As New Haven’s school system focuses on reducing suspensions, Barnard Environmental Magnet has seen suspensions double in the last year under a new principal. Meanwhile, more than a third of teachers have been assigned to different grades or subjects for the upcoming academic year.
Those are two of several changes under Principal Yolanda Jones-Generette that have Barnard’s teachers and parents divided on whether school culture is improving or deteriorating.
District leaders took an informal, anonymous “climate check” of teachers in late spring. They received back a document full of concerns about “top down management” and “lack of communication from administrators.” (Read it here.)
Jones-Generette was transferred to Barnard in 2014 after being reassigned from her role as principal of Lincoln-Bassett School, where she left behind a divided faculty amid a blistering state audit about the school’s performance.
Her switch to Barnard was a homecoming; she had served as the school’s assistant principal from 2010 to 2013. She has completed her first year as principal there with another divided faculty.
Jones-Generette said she has worked hard to get parents and teachers on board with new strategies to manage out-of-control behavior and increase learning opportunities.
Teachers and parents on both sides were rallied to contact the Independent to either support or criticize the principal’s leadership. Echoing complaints found in the “climate check” document collected by the school system, five teachers contacted the Independent saying they wanted to speak critically about the principal, but feared professional retribution if their names were used.
One notable change is the spike in suspensions, a trend at odds with a new policy direction the school district has undertaken.
Suspensions Up, Funds Down
Barnard students served 76 out-of-school suspensions this past academic year, more than twice the 37 served in the 2013-14 academic year.
Suspensions had also doubled between 2012-13 and 2013-14, from 19 to 37. But this past academic year, Barnard has seen the highest number of suspensions in at least four years.
Superintendent Garth Harries said some of those suspensions were related to an increase in disciplinary problems at the school, as well as a decrease in a “support structure” for helping students affected by trauma.
The school lost a large part of its funding for the Foundation of Arts and Trauma, which provided counselors to meet with students and staff, said district spokesperson Abbe Smith.
“Sometimes suspensions are a necessary part of culture building. The important question is the academic and social emotional learning of the students and the school over time,” Harries said.
The jump in suspensions also comes at a time when the district is starting to implement “restorative practices” in all New Haven Public Schools, which prioritizes repairing the harm done instead of punishing someone who has done something wrong. District leaders ultimately hope the new focus will drastically decrease suspension numbers. The New Haven Federation of Teachers (NHFT) received a two-year $300,000 “innovation” grant to hire project director William Johnson, train teachers and administrators in restorative practices at school-level, and implement pilot restorative justice programs in a few specific schools. Those schools have not yet been determined.
This month, 36 teachers from about 31 schools are receiving five-day training sessions in restorative practices, qualifying them to train others in their buildings, said NHFT President Dave Cicarella. And the district will fund training in August for every single principal in restorative justice.
Cicarella said a spike in suspension numbers is not necessarily a problem. School administrators should look into the details behind the numbers at the end of each year, he said.
Discipline On Paper
Jones-Generette said she looked into suspensions mid-year and decided to implement a new rule requiring teachers to document behavioral or disciplinary problems on paper – resulting in more suspensions being reported.
In the past, Jones-Generette has declined to be interviewed. She sat down with the Independent for this article on Tuesday – joined by Iline Tracey, the school system’s director of instruction and school improvement, and Cheryl Brown, president of the school administrators union.
“I was not trained to deal with people in chronic crises,” Jones-Generette said. She said she has worked with teachers and staff to create restorative mechanisms to support students acting out, such as having students write reflective journal entries about the harm they caused.
Brown said Barnard is not the only school with rising suspension rates. She is also the principal of Ross/Woodward School, where suspension numbers have tripled in the last year. In part, she said, it’s due to the fact that traumatic incidents in the city have increased in frequency: “We have never seen a mother who killed her two children and turned on the gas. Of course it’s going to affect the culture of a school as well.”
“A lot of my teachers have dealt with inappropriate behavior in the classroom,” Jones-Generette said. “I’m not sure they were reporting the inappropriate behavior” before they were required to do so.
As an interdistrict magnet school, Barnard also has students from towns outside of New Haven. When those students have disciplinary problems, “we have to work with the town the student is from” to find strategies to help them, Jones-Generette said.
The school changed its referral system from electronic to paper, making it easier for teachers to write referrals immediately instead of waiting until they got to a computer lab, said Jonathan Berryman, the school’s climate specialist. Teachers submitted more than 1,000 referrals about individual behavioral incidents this past year, compared to around 300 the previous year.
