Sound School Downgraded In Latest “Tiering”

Melissa Bailey PhotoThe city’s top-performing high school slipped in the latest round of report cards, not because kids didn’t do well at the school—but because of how they fared in college.

Sound School, a marine-themed magnet school in City Point, fell from a top-ranked Tier I to a middle-ranked Tier II school Monday, as New Haven school officials released the latest results of an annual effort to grade all district schools into three “tiers” based on student performance.

Click here to read a presentation outlining the new tiers. And scroll to the bottom of the story for a list.

Assistant Superintendent Garth Harries announced the new grades at Monday’s school board meeting at 54 Meadow St.

The ratings determine which schools get more autonomy, which get more scrutiny from the school district Central Office, and which, if any, low-performing Tier III schools will be overhauled as “turnaround” schools with new work rules.

They also aim to send a message about which schools need to do more work to help the school district close the achievement gap between New Haven kids and their statewide peers on standardized tests.

The evening held several surprises.

• Sound School, the city’s top-performing school, got marked down not for test scores or graduation rates, but for how many graduates are sticking with college—a new emphasis in the grading system this year.

• Davis Street School, a top-performing elementary school, also fell because it failed to sustain enough growth in test scores, even though the test scores remain high.

• In other highlights, Brennan/Rogers, the city’s first in-house turnaround school, lifted up from Tier III to Tier II—and set its sights on how to sustain that growth after multimillion-dollar grants run out. Harries said the city has not yet determined whether it will tap any of the Tier III schools to become “turnarounds,” where principals get the right to replace the staff and change work rules. The district has until a March 15 deadline to inform teachers if it intends to do so.

• Fair Haven School, which drew plaudits in past years for dramatic gains in student performance, slipped to a Tier III rank because test scores fell last year. Fair Haven’s new label drew disappointed staff and a parent advocate to the school board defend the school and request more resources to deal with a burgeoning and challenging population of kids, including English-language learners.

Fair Haven’s staff gave voice to what teachers union President Dave Cicarella said is a widely held objection to the grading system.

“We do not support tiering of schools,” Cicarella said after the meeting. “The reason we don’t support it is that, no matter how we message it,” when a school gets labeled Tier III, parents and the public end up feeling: “That’s a bad school. Don’t send your kid there.”

“That’s not the message we should be sending,” Cicarella said. “That’s why we just can’t support tiering.”


Perhaps the most surprising news Monday concerned how the district chose to evaluate Sound School Regional Vocational Aquaculture Center. For the past two years, the 340-student school has been the only of the city’s 13 high schools to rank in Tier I. It tops the district in two main factors schools get graded on: the number of kids “on trajectory” to graduate (80 percent) and the school survey results. (The “trajectory” number shows how many kids are on track to graduate, based on credit accumulation, Connecticut Academic Performance Test scores, and actual graduates—click here for an explanation.) Last week, the district announced Sound School has the highest graduation rate in the city; it just rose by 4 percent to 92.9 percent.

Sound School is held to higher standards than other schools because of the type of students it deals with: The grading system takes into account how prepared incoming freshmen are based on their 8th grade standardized test scores, as well as how challenging the population is, based on the number of poor, special education, English-language learner, and transient kids. Sound School, a magnet school that draws from the city and suburbs, has a less challenging population than other schools by both of those measures.

Sound ranks in the middle of the pack, however, when it comes to college. Slightly less than half of Sound School graduates in the Class of 2011 enrolled in a third semester of college, the district’s measure of college persistence, according to Harries’ presentation. That’s just even with the district average.

Given the type of kids Sound is dealing with, Harries said, more kids from Sound School should be succeeding in college. That was the main factor that led the district to rate Sound School as Tier II, he said. The distinction won’t mean Sound will lose the autonomy it enjoyed as a Tier I school, Harries said. It’s more of a message, he said, that “they need to focus on the long-term success of their students.”

“Sound School remains high-performing in terms of the students who are there,” Harries said. “We think Sound can rise to the challenge” of preparing kids for success in college.

The new focus on college proved to be fodder for debate. Board member Alex Johnston pointed out a “disconnect” in the data, where a high number of kids are identified as succeeding in high school, yet they struggle to get through college. He mentioned the growing discussion around character traits such as “grit” and persistence, which emerging research says are better predictors of success than test scores and grades. The research, compiled in a recent book by Paul Tough, suggests schools need to teach kids these skills and give students an opportunity for structured failure. Johnston posited that maybe kids are too protected from failure while in high school.

