At School Board, Harp Dives Into Details

Melissa Bailey Photo“Look at the ACCUPLACER,” the newest member of New Haven’s school board told her colleagues.

They were discussing the fine points of a state law that will affect hundreds of city high school students—a law she had voted on, and a topic she has studied in depth.

The new member was Toni Harp—who is also New Haven’s new mayor, a position that automatically gives her a seat on the seven-member board.

Carpooling with Superintendent Garth Harries, Harp traveled to Hill Regional Career High School to participate in Monday night’s meeting. She offered a first glimpse of what kind of education mayor she might be—engaged, like her predecessor, and tuned in to the details.

Before a larger-than-usual crowd for a board meeting, including charter-school proponents present to push her on their issue, Harp sat down at a nameplate that read “Toni N. Harp.” Harries sat next to her and pointed out key members of his staff. Harp already knew many of them, like schools wraparound services czar Sue Weisselberg, who worked at the Capitol while Harp was a state senator.

Thus began a much-watched chapter of Harp’s mayoralty. Harp replaces 20-year Mayor John DeStefano, who in the latter part of his mayoralty became the architect of and driving force behind a nationally watched school reform effort. As Harp takes over, educators, advocates and observers have wondered: What role will she play in governing the schools?

In arriving to the mayor’s seat, Harp has inherited many works in already in progress. She inherited labor contracts recently settled by the teachers and administrators unions—contracts that carry on key elements of DeStefano’s four-year-old school reform drive, including a new way of grading educators based in part on test scores. She inherited a four-year-old effort to grade all schools and overhaul some failing schools each year as “turnarounds.” And she inherited Garth Harries, who took over the school district in July on a one-year contract.

Harp’s entrance alongside Harries Monday signaled she is willing to work with him. And her remarks at Monday’s board meeting gave the audience a taste for a new leadership style.

Harries arrived at City Hall at 4:45 p.m. Monday, as reporters from at least five news outlets were awaiting Harp’s entrance to a 4:30 p.m. press conference about a problematic nightclub. He chatted with her staff and waited for her for half an hour. Then they headed to Career High in the same car. Throngs of people who don’t often come to the meetings—including charter school advocates, students, aldermen, and dozens of school administrators—showed up to check out Harp’s first performance inside the school library.

Harp sat down quietly at the front of the room and waited for the meeting to start.

When the meeting started—about 15 minutes late, as usual—Harries welcomed Harp. He asked members of different constituencies—parents, students, administrators, advocates—to raise their hands. School administrators outnumbered all the rest.

Harries, who takes charge at board meetings, even though he doesn’t sit on the board, began with some announcements: The schools are publishing a new school choice guide on Feb. 3 that will include all city schools, not just the magnets. And he has been meeting with some student leaders about their priorities for the district, including making sure there’s enough money to pay for Advanced Placement tests.

Then Harries dived into a major policy change he said has not gained the public attention it needs: Public Act 12-40.

That’s a new state law concerning college remediation. The law directs state colleges and universities to end remedial classes, pushing the burden of remedial education back to the high schools. The law takes effect this year, in the fall semester.

That means current high school seniors who want to go to Gateway Community College in the fall—the most common destination for college-bound seniors in New Haven public schools—may be barred access if they don’t pass entrance exams in English and math. Gateway won’t offer remedial classes anymore.

“This is a big deal,” Harries said.

The law aims to address a problem: High schools aren’t turning out graduates with the basic skills they need to succeed in college. The burden of bringing them up to speed falls to colleges. Students who start out in remedial education are more likely to drop out, ending up frustrated and in debt.

The change affects a lot of students: 89 percent of New Haven Public School graduates who attend Connecticut public colleges and universities need to catch up in English and math before they can start earning credits, according to one “startling” recent study. That includes “remedial” courses, which will be discontinued, as well as “developmental” classes, which will still be offered.

Harries announced that to brace for the upcoming change, the district has partnered with Gateway to start offering those remedial math and English classes in New Haven high schools.

Students can now take these new remedial college math and English classes instead of their normal classes senior year, explained Dolores Garcia-Blocker, the district’s newly promoted head of P-20 learning (the pre-K to career pathway). She said the effort aims to align high school standards with college standards.

Harp, who had been listening quietly, spoke up.

“I wonder how the curriculum would be different” in the remedial classes instead of the normal high school classes, Harp said. “And do we have a way of knowing that that enhancement class will get the young people to where they need to be to pass” the entrance tests at a higher level?

Garcia-Blocker answered her. If high school seniors pass the courses, they will automatically be eligible to enroll at Gateway in the fall, she said.

