At the new Lincoln-Bassett School, teachers will come early. Students will be invited to stay late. Class sizes will be smaller. Staff will use the Comer Method to help kids cope with trauma.
That’s the latest plan for a state-funded “turnaround” planned for the Newhallville neighborhood school, which serves 355 kids in grades pre-K to 6.
This coming fall the school will embark on a double experiment: one that gives a principal the power to clean house and reconstitute the team in her own vision; and another that expands school hours to help families who work late and can’t pick up their kids.
The woman coming in to steer those experiments grew up in the neighborhood, knows generations of families, and hugs strangers who cross the threshold the school. The principal, Janet Brown-Clayton (pictured above), just replaced 20 of 27 teachers in the school; she is now busy building a new team to start a turnaround funded by three-quarters of a million dollars per year.
A Familiar Face
Brown-Clayton grew up on Ashmun Street in Dixwell’s old Elm Haven public-housing high-rises. She started out in New Haven public schools as a kindergartener in 1961. She attended Winchester and Augusta Lewis Troup schools before heading to an all-girls private school, Day Prospect, which merged with Hopkins School while she was there. Brown-Clayton graduated from Hopkins, the elite Westville private school, in 1972. Brown-Clayton left town to attend Lincoln University, a historically black university in Pennsylvania. She now holds her 092 administrators’ certificate from Southern Connecticut State University.
She started teaching in New Haven as a substitute at Roberto Clemente School. She spent 10 years teaching at Sheridan Middle School, then headed to work in Hamden. She spent 5 years as assistant principle at Hamden Middle School and five as principal of Dunbar Hill School. After spending five years as a principal in Georgia, Brown-Clayton returned to her hometown in 2012.
Brown-Clayton landed a spot in the 2012-13 school year as an assistant principal at Lincoln-Bassett on Newhallville’s Bassett Street, where she worked under longtime Principal Ramona Gattison in Gattison’s final year before retirement. Then she moved to Brennan/Rogers School, the city’s first and most successful turnaround school. Brennan/Rogers just finished the fourth year of a turnaround effort that has improved school culture and boosted test scores.
This spring, Brown-Clayton was called in to help quell a brewing crisis at her former school. A blistering January state audit at Lincoln-Bassett documented low-rigor teaching, out-of-control student behavior, high absenteeism among teachers and kids, and—most strikingly—bitter infighting and a breakdown of trust among school staff. The school was split between those who supported the school’s new principal, Yolanda Jones-Generette, and those who saw her as destructive to the school. Jones-Generette fought a resistance to change among some teachers in the school, the audit found.
The school district had hired Jones-Generette to spend a year planning a turnaround at Lincoln-Bassett, then launch that turnaround this fall with state money. In May, amid an unfolding crisis at Lincoln-Bassett, the district announced an emergency rescue plan: Effective July 1, the district would remove Jones-Generette and replace her with Brown-Clayton.
Neighborhood leaders fought Jones-Generette’s removal.
After she was appointed principal on May 19, Brown-Clayton held a “chat and chew” dinner meeting with parents at the school. She said when she walked into the room, she recognized many faces. Some she knows from the neighborhood: Brown-Clayton lives in Dixwell, not far from where she grew up. She has a grandson in the New Haven public schools.
“People knew me from before Bassett,” she said. Some were “children of children I taught.”
Parents’ top concerns were “that there would be consistent discipline,” that the school would communicate with parents, and that the principal would be accessible, Brown-Clayton said.
Parents were upset about the move, too—until they heard who it was, according to Damaris Rau, the district central office staffer assigned to supervise the school.
“When they heard that Janet was assigned, they were relieved and confident,” Rau said.
Florence Caldwell (pictured), a recent PTO president who volunteers in the school, sent three daughters and four grandchildren through Lincoln-Bassett. She said she supports the new principal.
“I think we’re heading in the right direction,” she said. She said 45 agencies have expressed interest in offering services to the school through BOOST!, an initiative providing extracurricular and social-emotional supports for kids.
She said she hopes parents will “not dwell on the past school year,” which was a difficult one.
Before Brown-Clayton’s official July 1 start date, she set to work. Her first task was to decide which staff would stay or go.
As part of a state-approved turnaround plan, all teachers were given a May deadline to decide whether they wanted to keep their jobs. The district dangled a $5,000 bonus for teachers who agreed to re-interview for their jobs and commit to working there for three years.
Eleven teachers took that offer and re-interviewed for their jobs. They met with Brown-Clayton and four other administrators. Brown-Clayton didn’t look at teacher evaluation scores—teachers didn’t actually have scores because the system had been implemented poorly over the years. She had them list their strengths and weaknesses, and asked their evaluator to do the same.