“We may be building a huge scaffolding around students, and when it’s not there,” when kids are on their own in college, they don’t have the character skills they need to succeed, he offered.

The tiering raised another question: Does the city expect every New Haven Public School graduate to complete college?

Harries was asked about students who plan to launch a vocational career that does not include college. He said for the district’s purposes, “college” includes a range of higher education, including associate’s and technical degrees—any degree for which a student can get a federal Pell grant. “We do think the long-term success depends on expertise after high school,” Harries said.

By the same logic, the school district chose to promote Hill Regional Career High School to a Tier I school. That school had a higher-than-average rate of college persistence—nearly two-thirds of the Class of 2011 enrolled in a third semester of college—while less than half of incoming students arrived academically prepared for high school, according to the data.

All other high schools remained in their same tiers from the prior year: Scroll to the bottom of this article for a list. (Note: Kids who transfer into a school after Oct. 1 are not counted for tiering purposes.)

Fair Haven Cries Foul

Grades for the city’s 29 elementary schools highlighted a challenge: Schools have to keep showing growth on test scores to keep their standing.

Davis Street School ranked in the top five K-8 schools based on absolute performance on standardized tests. Students have come close to closing the achievement gap with their statewide peers, falling just shy of state’s average 83 percent proficiency rate on the Connecticut Mastery Test. But students slipped three points in overall proficiency compared to the prior year, causing the school to fall in rank from a Tier I to Tier II school.

Elementary schools are graded on two main factors: absolute performance on tests, and growth on tests.

After a year of double-digit gains on tests in the second year of a turnaround experiment to overhaul a failing school, Brennan/Rogers jumped up from Tier III to Tier II.

“We’ve put a lot of focus on moving every kid,” explained Principal Karen Lott (pictured with 2-year-old granddaughter Aaliyah). That meant moving students who were performing at “below basic” up to “basic.” The way New Haven calculates growth, that movement counts: Growth is measured not simply by the number of kids scoring “proficient” on the tests, but by the average amount each kid in a given school improves compared to similar peers.

Lott said her school is now focusing on continuing that growth—and finding a way to make it sustainable after two multimillion federal grants run out. While Wexler/Grant got no extra resources to fund its turnaround, Brennan/Rogers benefited from an extra million dollars a year from a combination of a School Improvement Grant and a magnet school grant. Brennan/Rogers used the money to double up teachers in classrooms, boost professional development, and buy lots of new technology. Both grants are set to expire after this spring, though there will be some magnet carryover money for the following year.

Test scores at Fair Haven School are quite close to those at Brennan/Rogers when you average out the past three years. While Brennan/Rogers has been on the upswing, however, Fair Haven slipped back on the tests last year. Fair Haven went from 48.0 percent proficient in 2010 to 58.4 percent in 2011 to 49.5 percent last year. That last year of test scores sent the school from a Tier II to a Tier III school, which sent a wave of disappointment through the building Monday.

“We were surprised” at the new label, said Principal Margaret-Mary Gethings, who attended at Monday’s meeting with four staff members to show support for the school. “The negative connotation of a Tier III school threw us for a loop.”

“It was a tough day for us,” said Gethings (pictured). “We’re not a Tier III school. We’re a thriving school.”

Starting when Kim Johnsky took over Fair Haven School in 2007, the school has been credited with making a remarkable comeback from a difficult, unruly environment to a safe, productive one, and raising test scores to boot. The transformation coincided with the school changing over from a middle school to a K-8. Gethings, Johnsky’s former assistant, took over as principal in 2011.

Harries on Monday addressed Fair Haven staff’s concerns from the podium.

Just because Fair Haven is rated Tier III, he said, “that doesn’t mean the principal or any of the staff are Tier III staff.” However, he said, the school is “not where we want to be” in terms of student performance. 
Carlos Torre, president of the school board, asked if Fair Haven will get extra resources along with the new Tier III distinction.

“That’s part of our challenge,” Harries replied.

Mary Rosario, a substitute teacher and parent advocate at Fair Haven School whose four children attended the school, pressed Harries.

“So, do they get more resources?” she asked.

Harries didn’t commit.

“Let me just say to you, we’re going to help pick you back up,” schools Superintendent Reggie Mayo later offered.

“We didn’t fall back,” protested Rosario from the audience.

“I just want to make sure that you get the added resources,” Rosario said, looking back at Gethings.

Fair Haven School has the highest enrollment of any school in the district. It has swelled from 690 kids last year to 735 this year. The school includes a lot of English-language learners, including 102 in a “newcomer center” for new immigrants and refugees. Gethings said the school needs more support with English as a Second Language.