“With more data, we have a more realistic view of patterns and trends,” he said. And a more restorative approach—seeking in-school alternatives—has prevented some students from repeating behaviors that would lead to suspensions, he said.
Fifth-grade teacher Kristen Hebert – who will be a fifth- and sixth-grade science teacher next year – said the behavioral problems themselves have not changed at Barnard School, but the teacher and administrator responses have.
“I don’t see a change except that people saw that if you filled out the paperwork, things happened. More teachers were willing to fill out the paperwork, because there was more of a chance to get kids the help they need and the services they need,” Hebert said.
She “filled out a lot” of forms in the beginning of the past academic year, because she had a student in her class who was “very troubled. No public school had the services that this child needed,” she said.
The child’s suspensions numbered “in the double digits” in one year, Hebert said. Through the new documentation process, “I was able to prove that this was not his ideal environment. He was able to get to a school that provided what he needed.”
Third-grade teacher Dyann Sousa said she felt “disheartened” this year by the decrease in outside services to help Barnard “students who are in crisis” or affected by trauma. Barnard has a full-time guidance counselor, but only a part-time psychologist and social worker.
“No one wants to suspend a kid. No true educator wants to see a child put out of school,” Sousa said. “But how do you teach when there’s a need that has to be met before a child can learn, before a child can socially go to the next step in life? That’s one of the big variables that’s caused the shift in numbers.”
A School Divided
District leaders have been aware of the school’s divisions since at least the spring.
In late May, Tracey (pictured), the director of instruction, carried out an activity with the entire staff without the principal or assistant principal present.
“Some concerns came up and I wanted to see how widespread it was,” she said at Tuesday’s meeting. “Not much of anything came out around disciplinary issues.”
She had teachers write down their thoughts about the school anonymously on post-it notes; then she compiled the information into a report.
The Independent received copies of this climate check report from three different Barnard teachers, in the form of the exact same Word document with the list of comments on teachers’ successes, concerns, hopes and fears. Tracey wrote an e-mail to teachers explaining the attachment—she herself highlighted areas in “orange to flag concerns about behavior, and green for potential staff morale issues.” Each bullet point is a separate comment by the same person.
Teachers wrote several comments about discipline. Some included “behavioral support” and an “improved process for identifying behavioral concerns” as successes of the administration. Others did not. One expressed concern that “behavior will continue to escalate amongst students, Staff will be pulled in different directions causing divides.”
Another feared the “injury of student or staff.” Another that “behaviors will increase.”
One was concerned that “discipline is inconsistent, no open door policy with administrator.”
Another was concerned about the “inconsistent behavior policy, behavior, it’s not getting better.”
Many teachers mentioned the “lack of communication” and “top-down” nature of administrative decisions. Others feared “retaliation from speaking concerns.”
In the email message to administrators and staff May 28, Tracey wrote that “school is heading in the right direction evidenced by the identified successes. There are some tensions around change for next year, but it is not pervasive.
“Communication as an issue has surfaced, but needed more exploring to get to more specificity. In addition, student behavior has been raised as a concern about expectations and consistency. From my perspective this exercise has shown me that the staff is still cohesive with the exception of a few who have concerns about the direction the school is heading and concerns about top down management.”
Tracey promised in the email that the administration will “examine” the report and “work with the leadership team and staff” to “move forward with elevating Barnard’s excellence.”
“There’s very clearly conflict that has bubbled over into the school climate,” Harries said, when asked about the report. He was briefed on the document in late spring and read it thoroughly for the first time this week. He said Tracey’s summary is “pretty fair and reasonable” and showed a “management concern from some teachers,” but also “significant support for the administration.”
He said the Barnard administration is “processing this feedback on communication points” to tackle with staff at the start of the new academic year “to understand exactly what mechanisms of communication need to be put in place.”
Harries continued to say that the conflict is not widespread among staff. “There’s no question in my mind that there’s division,” he said. “I guess it is the case that there is a relatively small number of staff and teachers – and parents associated with that staff – worried about the climate.”
Making The Switch
Teachers and parents are also divided on Jones-Generette’s decision to move 16 teachers into different positions for the next year. The school has 43 teachers.
Sousa will be a fourth-grade teacher for the upcoming academic year, after teaching third grade for the last seven years. She said she is “willing to try something new,” but that other teachers have “strong personalities that don’t want to be told what to do” and are not open to change.
Jones-Generette explained to Sousa “why she felt this would be my strength,” using teacher evaluations as reference, Sousa said.
