After weeks of public speculation, Reggie Mayo announced Wednesday he plans to retire on July 1—and he offered some parting observations from decades in education: Not all fads work. No Child Left Behind wasn’t a bad thing. And kids with a C average need help getting to college, too.
Mayo shared those reflections in an interview Wednesday as he prepared to end a 46-year-long legacy as an educator in New Haven public schools.
One day after the school board met behind closed doors to discuss his contract, Mayo announced Wednesday he plans to retire on July 1 after his latest three-year contract expires. His departure comes as Mayor John DeStefano, his longtime political ally, prepares to wrap up a 20-year tenure on Dec. 31.
“I wanted to retire three years ago,” said Mayo. But “the mayor asked me to stay on” to launch a new effort to improve New Haven schools. “I agreed to stay.”
“I’m kind of glad I stayed the three extra years,” Mayo said, but now it’s time to move on. Mayo has been superintendent for 21 years.
The school board plans to launch a national search for a replacement for Mayo by July 1, according to Chairman Carlos Torre.
Mayo, who’s 68, has seen urban education from more angles than almost anyone in town. He was raised by a single mom in housing projects in Richmond, Virginia. The youngest of three kids, he took courses over summer school and finished high school by age 16. He wanted to join the military, but he was too young. A guidance counselor encouraged him to go to college, and he ended up at Virginia Union University, a small African-American college. He worked two to three jobs each year—one summer, squirting jelly into jelly donuts and cleaning the floors in a supermarket bakery—to make ends meet.
After college, Mayo joined an aunt and uncle in Waterbury, Connecticut. He got a job inspecting turbine blades at Pratt and Whitney. It was a good job, but he felt “something was missing” in his career. He started substitute teaching in Waterbury. He landed his first full-time teaching job in 1967 as a science teacher at Augusta Lewis Troup School in New Haven, taking a pay cut of $12,000 to $5,000.
He worked several jobs to make a living, including cleaning schools at night through a side business he formed with friends. He later considered going into business with then-city budget director Frank Altieri, selling office furniture, but stuck with education. Mayo rose up the ranks as chair of Troup’s mathematics and science department; assistant principal of Troup; principal of Jackie Robinson Middle School; K-8 director of schools; and executive director of school operations, before becoming superintendent in 1992 under former Mayor John Daniels. Mayo said his research shows he is the second-longest serving superintendent in New Haven history, behind Frank H. Beebe, who ruled from 1900 to 1931.
In his latest stint, Mayo has overseen a reform drive that focuses on accountability, using student performance as way to grade teachers, principals and schools. He now makes $226,921 per year overseeing a district of 21,000 kids. He will retire with a pension equal to 75 percent of his salary, or about $170,000, according to an online benefits calculator.
Mayo sat down with the Independent Wednesday morning at the school board headquarters at 54 Meadow St. Wearing his signature suspenders, two gold rings, and a white dress shirt with his initials stitched into the cuff, he detailed some of the lessons he has taken from his decades participating in and watching changes take place in urban education.
Lesson One: NCLB
Mayo had been working in New Haven public schools for over three decades when, in 2001, President George W. Bush unveiled a new initiative that aimed to raise standards in public schools by requiring all schools to undergo standardized tests—and introducing penalties for those that failed to measure up. The law Congress approved, No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), became notorious among urban educators for introducing new mandates without resources to match.
Like many urban school leaders, Mayo denounced the law as “punitive” and “unfair to urban districts.”
“I was totally, totally against it,” he recalled. When NCLB rolled around, he said, he noted that “you had to develop a curriculum and tests, which left out a number of important things that should be taught.”
Mayo said school officials conferred and decided “we’re not going to do it.” They did bend New Haven’s curriculum to the tests. Then, after a couple of years of low test scores, Mayo said, officials reconsidered. “What are we doing here? Why don’t we get with it?”
He said the district decided to implement the “power objectives” prioritized on the tests. The district rolled out quarterly assessments to help kids prepare, and had teachers work with kids on areas of weakness.
“I admit we started to teach to the test a little bit more than we did at the beginning of my tenure,” he said.
Mayo said he still takes issue with some aspects of NCLB. “It was horrible what we were doing to our special needs kids,” forcing them to take tests on which they would perform very poorly. The tests weren’t fair to English-language learners, either, he said.
But over the years, Mayo said, “I got a little more respect for Bush” on NCLB. He said the law “raised expectations” and “brought a good focus on education” that set the stage for current-day federal school reform.
Lesson Two: “Career Ladders”
In the late 1990s, Mayo oversaw a new push in teacher training programs in math and literacy. He said top officials were struck by an unanticipated trend: After New Haven spent money to train teachers, they would leave the district for jobs in other school districts. The teachers were landing jobs as literacy and math coaches, where they trained other teachers and modeled lessons for them. That type of job did not exist in New Haven at the time, Mayo said.
Mayo said he learned a lesson: If you want teachers to stick around, you have to create a “career ladder” to allow them to gain responsibility and grow. About 12 years ago, Mayo said, New Haven decided to create math and literacy coach jobs in the schools. Every K-8 school now has one of each, he said. The decision worked, Mayo said: The teachers New Haven was training stopped skipping town.
New Haven now has a more robust career ladder for teachers, including training for “future leaders” and a program run jointly with Achievement First charter school network to train aspiring principals. The city got a $53 million federal grant, in part to build new ways to reward, recognize and develop teachers (as well as grade them with more consistency).
