Audit the curriculum in every school. Define how staff should be trained and supervised. Lobby for additional state funding. Set a district-wide strategy for parent involvement. And most importantly, review the district’s model of running many small schools.
Those are some of the high-level recommendations put forward by Superintendent Carol Birks’s 75-member transition team, which for the last five months, has reviewed the district’s data, conducted focus groups, and written reports about what New Haven should do to improve its schools.
Joshua Starr, the chief executive officer of Phi Delta Kappa International, a professional organization for educators that facilitated the discussions, presented a high-level summary at the Board of Education’s meeting Monday night at Celentano School.
“I know full well how difficult — and how courageous, frankly — it is to stop and take a hard look at what you’re doing,” said Starr, who previously served as school superintendent in Stamford. “Many of you have been involved in this work for many, many years, pouring in your heart and your time and your soul. Then, to get a whole bunch of people together and say, ‘Wait a second, let’s see where we can improve,’ is difficult.”
The full report, which will run about 40 pages long, is expected to be released next month, he added. While it will offer a plethora of ideas for instruction, staffing, engagement, and equity, many of the recommendations presented by the transition team can be summed up in one central idea: reevaluate the “portfolio model” of schools.
Currently, regardless of where they live, families in New Haven can apply to send their kids to most public schools, by entering their ranked choices in a lottery. Only 10 neighborhood schools, like Augusta Lewis Troup and Worthington Hooker, are off-limits if a family doesn’t live in the attendance zone. Most simply offer a preference to children who live nearby, but the rest of the spots can go to anyone in the city.
Eighteen more, known as interdistrict magnets, even offer seats to suburban kids. Organized around a special theme, like arts, business or engineering, those schools receive extra money from the state in exchange for filling a quarter of their desks with students from surrounding towns — all in the hopes of voluntarily desegregating across district lines.
Supported by federal Magnet School Assistance Program grants and state Interdistrict Magnet funding, these schools have been able to stay relatively small.
But as Starr pointed out on Monday, that costs a lot of money that the district might not have in the future. And an “inequitable distribution of resources” splits the system, contributing to gaps in both student opportunities and achievement levels.
“This is a community that is deeply committed to small schools and choice. It comes with a cost: a financial cost and the coherence of expectations,” Starr said, “It’s not really clear how resources — time, people and funds — are allocated across the 40-plus schools. It’s not transparent, and we need to do some work on that.”
An analysis by the Independent found vast differences in how much money from the general fund each school received for each student on their attendance sheets.
Last year, on average, the elementary schools were given $7,342 per student. That pays the salaries of administrators, teachers, security, custodians, clerks and paraprofessionals, as well as the costs of supplies, textbooks, field trips, graduation ceremonies and other contracts.
But some schools received far more, including $13,723 per student at West Rock STREAM Academy; $10,300, at Strong School (being rebuilt and renamed as the Barack Obama University Magnet School); and $9,759, at Betsy Ross Arts Magnet. Meanwhile, bottoming out the list, Columbus Family Academy, received as little as $5,552 per student.
In recent years, swings in test scores seem to reflect a school’s funding. West Rock, a PreK-4 inter-district magnet school, had the largest gain in reading scores over the last three years, with 16.9 percent more kids reaching grade level, while Columbus, a K-8 neighborhood school, had the district’s second-biggest drop, with 9.2 percent falling below grade level.
To address those issues, the transition team said that the board should develop a policy on equity that broadly addresses how employees should be thinking about race, language, gender, poverty, and disabilities in their work. An “equity leadership team,” which has already been assembled, could then drill down on specific plans.
In particular, three groups touched on what more could be done to minimize disparities between schools that had arisen with the portfolio model. They asked for the district to “review, revise and implement better policies and practices” to be sure each student is treated “more fairly and equitably”; to reevaluate its budgeting “through an equity lens”; and to set more consistency in parent expectations, contractor protocols, and other supports at each school.
In other areas, the transition team also called for a number of changes.
In talent management and development, the team suggested doubling down on recruitment for shortage areas and racial diversity, improving retention with a clearer career ladder and exit surveys, and training all faculty, including paraprofessionals and other support staff.
In family and community engagement, the team suggested instituting anti-racism and anti-bias training, gauging perceptions of the system’s work through a climate survey, and setting goals publicly with a quarterly report card.
In teaching and learning, the team suggested auditing the curriculum, aligning professional learning to district-wide goals, and ensuring that training is “job-embedded, differentiated and aligned to student achievement and culturally responsive practices.”
Finally, in organizational effectiveness, the team suggested overhauling the way grants are managed and forecasting budgets for multiple years out.
Starr added that he wasn’t knocking the work that had been done in the city’s education system already. He said New Haven had a number of strengths it was building on, including a strong slate of partners, a hard-working staff and strategic investments in operational efficiencies.
“Laying all of this out shouldn’t be seen as negative or things you haven’t done, but the things to work on if you want to get to the next level,” he said.
Whether those ideas are truly representative of what the district wants remains to be seen. Birks said she believed she picked a representative group, but throughout the process, several transition-team members criticized the lack of diverse voices from throughout the district.
“We thought it would be a way that we could get a broad array of stakeholders involved in the process of moving our district forward, a way for the superintendent to build relationships and credibility, as well as a way to assess and analyze the strengths and some of the areas of growth within our district and a way to engage stakeholders in meaningful partnerships,” Birks explained.
But from early on, several members on the transition team wondered if they had enough students in their working groups.
Parents also said they found it difficult to participate. Two moms from the watchdog group NHPS Advocates asked if they could send alternates when they couldn’t call out of work for the day-long sessions. Birks rejected their ask. She said they could send other members to take notes from the sidelines, but they could not participate in the discussion.
Birks said she plans to involve a larger group of stakeholders in the months ahead. She plans to shop the report around the district in meetings with the district’s leaders and small groups.
She added that she’ll be asking for more feedback as the district writes out a detailed strategic plan. Currently, individual schools follow improvement plans, but there’s no guide districtwide. School administrators need to review those plans, before they begin the process of writing the strategic plan, probably sometime this spring with help from Yale facilitators, Birks said.