Candidates Differ On Paths To School Reform

Paul Bass PhotoFourth of four parts on where mayoral candidates stand on major issues.

The four Democratic mayoral candidates have books ready to assign all of New Haven to read—and some competing ideas about how to improve the schools.

Those suggestions and competing visions emerged in four separate interviews with the candidates running for mayor in next Tuesday’s Democratic mayoral primary: Kermit Carolina, Justin Elicker, Henry Fernandez, and Toni Harp.

The next mayor will face the challenge of taking the city’s nascent school-reform drive to its next level—and start showing meaningful results. The candidates all agreed about the centrality of that mission and the need for experimenting with new ideas. They disagreed on how to get there—on whether or not to continue with outside management or internal “turnaround” plans for failing schools, for instance, or whether to seek Yale’s or Southern Connecticut State University (SCSU)‘s help in training principals.

Here’s what they said in the interviews:

Do you agree with the idea of asking Yale’s School of Management (SOM) to create a track to train principals, as a feeder for future New Haven’s building leaders?

This idea came from Henry Fernandez during the campaign. He suggested SOM create a training track for principals. It would draw top students from across the country and include field work in New Haven schools. Students would include current and future New Haven public school employees. And the goal would be to see some of each year’s graduates move on to jobs in New Haven’s schools. Click here to read more about Fernandez’s plan, which has drawn an initial positive response from SOM’s dean and Yale’s president.

Elicker: “Yes, but ... we can’t tell SOM what to do and expect them to do it. We can’t as mayors force Yale to do things” He’d explore the idea of building on the model of the Yale legal clinic with a variety of Yale professional schools, including forestry and divinity: having the schools dedicate their resources to city issues as part of an academic mission.

Harp: Bad idea. SOM’s the wrong partner. “Principals in New Haven don’t manage a budget in a way that business owners would manage a budget.” Southern Connecticut State University (SCSU) is the better partner because it already has an education school. “It produces most of the teachers in our region.”

Carolina: “Better options” than SOM already exist. He would make use of a program run by the Connecticut Association of Schools that trains principals. He went through it himself. “I had a coach coming in as principal of Hillhouse High School. I can’t tell you how invaluable he was. There’s something to be said for somebody who has practical experience” training principals, he said.

Would you experiment with more outside management of schools?

Elicker: Yes. “What’s good about the mayor’s school reform effort is an acknowledgement that one size does not fit all” in experimenting with different models.

Yes—making sure to be careful about the companies the city hires, requiring they prove they have succeeded at one school before giving them a second school. He said the firms hired to run Clemente and Urban Youth have not yet proved successfull.

Harp: Yes, after first ascertaining that existing experiments have worked. “We need to make our schools work by whatever means necessary. We’ve got to look at any models.”

Carolina: No. “I haven’t seen one that’s worked effectively yet. Some of these companies were not successful in other places.”

Do you support the proposal to create a hybrid Board of Education?

The proposal will appear as a referendum question on the Nov. 5 general election ballot. It would make two of the board’s seven seats—all of which the mayor now appoints—popularly elected.

Elicker: Yes. Click here to watch his video explaining why.

Fernandez: “I’m comfortable” with the proposal because it creates “more transparency” and “parent involvement” while leaving a major of appointments to the board in the hands of the mayor.

Harp: “Yes. I do believe the mayor should be involved in the Board of Education and sit on the board.”

Carolina: “Definitely. I just personally went through my own experiences needing the support of the board when I was wrongly accused of grade-tampering. Politics got in the way of a fair investigation ... Because [Mayor John] DeStefano put them on the board, they felt an allegiance to him.  A hybrid board, having students and parents involved in that board, would create the kind of independence that’s needed. We don’t want to turn it into a political circus. But we need more inclusion.”

Do you plan to attend Board of Ed meetings? Why or why not?

Elicker: Yes. An Independent story earlier in the campaign quoted Elicker saying he would not attend, because he wanted the board to be more autonomous from central mayoral control. (Asked at a fundraiser if he’d sit on the board, he responded, “the short answer is no.”) In the interview for this article, he said that he has since thought more about the issue, and that he never ruled out attending in the first place. “‘I’m going to look at it and get back to you’ is what I said” then, he maintained. Since then, he argued, the question of mayoral control has become less pressing because with the system poised to change, with two of seven board members now becoming elected rather than mayorally appointed. What if the proposed change doesn’t pass? “It will pass.”

Fernandez: “Absolutely. One of the primary reasons I’m running for mayor” is to improve the schools. Fernandez has asked voters not to elect him to a second term if the schools don’t improve under his watch in a first term.

Harp: “Yes. I do believe the mayor should be involved in the Board of Education and sit on the board.”

Carolina: Certainly. If you’re the leader of the city, and education is the most important thing to you, which it is to me, it is at the center of progress particularly for our most distressed neighborhoods and low-income residents, you have to lead by example. Being there sets the example. If it’s important to you, it’s important to everyone else.”

Should we designate more turnaround schools?

A central part of New Haven’s school reform effort has involved grading and “tiering” schools—and naming some failing schools as “turnarounds.” Principals of those schools get the power to hire their own staff and make changes (like longer school days) in rules in conjunction with unions. Some have criticized the process for falsely designating schools as “failing” based on unfair criteria; others have argued that the process has enabled some schools, like Brennan/Rogers, to start afresh and post gains.

