherwise struggled in school.
Baker and Oliver spent some time Monday going over a vision statement for the school. All of the key planning, including coming up with that vision statement, has taken place in collaboration with a team of six teacher leaders, who have been working together since the end of the school year, Baker said.
She said she is “conscious to make sure teachers feel a part of the process” of planning the new academy. Baker, who led Hillhouse’s freshman academy, said the new plans don’t mean “doing away with” the old. Hillhouse was already split up into four academies; Baker said staff will replicate successful components of those academies in Hillhouse’s newest chapter.
Baker and Daniels said they have hired nearly all of the staff for their academies.
The effort is being funded by state money. Hillhouse has landed a $500,000 state grant for capital improvements and $200,000 for instructional changes (for which it had requested $500,000), according to Iline Tracey (pictured), director of instruction and school improvement. An initial proposal called for setting up barriers and separate entrances for the three academies, but there isn’t time to do that before school starts, said Tracey, who supervises Hillhouse. She said this year, the school will be painted in three different schemes to reflect the three academies. The academies will each have their own area of the school, but there won’t be any barriers erected to subdivide the school. Students will all remain part of Hillhouse and will join up for JROTC, band and sports.
The most significant part of the changes will be instructional, Tracey said. Students will begin to learn through inquiry, through hands-on projects, and in a self-paced, “mastery-based” system, she said.
“Too many kids are failing as it is,” Tracey said. She said Hillhouse needs to change some practices, such as making homework count for 40 percent of a student’s class grade, and deducting points for turning in an assignment late. She professed hope in the IDEA Academy’s gym-first experiment: Getting physical activates the brain, making it more alert for subsequent classes, she reasoned.
Elsewhere in the room Monday, new Principal Sandra Kalizewski worked with six teachers decked out in Mauro-Sheridan School t-shirts …
… Eugene Foreman, who recently did an administrative internship at Fair Haven School, began his first day as assistant principal at Barnard Environmental Studies Magnet School along with Yolanda Jones-Generette, who just became principal there after a year at Lincoln-Bassett School …
… Shanta Smith, the new principal of Edgewood School, discussed bathroom-break hall passes with her teaching staff ...
… and Tina Mitchell (at right) studied arrival and dismissal procedures alongside her colleagues at Hill Central School. Mitchell attended Hill Central as a student from grades K to 4, then returned to spend her entire 10-year career as an educator there. She taught for five years, led English-language learning and bilingual instruction for four, then on Monday became the school’s new assistant principal. She’ll work alongside Lillian Fontan, who just got promoted to the principal’s post.
The principal “boot camp” runs Monday to Friday from 8:20 to 4 p.m. this week. A seventh new principal, Janet Brown-Clayton at Lincoln-Bassett School, did not attend because the state offers a different training for schools in the state’s Commissioner’s Network of low-performing schools, Tracey said.
Tracey said the training and time for collaboration marks a significant change from the district’s past practices. She said when she first became a principal, at Dwight School in 2004, there was no on-boarding process.
“It was baptism by fire,” she recalled. “We were given the keys to the school, and you had to figure it out.”