In his presentation before the board, Harries agreed “we need to think hard about how we support all of our Tier III schools.”

He defended the tiering labels: “We think it’s helped encourage” schools to improve, he said. “It focuses the attention where it needs to be—on the urgency for change of the district as a whole.”

Harries later said that “in the context of diminishing resources and increased costs, I cannot unilaterally commit to more resources.” He said a committee of teachers and administrators has been working together for the past year to address concerns of inequity in the school system. While the committee hasn’t doled out extra money, it has recommended a couple of small policy changes that help schools with challenging student populations: For example, replacing part-time social workers and school psychologists with one single, full-time person who can help with kids social and emotional needs.

The school district this year added nuance to its grading system by distinguishing between schools within a single tier. Tier II is split between “Tier II Achieving,” schools that have higher absolute test scores; and “Tier II Growing,” schools showing more growth. Tier III “improving” highlights schools that still rank in the bottom category, but are showing growth. Read the new grades below.

2011-12 Tiers

Elementary Schools

Tier I
Betsy Ross
East Rock (from Tier II)
Engineering & Science (from Tier II)
Nathan Hale
Mauro-Sheridan (from Tier II)
Worthington Hooker

Tier II Achieving
Davis Street (from Tier I)
John C. Daniels
Conte/West Hills

Tier II Growing
Ross Woodward
Clinton Avenue
Brennan-Rogers* (from Tier III)
L.W. Beecher (from Tier III)

Tier II
Bishop Woods

Tier III Improving
Augusta Lewis Troup
Fair Haven (from Tier II)
Hill Central
John S. Martinez

Tier III
King Robinson (from Tier II)
Lincoln Bassett (from Tier II)

High Schools

Tier I:
Hill Regional Career (from Tier II)

Tier II:
Sound School (from Tier I)
Cooperative Arts and Humanities High School
Hyde Leadership
Metropolitan Business
New Haven Academy
Riverside Academy

Tier III:
High School in the Community
Dixwell New Light
James Hillhouse
New Horizons
Polly T. McCabe
Wilbur Cross

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posted by: Dee Rien on January 30, 2013  2:48pm

So a school gets downgraded if students drop out of college, despite the fact that there are a million reasons a kid could drop out of college that have NOTHING to do with the education they got in high school—especially in this economy? That makes no sense. Did they ASK these students who didn’t enroll in a 3rd semester WHY they didn’t?

posted by: SaveOurCity on January 30, 2013  2:50pm

These tiers are not that challenging….this is a clear indication of the failures of the DeStefano/Mayo system.  Stop spending so many $$s on gold plated building and build strong schools.

posted by: NHteacher on January 30, 2013  6:55pm

Any criticism of Fair Haven based solely on CMT scores is missing the forest for the trees. As was pointed out in the article, the larger trend over the past few years HAS shown growth. Anyone who’s learned basic statistics knows that trends can tell us more than isolated data points.

Fair Haven has shown this growth in spite of daunting challenges. Ours is the largest K-8 school in New Haven (most of the K-8 schools have 450-500 students, while Fair Haven has over 720) but we make do with the same administrative, support, guidance, and coaching staff as smaller schools. We do not have money like the magnet schools for ELMOS Promethium boards, and other teaching tools commonly seen in many New Haven schools.  The two new interactive whiteboards we purchased this year were paid for with funds we raised ourselves.

Ours is the only school in the city where the majority of the children are English language learners (currently 52%). Each language learner, no matter how new, is required to take math and science CMTs in English. After 10 months in the US, they are also required to take reading and writing assessments. All the research tells us that it takes 7 years or more to become proficient in a language. Of course our students are not all passing their CMTs.

Many of our students, though they may not be labeled “transient” according to Mr. Harries’ analysis (enrolled after October 1), are transient in the sense that they may have been enrolled in two or more other schools before attending Fair Haven. Moving around frequently, including to and from Puerto Rico, can cause serious interruptions to a child’s education. 

In spite of these challenges, we are constantly commended for having a positive school culture, a highly collaborative staff that creates meaningful in-house professional development, and straight-up awesome kids.