“We are offering the exact course that Gateway would be offering to these students if we were to go there and need the remedial course,” Garcia-Blocker said.

So, “if they pass the class, they go right to coursework in the fall?” Harp asked.

Yes, came the answer.

In a conversation like this one, DeStefano would typically hang back and then drop in with a big question. He would ask staff to get moving on a broad policy and let school staff sort out the details. His major contributions—getting the state to fund a $1.6 billion school rebuilding initiative; recruiting American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten to draft a teachers contract that became the blueprint for a reform effort—were often grand in scale. At times, he got intimately involved in the minutiae of school reform—such as reading the Washington, D.C. teachers contract and boning up on new ways to evaluate educators—but he usually took a more big-picture approach to overseeing the schools.

At the school board Monday, Harp jumped into the details more than DeStefano typically did. Harp—who passed the law that the school board was discussing—drew on her 20 years as a state senator to add her piece to the conversation.

“I think it’s really important that you do take a look at the ACCUPLACER,” she said at one point, referring to the college entrance exam. “Different community colleges have pass rates set at different points,” she said.

In a public comment portion of the meeting, Harp accepted official welcomes from the heads of the administrators union and Delta Phi Kappa, a sorority of African-American female educators.

And she heard a message from Varick Memorial AME Zion Church Pastor Eldren Morrison, who has emerged as the face of the local charter school movement backed by the watchdog group ConnCAN.

“We thank you for the promises that you made around education,” Morrison said.

The “promises” he was referring to came an October campaign event, at which the Achievement First charter network organized parents to meet with Harp at one of its charter schools and ask her to sign a pledge.

Harp pledged to “support the growth of high quality seats for New Haven’s children through the opening of 3 new schools annually, including high-performing charter schools.”

Too many minority kids are failing in schools, he said, and the waiting lists are too long for schools of choice.

Morrison is seeking state support to open a charter school called the Booker T. Washington Academy next fall.

ConnCAN made big preparations for Harp’s first day. The organization conducted a telephone poll of 400 New Haven households, compiled a video, and recruited parents and other advocates to show up to Monday’s meeting. No other charter advocates besides Morrison spoke Monday.

After the meeting, Harp said she supports Morrison’s proposed school. She said she would be willing to send a letter of support to the state, but “it’s a state Board of Education decision.”

She was asked what her relationship will be with charter advocates.

“I’ll have an open door to everyone,” she said.

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posted by: grounded on January 14, 2014  10:20am

Regarding this: “Harp pledged to ‘support the growth of high quality seats for New Haven’s children through the opening of 3 new schools annually, including high-performing charter schools.’”

What does the opening of new schools (3 new schools every year!) have to do with education quality?  Having lots of new institutions says nothing about the quality of those institutions or the already-existing institutions.  Sounds like a full-employment policy for would-be school administrators and non-profit executive directors.  But it doesn’t sound like it has anything to do with school quality.

posted by: THREEFIFTHS on January 14, 2014  10:45am

Charter school advocates are among the biggest scam artists in politics. They use the language of failing Public Schools to transfer public assets into private hands.Charters Schools are the ideal deal, where the public takes all the risk and the corporations can’t lose.The fat cats behind charter schools want to keep them technically part of the public sphere, but only so that the public will continue to pay the costs. That’s why billionaires love charters! The public pays the bill, while private companies reap the profits. Black parents are especially susceptible to the privatizers’ propaganda, which uses the language of community control. But that’s the most cynical ploy of all. Corporate education is responsible to shareholders, not parents or students.

My Bad. Jonique Webb
concerns “that too many kids aren’t getting the education they deserve.“There are too many kids in the public school system who are falling through the cracks, and it’s also alarming that one in three third graders are being left behind, reading under the grade level, Webb said in the release. “I would like for my kids and other kids in
New Haven to be prepared for college and to be successful because they
deserve it and our city needs it.

Parents’ active involvement with their child’s education at home and in school According to research studies, Show the children of involved parents: are absent less frequently; behave better; do better academically from pre-school through high school Research also shows that Home instructional environments also have a powerful impact on Children Learning.

posted by: Theodora on January 14, 2014  11:26am

This notion that a church obtain a charter — and the taxpayer dollars that go with it — is absurd. There is absolutely no way to keep the missions separate.

If this pastor truly believes it is his mission to start a school, he should be out sweating for it, not begging for it.

It is enough that his church receive tax-exempt status. Let’s not see taxpayer money thrown their way for political patronage.

posted by: NewHavenPublic on January 14, 2014  12:13pm

Welcome Mayor Harp.  Please keep asking thoughtful questions of the board.

