20 Days Absent—& Stay Back?

Toni Harp called for reinstituting a 160-day attendance rule at James Hillhouse High School—and in the process took a swipe at one of her rivals in the mayoral election.

Harp, one of five Democrats running to replace retiring 20-year incumbent Mayor John DeStefano, made the remarks in a press release issued Tuesday. The missive represents her most direct attack so far on Hillhouse High Principal Kermit Carolina, a fellow African-American mayoral candidate who is vying for many of the same votes as she—and who has been attacking her forcefully in recent weeks.

She released it on the same day that her campaign issued a fund-raising email message entitled “Toni is under attack: Let’s defend her!” “Donate now to reward Toni’s integrity and punish Kermit’s dishonesty,” it urges. A second section accused Carolina and another candidate, Henry Fernandez, of being “bullies.” It faults Fernandez for pressing criticisms of Harp for supporting a state budget deal that included expanding Keno electronic gambling to city establishments. “Donate now to stand up to them,” the release urges.

In her press release Tuesday, Harp called for all city high schools to adopt a “160-day rule.” The rule, instituted at Hillhouse High by former Principal Lonnie Garris, holds kids back a grade if they miss more than 20 days of school (“with exceptions for medical conditions and other serious circumstances”).

Carolina ended that policy after he took over the high school in 2010.

Paul Bass PhotoHarp recruited Garris (pictured) to help build a case for the 160-day rule—and therefore, against Carolina’s leadership.

Carolina dismissed the critique. “Her attack lets me know that she’s threatened by my presence in this race,” he said. “She and her campaign are realizing there a lot more people out here who support my candidacy than she originally thought.”

Garris, who retired in 2010, is quoted in Harp’s release claiming that the 160-day policy led to a 10 percent increase in attendance. Kids showed up to school more when they were threatened with being held back, the logic goes.

“It was born out of necessity, and it was an excellent policy,” Garris said in the statement.

Harp first sent out a release blaming Carolina for an alleged 20-point drop in the graduation rate, from 61.2 to 41.8 percent. Then the campaign revised the release after the Independent pointed out a factual error. Harp’s release had gotten its years mixed up: The drop in graduation rates took place under Garris’ leadership, not when Carolina took over.

District data show the graduation rate actually rose by 12 percentage points under Carolina, from 41.8 percent in 2009-10, before Carolina took over the school, to 53.5 percent in 2010-11, to 53.9 percent in 2011-12.

After the Independent pointed this out, Harp’s campaign issued a second press release revising its attack: This time, the campaign charged that Hillhouse’s average graduation rate under Carolina is lower than Garris’ average graduation rate.

Melissa Bailey Photo“We can do better, and our kids deserve better,” said Harp, who’s a state senator. “We can implement a 160-Day rule that keeps our kids in school and keeps them on track to graduate. Not every absence is truancy, but struggling parents should get the support they need to make sure their kids are in classrooms. We need to show that we’re using the best policies and that they work for all of our kids. Every child deserves a fair chance.”

Her release ignores the fact that, beginning with the Class of 2010, the state overhauled the way it calculates its graduation rate. The new rates give a more honest appraisal of the true graduation rate, resulting in lower rates all around. Read about that here.

Harp’s campaign also referenced a report by attorney Floyd Dugas that investigated allegations of transcript-tampering at Hillhouse under Carolina’s tenure. Harp cited Dugas’ report, which found that one student-athlete at Hillhouse had moved up to senior year despite missing 45 days of school.

Carolina replied that many students in the school—not just student-athletes—were promoted despite missing more than 20 days of school.

He said when he took over as principal, he reviewed policies that Garris had implemented. The 160-day rule was not required by the New Haven Public Schools: The city school board policy says “a student may be retained in a grade with an absence of 20 or more days from school,” not must be retained.

Carolina took issue with the rule on two fronts: First, “I thought it was unfair to kids first and foremost because there are a number of extenuating circumstances that need to be dealt with on an individual basis.”

Second, he said, the rule “takes the power away from teachers.” The teachers’ contract “clearly states that teachers shall be the expert in determining the grades of a student and whether the student has met expectations,” Carolina noted.

Finally, Carolina said, Garris “didn’t even enforce his own rule.” More than 15 percent of students who graduated in 2010, in Garris’s final year, missed over 20 days of school, Carolina said.