Margaret Mary Gethings is an amazing principal who leads by example in all she does. She would move heaven and earth if it would help a child. Fair Haven staff receive each new child with open arms throughout the school year, welcoming even the most “difficult cases” into our community. It is my hope that the city will strive to be more equitable in its distribution of resources, and give us some much needed support as we continue to serve our unique student population.

posted by: elmcityslim on January 30, 2013  7:18pm

This is asinine. Standardized tests prove nothing about a student intellectual capacity or ability. Both Fair Haven and Sound are good schools with dedicated faculty and staff. Like the previous commenter said, dropping out of college could occur for a million reasons. Fair Haven is a school with a MAJOR challenge. Being situated in a overall Latino neighborhood with children of many recent legal and illegal immigrants causes a language barrier to say the least. These children also wont perform well if their home life is in turmoil or if their parents are not educated enough in rigorous school work (such as math and literature) to assist them with their homework. Many of these students enter fifth or sixth grade knowing more about academic subjects than their parents. This is a very stressful and challenging situation for the educators and administrators.

Nothing is black and white and whoever these outside evaluators are, they need a lesson in basic logic and reasoning. Stop throwing the blame onto the backs of teachers or you will find that in ten years, you wont have any good ones left.

posted by: Wildwest on January 30, 2013  7:27pm

I am 100% impressed that these numbers do not fall through the cracks and get ignored.

posted by: Concerned for NH on January 30, 2013  7:33pm

So Fair Haven has the largest population of any K-8 school inclusive of spanish bilingual students as well as 100+ newcomers from all over the world and the NHPS tier this school based solely on CMT performance?Maybe Garth Harries should take a test in Chinese, Turkish or Khmer and see how he fares. The current administration and staff should hold their heads high. Margaret Mary Gethings is a model principal respected by students, parents and her staff.

posted by: teacherteacher on January 30, 2013  7:47pm

Margaret Mary Gethings has an incredibly challenging job, and she handles each challenge with grace, calm, and humor. Keep up the good work, and don’t let this get in your way!

posted by: swatty on January 30, 2013  8:25pm

I think the BOE should be VEEEEERRRRRY careful to start adding things like who sticks out college in the data mix. Not that we shouldn’t be doing this, but does the BOE have the tools and staff to coach these kids after they are gone from NHPS?

54 Meadow Street doesn’t seem to have a clue what kind of damage these data crunches from on high can do to the vibe of an entire school. For shame. New Haven’s teachers, parents and especially our children deserve better!

posted by: Kathy B on January 30, 2013  8:27pm

We are Fair Haven School, we are not “Tier III”. Test scores “sent” us to Tier III while we were busy welcoming 22 new, non-English speaking students in the month of January alone. With the highest population in our “demographic”, highest SPED population, and highest ELL population we have but 2 administrators who still found the time Monday to comfort the staff following this deflating news. We cried, we got angry, and then we went about our business of being who we are. Despite our serious deficiency in resources, we go to great lengths (at our own expense, through our own fundraising, and through the generosity of community alliances and resources) to provide what these children and their families need: academically, socially, culturally, and personally. We enjoy a community that celebrates its diversity, figuratively and literally. Students have opportunities that will serve them far past their years at Fair Haven (i.e.: Mr. Kinsman’s band program, Ms. Whitaker’s Ballet-Haven program, our various multicultural celebrations, after-school programs, etc.). Quinnipiac University is partnered with Fair Haven, and students intern in our classrooms as part of their required coursework. We regularly welcome colleagues into our classrooms to “see how it all works”. We celebrate all accomplishments, small and large, because growth is success! We strive to ensure that every student feels accepted, we admonish discrimination, and then…lo and behold, we use the most biased assessment tool to “measure” their growth and stigmatize their environment? In our school, education is about differentiation, evaluation, modification, performance based demonstration of learning, and the opportunity to always try again and do better. In our school, students are held to their highest personal standard, academically and behaviorally, and are given the tools and support to achieve those goals. In our school, my colleagues, administrators and I hold one another to the same standard, and provide the support to help us achieve as well. I am hard pressed to see how a standardized test can measure any of that; but then again, we are Fair Haven School, we are not “Tier III”. We have already dusted ourselves off and gotten back to the business of being who/what we are…and I am proud and humbled to be a part of that team each and every day.

posted by: speakingthetruth on January 30, 2013  8:44pm

Im tired of people blaming a supposed lack of resources.  Do more with what you have.  Throwing more money at the issues is not always the solution.  Fair Haven school students are not making adequate progress.  Its plain and clear to see based on the tiering results.  Rather than complain about it roll up your sleeves, hold these adminstrators accountable, and make the teachers work harder.  Furthermore, hold the parents accountable.  DeStefano and his Pro-Immigration policy are a large part of the problem as well.  Its time to tighten the borders and its time to stop spending so much tax payer money.  These tiering results are wonderful.  Being placed in a particular tier isnt the kiss of death but rather a wake up call.  If you are unhappy with your schools standing then fix it by doing more with whats already within the building.  If that doesnt work get rid of the people and bring in those who can do the job and it starts at the top with the administration.  Enough is enough.