“Harries, who takes charge at board meetings, even though he doesn’t sit on the board…”
As a corporate “reformer” with little experience in education, I suspect Harries will continue to encourage private companies to raid the public schools - in many direct and indirect ways.  I predict the private company running Clemente school will have their lucrative contract renewed, even though they perform no better than public school staff.

I sincerely hope New Haven will respect the separation of church and state.  You cannot have a school run by a church and claim it is not a religious school.

posted by: New Haven Nuisance on January 14, 2014  12:27pm

I feel that I have missed the details that Harp dove in to. Maybe she covered more details than were written about here, but this article only provides quotes from her that are vague opinions or questions.

posted by: Teachergal on January 14, 2014  12:38pm

Maybe if we began to teach to the needs of the child instead of the test we would see different results. And, should we allow undisciplined/disruptive children continue to disrupt the class then we will continue to get the same results. Lastly, we need classes that are engaging, hands on, and kid friendly. My most recent experience at a turn around school was dismaying on many levels. Bored kids needing attention, lack of motivating lessons, lack of engaging social development activities at all grade levels, and lastly, frustrated teachers trying to teach unmotivated students developmentally, inappropriate materials. And don’t get me started on our bilingual students who sit in classrooms having no idea what is going on, heartbreaking.  But what do I know after teaching 33 years.

posted by: JohnTulin on January 14, 2014  1:50pm

When the meeting started—about 15 minutes late, as usual…

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

These are the same people that expect students to show up on time.  Any credible organization starts meetings on time if for no other reason but to make a point:  this isn’t a joke, and people’s time is respected and valued. 

NHPS:  Grow up!

posted by: Teachergal on January 14, 2014  2:21pm

Do as we say not as we do has always been the model in NH!

posted by: ELMCITYPROF on January 14, 2014  3:22pm

I remain incredibly skeptical of claims made regarding the success of charter schools that fail to address the tendency of said schools to squeeze out students who pose challenges in traditional schools (e.g. special education students). When will New Haven stop committing to building multi million dollar schools and instead start aggressively addressing what’s happening WITHIN these schools? Standardized testing is problematic but is not solely to blame for the high number of students in need of remedial courses. It’s time to address the holistic development of these students that includes greater attention to issues of mental health, home stability, behavior, mentorship, and academic achievement.

posted by: Piq-NN on January 14, 2014  7:33pm

Here’s the “pledge” Harp signed:

Is your description of ConnCan as a “watchdog” group really accurate?  From what I’ve seen, they seem like a straight-up advocacy organization for charter schools.  Far from impartial.

posted by: cedarhillresident! on January 14, 2014  9:19pm

Every time I here Charter I cringe…for some reason it makes me think of privatized prisons (which to me keeps the cycle going to keep the money flowing). Now don’t get me wrong, when you look at a school like Common Ground you can’t help but think that they work. But then you look at others that remove the challenged hard to teach kids so that their ratings stay high and it appears they are doing better than the average public school.

I am pro small community schools personally….it takes a village…and we know long have that village in our community any more. Has it hurt our kids??

posted by: cedarhillresident! on January 14, 2014  9:23pm

one more pet peve…we talk about those long waiting lists…what about those kids out there who parents do not for what ever reason, even try to get their kids in the better school? Do those kids not deserve the same chance? But because their parents have issues or do not have the time what ever the case is… do these kids not deserve equal to those whos parents make the effort? Just a sad thing I noticed about the great divide.

posted by: Nashstreeter on January 15, 2014  1:39am

“High-performing schools” is a rather fluid concept, I think, in that Amistad, for instance, achieves that category by holding back the low-performing students—or even sending them back to the public system—in order to burnish their self-advertised reputation.

If it’s true that 89 percent of New Haven Public School graduates who attend Connecticut public colleges need to catch up in English and math before they can start earning credits, then clearly there are more than a few schools that are “failing.” The entire freaking system is failing! How can we possibly hope to remedy that by letting test-driven corporate entities that lie about their “success” and weed out the hard-to-teach students take over?

Isn’t it time to re-examine the last 20 years’ worth of policies from our previous mayor and superintendent to see how they brought us to this pass and figure out a new way forward? And is Harries (Reggie Mayo’s designated heir) the one to do it?

Bravo, Toni, for putting the burden of educating our high school graduates onto the free public school system rather than on the tuition-required state and community college system. We owe our kids a real education.

posted by: Tom Burns on January 15, 2014  11:08pm

Welcome Mayor Harp—
We have many ideas we wish to share with you—just thought we would give you a bit of time to settle in before we met you in person—the New Haven Public School teachers wish you the best of luck—and invite you to become a part of the real deal in our education revolution- happening here—right now—see you soon—Tom VP NHFT Local 933