Melissa Bailey PhotoCarolina (pictured) served a three-day suspension in connection to the transcript-tampering probe. He is fighting the punishment through a labor grievance; an arbitrator is set to rule soon on his case, he said. He has maintained his innocence in the case: Click here to read a document outlining his defense.

Carolina swung back at Harp and Garris.

He said when he took over Hillhouse, “there were a lot of things I had to clean up here at the school that had gone unattended to.”

“I’m disappointed in Garris’ attempt to join the Harp team in the effort to discredit my hard work at Hillhouse. If anyone knows the difficult challenges that a leader faces in changing a building like Hillhouse, it’s Garris,” Carolina said. “I’m disappointed that he has allowed himself to be used by Harp’s campaign this way.”

Carolina noted that despite other declines in satisfaction on school surveys, parents gave positive feedback: 78 percent responded favorably about the school, which was a couple of points higher than the district average for high schools. Ninety-one percent of parents said they feel the environment supports learning.

He charged that Harp’s 20 years at the state Capitol have left her out of touch with New Haven.

“When has Toni Harp ever cared about what happens in the New Haven Public School system?” Carolina said. “I don’t know if she’s ever been in Hillhouse High school, much less any other high school in the city, to show concern.”

“She’s been missing in action for way too long,” he said.

“Her own children didn’t attend public schools. They went to private schools,” said Carolina, whose son attends Hillhouse. “For her to try to give the appearance that she’s concerned about people in public schools is absurd.”

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posted by: anonymous on July 10, 2013  8:24am

Wow, Harp is REALLY bad at data.  Her release is shocking and completely incorrect.

Can we please get a few candidates who are more fully baked?

posted by: THREEFIFTHS on July 10, 2013  8:44am

Harp first sent out a release blaming Carolina for an alleged 20-point drop in the graduation rate, from 61.2 to 41.8 percent. Then the campaign revised the release after the Independent pointed out a factual error. Harp’s release had gotten its years mixed up: The drop in graduation rates took place under Garris’ leadership, not when Carolina took over

Hey Tell the Truth & Shame the Devil.Looks like they can not get there facts together.Notice Then the campaign revised the release after the Independent pointed out a factual error. Harp’s release had gotten its years mixed up: The drop in graduation rates took place under Garris’ leadership, not when Carolina took over

James 3:8, “But no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.” The tongue can be the most wicked weapon on earth, so use it wisely and speak your words with caution.

posted by: SaveOurCity on July 10, 2013  8:47am

looks like Harp needs some math tutoring….

posted by: westville man on July 10, 2013  8:59am

THANK YOU, thank you, thank you NHI for once again supplying the link to Carolina’s rebuttal of the so-called investigation.
I urge any and all NHI readers, especially those who consider themselves objective, to read it in its entirety.  And read Dugas’ report- it’s FULL of innuendos, inconsistencies and half-truths that evidence Dugas struggling to find what King John charged him to do. Shoddy work but my guess he was frustrated at finding nothing and it shows.  Joyner’s main charges, which she could have easily checked out herself (teachers in her own school!) were found untrue by Dugas himself. Again,  thank you NHI for providing that information to the readership.

posted by: robn on July 10, 2013  9:01am

Here’s an insane idea; don’t focus on attendance, focus on performance. I’d let students with stellar academic performance have Fridays off starting maybe mid-semester and verified with every Thursday quizzes. Or unmotivated students might get motivated. Then with smaller classrooms, teachers could focus on students who need the attention.

posted by: HhE on July 10, 2013  9:02am

Every high school that I worked at with an attendence policy, it was more trouble than good.

Peekskill’s 90/10 policy required students to be in class 90% of the time.  If they were not, then their grade would be a 40 (otherwise, the lowest grade was a 50).  Since the school would not differentiate between an excused or unexcused absence, students could make up any class they miss after school.  Teachers had to prepare work that could be done in a study hall enviroment for the students—as if that had the same educational value as a proper classroom.  The result of this policy was students skipping class, since they were allowed so many absences and could always make them up, and teachers recording “incompletes” each quarter becuase students had ten days after the marking period to make up classes. 