New Haven now has a new teacher evaluation based on student performance. The process involves more frequent and intensive classroom visits by supervisors; teachers sit down with their bosses and set goals for the year, based in part on standardized tests. Mayo said he believes this new relationship, where a teacher has formal conversations with an instructional manager about their classroom practice, is one of the most important developments in the school system over the past four decades.
Lesson Three: Fads
Not all fads work, Mayo cautioned.
When he joined as superintendent in 1992, he changed the city’s reading program to a “whole language approach,” where kids were supposed to learn language from context. The district bought textbooks and rolled out the initiative citywide.
The method, however, went too far, Mayo said. Teachers no longer taught phonics or spelling. “They moved completely away from basics,” he said. “Great teachers were trying it. It just didn’t work.”
The school district ditched the idea after two years.
“We wasted two years with that,” Mayo reflected.
“That was the fad then,” he said. “Everyone was doing it. I got sucked into that movement.”
Mayo also lived through some major shifts in thinking on how schools should treat kids. In his time as assistant principal at Troup, he recalled, he used to spank kids as punishment. He said he would run into former students years later on the street.
“You paddled me!” his former pupils would remind him.
Back then, corporal punishment was allowed in school. New Haven public schools stopped the practice in 1988, he recalled.
In his earlier years, Mayo lived through a major push in to create “community schools.” Schools like Katherine Brennan and Jackie Robinson got major federal grants to stay open as community centers long after the school bell rang. After the money federal dried up, the initiative dwindled.
As principal of Jackie Robinson, Mayo oversaw the first middle school to launch the “Comer Method,” an initiative invented by Yale psychologist James Comer to address kids’ social and emotional needs. The initiative involves creating school planning committees with parents and teachers; involving parents in school; and employing mental health professionals to help kids get the support they need.
The Comer Method “still works,” Mayo said. He said all but five city schools still use the approach. (Click here , and on the video above, for a glimpse into one example at Davis Street School.)
Lesson Four: College
One main plank of the city’s current reform effort has been a push to ensure kids can afford a college education. Mayor DeStefano got Yale to invest up to $4 million per year in a college scholarship program called New Haven Promise. The fund is administered by the Community Foundation For Greater New Haven.
Promise grants kids up to 100 percent of tuition at in-state public colleges and universities. To qualify, however, kids need to keep up a B average in high school. Mayo said Wednesday he believes New Haven needs to help kids who get a C average, too.
Kids with a C average in high school “can be great students in college,” Mayo said.
He added that he and DeStefano have faced criticism with the district’s newfound focus on college. Critics say that not every kid needs to go to.
Mayo said not every New Haven kid needs to go to college, but “they’ve got to be prepared to go.”
He noted that the city’s new vo-tech school will roll out new training programs for kids interested in technical careers.
Lesson Five: Pre-K
Mayo oversaw a robust expansion of the city’s pre-K offerings.
New Haven was already the birthplace of Head Start, a federal pre-K program for low-income families. A Yale professor, Edward Zigler, designed Head Start in the 1960s. New Haven tested the first Head Starts in the early 1960s; based on its successes, Head Start went nationwide and became part of President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty.
Under his tenure, New Haven expanded Head Start from 400 spots to 1,700, Mayo said. The city offers 3,000 total pre-K seats, including school readiness, Head Start and magnet school spots. Now three-quarters of kids arriving in kindergarten have already had a formal pre-K experience, Mayo said.
Pre-K is “the basic foundation for a kid’s education,” Mayo said. “That kid [who attends pre-K] is going to be so much better off” entering school.
Mayo said he hopes the next superintendent can further expand pre-K so that 100 percent of kindergarteners arrive with pre-K experience.
In his tenure, also expanded the city’s kindergarten offerings so that 100 percent—not just 70 percent—were full-day programs. And he put teachers aides in all classrooms in grades K to 2, though those in grade 2 were later cut back due to budget concerns.
He also oversaw the restructuring of schools back to K-8, so kids would stay on track in a small environment with adults who know them until they are ready for high school. And he oversaw the proliferation of magnet schools, providing families more choice and creating more small high school settings. That effort coincided with DeStefano’s signature $1.5 billion effort to rebuild or rehab every city school.
One large challenge facing the next superintendent, Mayo said, will be working on a strategy to engage parents. Parental involvement has “been a challenge ever since I’ve been superintendent,” he said. He said he believes he’s seen significant progress in the area.
He cited the work New Haven Promise and volunteer canvassers have done to reach out directly to families’ homes; a newly revived citywide parent organization; and a new series of workshops dubbed “Parent University.”
He said Brennan/Rogers School, the city’s first in-house turnaround school, has made great progress on parental involvement, as measured by the percent of parents who filled out surveys about their school.
“We’re on the right track,” Mayo said. But “there’s a lot more work to do” on engaging parents and on the other goals of the city’s reform effort, including closing the achievement gap and cutting the dropout rate in half.
“Our goals have not been met,” Mayo said.
He said he hopes the next superintendent continues to work collaboratively with the teachers union and mayor on the city’s school reform campaign.
Mayo said when he leaves the district, he plans to remain in New Haven, in part to be near three grandchildren who live locally. He said he looks forward to taking them to the movies and to Chuck E. Cheese’s. Mayo lives in upper Westville with his wife, Patsy. He said he may buy a home in Florida, but he’ll stay local. He plans to take “a short break,” then look for some kind of work.
“I’ve still got some energy left,” said Mayo. “I will do something.” He thanked the mayor and all the school staff for “a wonderful experience.”
“It’s been one great ride,” Mayo said. “I’ve loved every minute of it.”