posted by: Christopher Schaefer on January 30, 2013  9:10pm

“when kids are on their own in college, they don’t have the character skills they need to succeed”. So now our schools are expected to provide parenting, as well? Will a new standardized test be developed for this?

posted by: teacherteacher on January 30, 2013  9:38pm


Teachers do use CMT data to drive our instruction and meet the needs of children, and believe me, there are serious conversations going on in many schools this week about what we can do better. However, I would challenge you to take the CMTs in a language you’ve only been learning for a year or two, and we’ll see how you fare! Blaming our dedicated, hard-working educators for the language learner achievement gap is foolish. There is NO ONE out there, except perhaps someone willing to cheat, who could make a school full of language learners magically proficient on the CMTs.

posted by: teacherteacher on January 30, 2013  9:43pm

P.S. if you don’t think Fair Haven staff are working hard, drive by the parking lot at 5 or 6 at night. You will see that many staff members are still there, working away, even though their teaching days ended at 3! Better yet, stop by the IRIS Run for Refugees on Sunday to watch our staff/student team run to raise money for a fantastic organization. Talk to some of the Fair Haven staff, students, and families who will be there. Or come to an event at our building to see just what we are up to.

posted by: HhE on January 30, 2013  10:05pm

speakingthetruth, I find your position to be in essence, a tactical solution to a strategic problem.  We call all “work harder” and “do more with less” until people burn out, and the slack in the system runs dry with disastrous results (One of the grave problems with charter schools is teacher burn out that results in high staff turn over.).  Firing people is a cheep, lazy answer that usually results in a down grade—unless one actually has people of better caliber waiting in the wings.  Really, until you can offer a better strategy, or even just a better operational concept, enough.

posted by: THREEFIFTHS on January 30, 2013  11:52pm

Do not worry.This is the real Plan.

Invasion Of The Charter Schools.

posted by: Tom Burns on January 31, 2013  12:51am

Two of my favorite people in that first picture-two champions for children
Obviously this tiering is not an exact science-not close-but our federal and state govt’s ask for this—business people like #s and data—but you cant measure a student this way—we all know it—so judge the schools based on YOUR experience with them—not by #‘s or tiering—in defense of this system (in order for us to get $ from the federal and state govt’s some sort of measurement was needed)-therefore Tiering—(this is far better than what ALL the other states/cities have implemented) but still not really valid in any sense—What is going on at Fair Haven MS needs to be going on at all schools—they are a model to be replicated—I toured that school last year and was impressed beyond belief—so the TIER 3 is only about #s—you guys are champions—and Ms. Gethings you have done a great job and have earned my respect beyond measure—kudo’s to all of your staff as you all do for children what every parent wishes—I was at FHMS for 12 years and thought we did a good job back then—but you guys and gals have taken it to another level—In my eyes you are truly #1 and I am sure the parents of the children at your school would agree—I am proud of you and you should be too—don’t worry about labels that mean nothing—and keep doing what you do—Tom

posted by: katayers on January 31, 2013  9:50am

Can anyone tell us where the “college persistence” data come from? How does the district know how many college sophomores there are from each school? Is it self-reported? Is it New Haven Promise data? Does it include all graduates, like those who join the military services, or just those that actually enroll in college following graduation?  I don’t find any info on the source of those numbers anywhere on the NHPS website, or in the BoE presentation, or in the article here.  Does anyone know?

posted by: Melissa Bailey on January 31, 2013  11:58am

College Persistence data comes from the National Student Clearing House. The data capture only about 85 percent of New Haven public school grads, in part because they track only those students who are legal residents with social security numbers.

posted by: katayers on January 31, 2013  12:13pm

Ms. Bailey,
Thank you for your response.
Is that data available to the public?

posted by: Melissa Bailey on January 31, 2013  3:01pm


It’s definitely public info. I’ll request it.

posted by: CreatingUrgency on January 31, 2013  7:18pm

Does Clemente come back to the public (out of charter school’s hands) if the “management” is failing still?

When will people wake up to the fact that poverty is the biggest problem we have?

posted by: HhE on February 1, 2013  11:57am

I think their is a lot to be said for tracking college success, but I think it is a mistake to use that data for tiering unless and until one has determined the why. 

There are schools that inflate grades and give students an inflated sense of their ability, while killing the rigour and responsibility that makes students prepared for college.