Southington High School’s was better, but still problematic.  Students would lose credit if they exceded a set number of absences, or on their second cut from class.  Students could appeal this loss of credit.  So we had “attendce screening comities” of one adminstrator and two hapless teachers.  Everytime I sat on one of these, the admistrator would decide of give an extension and restore credit or not, and compell the teachers to sign off.  On the other end of this, after doing all the paper work on a student, I would get “zero day extension—credit restored” without any explination.  One day, a student of mine said, “You ever notice Mr. Ellis, how when a good student runs afoul of the attendence policy, they always lose credit, but when a bad student does, they always get credit restored?”  Being a good soilder, I did not say anything, but yes, yes I had noticed. 

End of part one.

posted by: Righteous Cyclist on July 10, 2013  9:02am

Every time I see a picture of Harp, she has a disposable bottle of water. And the harp campaign has reusable Nalgene bottles that they hand out. What’s the deal? Does she care about the environment at all?

posted by: HhE on July 10, 2013  9:09am

Part Two.

In Wolcott, we had Cell Phone Dan.  Never mind state law and school policy, this 5th year senior wore his cell phone on his hip.  Every time I would see him the morning, I would think, great, he will actually be in class today.  But no, he would call his mom to call him out of school.  He still graduated that year.  I’ll let you connect the dots.

Atendence policies create contridictions.  They tell students you are allowed so many absences, so go ahead and use them.  They increase teacher work load, which I would not mind if they worked, but attendence policies actully tend to increase absentisim. 

In my four years as a high school student, I missed 1 1/2 days.  I was sent home sick one day, and I took a Friday off to visit colleges.

posted by: Curious on July 10, 2013  9:09am

Absolutely hilarious, but the incorrect statements by Harp will swamp the rebuttals by Carolina, seeing how much out-of-town money she has to push out her message.

posted by: Wikus van de Merwe on July 10, 2013  9:37am

Oh boy, I’ve had this boss before.  Comes in and needs to change everything for the sake of making it their own, regardless of whether or not it makes sense.

160 or 180 days isn’t going to pull our 62.5% graduation rate (that’s average over the last 3 years for the inevitable cherry picker who tries to cite last year’s rate as typical) up to 90+% where it should be.  It seems to me the more tools you take out of teachers hands the less likely it is they will able to effectively do their job.

posted by: RHeerema on July 10, 2013  9:56am

Let’s get to the root of the issue: why is the current educational experience so poor that young people WANT to be absent so frequently?  How can we change this?  Promote a sense of belonging? Stimulate a love of learning & stop killing curiosity?

posted by: Noteworthy on July 10, 2013  10:25am

Fact Errors, Sexism and Contradiction Notes:

1. Fact errors, intentionally or through ignorance, present the latest contradictory picture of Toni Harp and it says a lot about who is really running for mayor. Neither is good.

2. Is Harp the seasoned budget pro overseeing the minutia of a $20 billion state budget that little people and other candidates don’t understand? Or is she a patsy who can’t read a spread sheet and understand basic numbers and their genesis?

3. Is Harp the independent self made woman unconcerned and uninvolved in her family business or is she weak and subject to bullying and manipulation?

4. Is Harp really connected to the suffering of the minority and poorer neighborhoods and if so, how can she be traumatized by what she saw while campaigning in the ‘ville?

5. Is Harp the social service queen and champion of the downtrodden or is she really the extremely well paid director of homeless services with an academic knowledge and understanding of the issues but shocked by it when seeing it with her own eyes?

It’s a complicated picture and should not be. I’ve known strong women all my life, some of them in politics. They would never be traumatized by the plight of the poor or claim a sexist defense in the political arena especially at a time when society is focused on equal pay and equal opportunity for women.

posted by: Noteworthy on July 10, 2013  10:27am

P.S. Notes:

This is a dumb idea. The last month of school is a waste already - a time when very little is achieved. Attendance while important, doesn’t guarantee performance. It didn’t work under the principal who put it into effect so why do it now? The Harp campaign should do better research.

posted by: Curious on July 10, 2013  10:29am

Echoing HhE, why hold a kid back for attendance alone?

If that kid was passing, what good are you doing them by keeping them back a grade for missing an arbitrarily-determined number of days?

SOme kids aren’t challenged enough and can pass without being in every class.  Why take a year of their lives away for that?