Jones-Generette did not have that conversation with all 16 teachers, said teachers union President Cicarella. After receiving messages from teachers critical of the principal’s decision, Cicarella said, he went to the school to talk with Jones-Generette and “check out every single” placement change.
Contractually, he said, it’s “within the principal’s purview” to change the placement of any teacher she wants without a discussion. But usually the decision is preceded by a conversation in the spring, so the principal can explain her decision and hear the teacher’s comments.
Of the 16 teachers moved, about a third felt the principal had included them in the process and that their input was asked and welcome, he said. Another third had been “told” that they would change positions, “with no opportunity for input.” This group of teachers “was OK with the move,” Cicarella said, “but you’re still supposed to have that conversation. It’s good professional policy.”
The last group of teachers had not been notified, “didn’t understand and didn’t agree” with the principal’s decision to change their positions at the school.
“That was a highly unusual number of teachers,” Cicarella said. “I never heard of that many teachers being moved.”
He said he talked with Tracey and Harries about his conversations with Jones-Generette and the Barnard teachers. “I don’t want to say it’s wrong,” he said. “But talk about a red flag.”
Some families are leaving the school. Former PTO President Josh Lidsky said he is pulling his two children out of Barnard and putting them into their local North Haven public schools this upcoming academic year. He said he knows others from North Haven and other out-of-district towns who are doing the same.
Misbehavior has always been a disruptive force in the school, including under the previous principal, he said. “There’s not enough corrective disciplining going on in school. Teachers are not instructed on how to handle the problem.”
And the school atmosphere became ugly when Jones-Generette became principal, he said, with “teachers screaming and fighting in the hallways.” He said parents and teachers were disappointed that they had “no say in who our principal was going to be. We should’ve been a part of the process.”
A mother of two Barnard students, Cecilia Shea (pictured) said she does not like the way the school has changed under Jones-Generette. She is not considering moving her children to another school. The school offers fewer activities for students during, before and after school, she said, and staff and parents feel uncomfortable talking with the principal.
“I don’t agree with the fact that you should use intimidation and bullying to boss people around,” she said of Jones-Generette’s management style.
Jones-Generette served one year as the principal of Lincoln-Bassett School, before the district transferred her to Barnard School.
A state audit of the school in the middle of her tenure at Lincoln-Bassett showed “tension” between some teachers “more comfortable with the pace of change and those are not yet sure that so much change is needed.” Click here to read the full document.
“Some teachers expressed the opinion that they feel less empowered as they are being told what to do about everything from handling discipline, to instructional approaches, to the goals specified for their evaluation. If not managed carefully, this divide and tension could impede the school’s short- and long-term progress,” the report reads.
Harries said the “common element” between the situation at Barnard and Lincoln-Bassett is “two school environments that needed significant improvements where there may be staff that will be uncomfortable with that change agenda. That is entirely appropriate. God bless Yolanda for being willing to take on consecutive environments where change is necessary…Our job and Yolanda’s job is not to make staff comfortable.”
“I’m not going to comment on my interim principalship at Lincoln-Bassett,” Jones-Generette said, when asked how she would compare the situations at Barnard and Lincoln-Bassett.
But she did comment on her time as assistant principal of Barnard between 2010 and 2013. When she began, it was a “Tier 3” school, with low test scores and issues with “climate and culture,” she said. Part of her job then was to “work on” improving that school climate, as part of the beginning of the district’s school reform overhaul.
“All teachers except one stayed on board,” Jones-Generette said. Now, she said she is “dealing with the same teachers who were part of that change.” Many of the early school reform grants and services “have subsided,” and she is working on finding more, she said.
Jones-Generette said she is seeking opportunities for “vertical team leadership,” with teachers choosing “which teacher they wanted to lead them. She said a few teachers find it difficult to deal with change. “Out of 43 teachers, three are not happy with the changes,” she said.
“If she wasn’t making changes, I’d be concerned,” Harries said. “The goal of leadership is not just to make people happy. The goal of leadership should be to improve the institution.”
Teachers do see successes at the school, according to the climate check document, including “more behavior supports” and a “principal that is fair and finds strengths.”
Many mentioned Assistant Principal Eugene Foreman as a positive force in the building. The school’s “distributed leadership model” means Assistant Principal Eugene Foreman is responsible for overseeing discipline in pre-K through fifth grade, while Berryman handles sixth through eighth grade, Jones-Generette said. “What this is affords me is the ability to get into all the classrooms,” she said.
Jones-Generette stood by the changes she’s made, though she said there is room for improvement. “I met with all teachers and had a conversation about what I was thinking about,” she said. “My goal is for student learning to increase.”