She asked them these questions: What do you bring to Lincoln-Bassett to help it become a high-achieving school? Which factors contributed to the current state of Lincoln-Bassett? How would you describe your ability to “embrace change”?
Of the 11 she interviewed, she sent six to the displaced teacher list. Another 11 teachers voluntarily transferred to other schools; three who did not re-interview ended up getting transferred, too, for staffing reasons, according to schools spokeswoman Abbe Smith.
Brown-Clayton said she told the ousted teachers that it wasn’t their fault and that the transfer might enable them to thrive in a new environment.
To her eye, Lincoln-Bassett suffered from a “lack of accountability that was pervasive.” She said school staff need to be better role models for kids in the way they speak, dress, and interact with each other. The state audit also described a dangerous complacency and resistance to change that was holding the school back.
By reconstituting the staff, she said, she aimed to “create a climate and culture of forward mobility.”
The reconstitution met applause from one former parent, who lives across the street from the school.
Gerald Beamon (pictured) said he pulled his daughter out of Lincoln-Bassett five years ago. The school was going to hold his daughter back—a move that he attributed to poor instruction.
“I don’t think she learned what she was supposed to learn for her to pass,” he said.
Beamon said his daughter’s teacher was one of those who were pushed out from the school. He said he’s glad to hear that that teacher, and many others who had been there a long time and in his mind were not doing a good job, were leaving.
“They needed to,” he said.
A New Team
The process created 20 teaching vacancies at the school. Brown-Clayton said she got hundreds of applications after posting those jobs on Applitrack. In addition to filling the vacant jobs, the school will be adding a pre-K and a 6th-grade class, as well as three teacher-leader positions: a school operation officer, a climate specialist, and an instructional coach. The operations officer—a position often found in charter schools—will take care of logistics like buying reams of paper and dealing with late buses, so that the principal can spend more time in the classroom, Brown-Clayton said.
Based on a new teacher contract that allows teachers to get paid extra in hard-to-serve schools, teachers who take the job will get a $5,000 signing bonus spread over three years. And they’ll get 10 percent extra pay in exchange for showing up 50 minutes early to school every day for extra teacher collaboration and prep time.
As of this week, the school had about nine vacant teaching posts remaining, plus the three teacher leader positions. Brown-Clayton also gained a new assistant principal, Jenny Clarino, who came through the city’s joint charter-district leadership training pipeline.
Teachers who sign on to Lincoln-Bassett will show up at 7:20 a.m., 50 minutes before the official student day. They will get more help in the classroom: The school is using some of the $764,998 it is slated to receive from the state Commissioner’s Network to add teacher’s aides to 2nd-grade classrooms. Previously Lincoln-Bassett, like most New Haven schools, has had paraprofessionals only in the kindergarten and 1st grades. Class sizes will be capped at 22 kids for grades K to 2 and 24 kids for grades 3 to 6, instead of the current caps of 26 and 27.
Lincoln-Bassett classes last year weren’t packed to the hilt, Rau said. The district closed the school’s 7th and 8th grades right before school started because of dwindling enrollment. The school has one of the highest rates of transience in the district: 35 percent of students join the school after Oct. 1, and many others leave mid-year, according to Brown-Clayton.
Brown-Clayton said she aims to quell the transience: “I would like to make this place such an engaging place, so that [students] will stay” at the school even if they move.
Following a campaign idea promoted by Mayor Toni Harp, the school will offer optional before-school and after-school activities for kids, so that students can stay there from 7:20 to 6 p.m. if they so desire.
The Comer Method
Brown-Clayton said she aims to bring back a practice she picked up at the Brennan-Rogers turnaround school last year. She worked under Principal Gail DeBlasio, a huge proponent of the Comer Method of child development, which focuses on giving students the social, emotional and intellectual skills they need to succeed in school.
The Comer Method was tested at New Haven’s Baldwin, King and Brennan schools in the 1960s; it went national and international before dwindling amid a new emphasis on high-stakes tests.
Brown-Clayton said she plans to institute a morning meeting—like this one DeBlasio led in 2009 —in which students will communicate about what’s going on in their lives so they can work on conflict resolution and emotional intelligence skills.
Brown-Clayton said her time at Brennan/Rogers also reinforced a practice she has carried out at other schools: Ensuring that “teachers have a voice” and use that voice. Teachers should be free to talk with “no fear of retribution” and not “acquiesce in silence,” she said.