Bad idea, bad policy.  Bad for kids.

posted by: omgk on July 10, 2013  12:04pm

I am a hillhouse grad i actually stayed back my freshman year due to the160 rule i had good grades but i missed i think btwn 25 and 30 days that year with a report card filled with b,&,c wen i got my report it had all fffffffff due to me being absent an i felt it was jus unfair i say mak it 30days because 20 is jus to few esp.when most principals dnt even kno what that kids faces on a day to day basis when he or she gets home i neva seen garris ride thru the ville or westhills not any of my peers ever talkd about garris havin a meeting at their homes to talk about whats going on its jus you missed 20days you stay back totally unfair

posted by: Wikus van de Merwe on July 10, 2013  1:07pm

I’m going to call shenanigans on omgk.  They laid it on too thick to still believable that that individual they were portraying would use the abbreviation for “especially”, particularly since it has the only properly used punctuation in the entire comment.

posted by: Curious on July 10, 2013  1:36pm

I’m with Quinn, it feels forced.  When people try to pass themselves off as someone else, they’re usually too heavy-handed.

posted by: Thomas Alfred Paine on July 10, 2013  7:53pm

The New Haven Board of Education should establish an attendance policy for all New Haven public schools. The attendance policy should not be vague and it should not be left to the interpretation of individual school principals. It is foolish for there to be different attendance policies within one school district. If a 20 day absence rule is established, it must be enforced consistently by the Board and every administrator in order for it to be taken seriously by students and parents. That is the only way such a rule will have the desired result of improved student attendance. The Board and many administrators and principals fail the students by not being consistent in enforcing rules and discipline. No school system should consider it acceptable for students to be eligible for promotion who have exceeded twenty absences.
This should be the focus of this campaign: motivating kids to come to school. A lot of this background noise: who lives in a big Westville house, who’s more dedicated to the black community, the age and length of time in public service, the residency rumor, the suspension of the Hillhouse principal and the cheating scandal investigation and other issues at Hillhouse—all these charges and counter charges are distractions from the real issues that New Haveners are concerned about. Get off the road of negativity and all the personal attacks and focus on what direction New Haven needs to go!

posted by: Bill Saunders on July 11, 2013  1:12am

Curious Quinn,

Since NHI wouldn’t post my sharp but fair counter-assessment of omgk, I can only assume that he is as he claims.

posted by: Bill Saunders on July 11, 2013  3:20am

Thomas Alfred Paine,

Strictly enforced attendance edicts do as much to discourage the “wrong” students, as they do to encourage the “right” ones.

If I was a student who fell into a bad spell, and missed 20 days the first half of the year, I would have no reason to even think about repenting to finish my class year—the Attendance Godz have already spoken, sent me back a grade, and left me to engage my own personal frolic in the meantime.

Though it makes the bureaucrats feel good to manage ‘metrics’ with cold, procedural medicine, the underlying flaw with that mentality is that the ‘problem’ being addressed has too many disparate human variables to be effectively controlled ‘by policy’.

posted by: omgk on July 11, 2013  10:04am

Las time i checkd no one is being graded on their comments you people need to get sum commen sense an learn how to do things different i will abbrev.wat i want and how i want and mak punctuations wen i want to also.lol now with dat being said everything i said in my past comment musta ben to real for you people to handle.but it happend now wnt yall learn how to abbrev.mayb it will save quinn whoeva you are sum time to be more productive doin sumthin else rather than being on the nhi all day everyday.lets go kerm.

posted by: Thomas Alfred Paine on July 11, 2013  10:45am

The Board of Education and many administrators have failed to enforce many rules and regulations on a consistent basis because they fear that too many students will not comply and, as a result, large numbers of students would be suspended or held back a year. When the school system sets in place a policy and enforces it consistently and fairly the students and their parents will eventually become more compliant. School leaders have to say what they mean and mean what they say. They must have a backbone and enforce the policies. Most of the disciplinary problems schools face today are the result of administrator failure to consistently enforce the rules. It is almost like they give up at times because it is too hard to do.
Schools should teach real life lessons: responsibility, accountability, that there are consequences for every action or inaction. When schools spare the children from learning such lessons early on, they spoil the children for later life. The cruelty is failure to teach them these lessons.
Bill Saunders says:“Strictly enforced attendance edicts do as much to discourage the “wrong” students, as they do to encourage the “right” ones.” This has been the attitude of many school administrators. Here is a question for Saunders: What will you tell these students when they are fired from their jobs because they are chronically late to work or are absent from work 20 or more days? This is not “cold, procedural medicine,” these are facts of life in the real world and schools should teach real world facts!

posted by: Bill Saunders on July 11, 2013  1:28pm

Thomas Alfred Paine,

There are exceptions to all rules that might require a little extra humanity and understanding.