Elicker: Yes. The data gathered as part of tiering process is the kind of information parents want in order to judge the performance of their children’s schools.

Fernandez: Yes, but with a new plan. He would broaden the turnaround concept by creating basically new schools within “failing” school buildings, rather than simply naming a new principal with new powers. “When you have a school that’s failed for a significant number of years, you have to change the culture. ... You don’t take all the kids who were in a failing school last year and have all those kids come back.” He would redirect students from a failing school to other schools in the system. Then he would rebuild the “turnaround” school with brand-new classes, perhaps two a year (say, a first grade or kindergarten and a fifth grade in the first year).

Harp: Yes, whether or not the term “turnaround” is used or a new name. “I’ve always thought as a mother that the school day’s too short and inconvenient for working women.”

Carolina: Skeptical of the program. Low test results do “underscore the need” to try new ideas. But “it seems like the dance of the lemons” when a principal can get rid of all the teachers he or she doesn’t want—but those teachers go elsewhere in the system. “Where does the other half of that staff go? It has a negative impact.”

Everyone has mentioned cutting the number of “administrators” to save money at the Board of Ed. Can you name at least three such positions you’d cut? Any?

Elicker: No. He does say the “central office” has too many administrators in it in general. “I think that what is important is quality.” For instance, strong principals set the tone for a building’s success; he points to the success of New Haven Academy Principal Greg Baldwin in motivating everyone in his building, as opposed to the tone set at Wilbur Cross High School, where an administrator crashed a classroom and gave the impression that “everyone was in trouble” because students had invited Elicker to speak to them about politics.

Fernandez: Cut the jobs of assistant principals sent “on assignment” to other schools because they haven’t performed well in their current assignments; “it’s not as hard to fire an assistant principal as to fire a teacher, and we fire teachers.” Also examine whether the system gets “value added” from some of those assistant principal positions, period.

Harp: Assistant principals who are in charge of discipline. She would also cut “dean” positions (like these at Hillhouse).

Carolina: Examine central office staff to weed out unneeded positions. Replace assistant principals currently focused on “school climates” with lower-salaried positions filled with people better suited to handle behavior problems. He did that at Hillhouse by creating those “dean” positions; he can hire two deans for less money than one assistant principal.

Do you support the partial-day vo-tech high school being developed? If you support more, how would you pay for it?

New Haven is developing a partial-day vo-tech school (similar to the Education Center for the Arts) in which students take some classes a their regular schools in the morning, then attend the specialized program in the afternoon. The program is scheduled to open soon inside the Hillhouse High School building. (It had originally been planned to occupy space at the old Gateway Community College building on Long Wharf.) Before he dropped out of this year’s Democratic mayoral primary race, candidate Sundiata Keitazulu called for the opening of another vo-tech school as well.

Elicker: Rather than build an additional school, consolidate existing classes in city schools—on automotive repair, cooking, engineering—to create a certification track.

Fernandez: Not a new school. He does support having vo-tech options at school, but doesn’t want students in a track separate from tracks preparing students for college. “Otherwise it can quickly end up training people for jobs that don’t exist or won’t exist in the near future.”

Harp: Integrate existing vo-tech courses into regular high-school curricula rather than spend money on new programs. Explore possible afternoon opportunities at Eli Whitney.

Carolina: “Very excited” about the vo-tech program moving into Hillhouse’s building. “We’re not in a position” to afford spending more city money on creating an additional school.

If New Haven does another “Big Read,” what book should it be?

In recent years New Haven has invited people of all ages to read one book at the same time—To Kill A Mockingbird in one case, Fahrenheit 451 in another—then hold communal discussions about it.

Elicker: The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs. That book is a bible of sorts to New Urbanists critical of the destruction of New Haven neighborhoods during mid-20th Century urban renewal. Alternative selections: Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma or Paul Tough’s How Children Succeed.

Fernandez: Letter From A Birmingham Jail or Why We Can’t Wait by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.  “Dr. King speaks of the urgency of tackling the major social justice issues that our society faces now. All of us can from time to time look away” from challenges of poverty, crime and social justice.

Harp: The Secret Life Of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd. “It deals with domestic violence and women coming together and providing a place of healing and growth for one another. It’s all very subtly about race and ways in which women can overcome racial issues together.”

Carolina: The Pact by Sampson Davis, George Jenkins and Rameck Hunt. “It talks about three young men who grew up in a tough neighborhood. They made a pact that they would become successful and they would support each other through times to reach their goals. It’s a great example of how to overcome our young people overcome obstacles to work together and successful in their lives.”

Previous installment in this series:

Where the candidates stand on housing and neighborhood development
Where the candidates stand on public safety
Where the candidates stand on management and budget questions

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posted by: Brutus2011 on September 6, 2013  5:25pm

Wow. This is a great article!

I find KC to be much more aligned with my views on education than any of the other candidates.

He gets it, the others really don’t have a clue. 

My suggestion for a good book for everyone to read in New Haven is “The Autobiography of Malcom X.”  If read with an open mind, it will reveal, inspire, and be seen as a testament to redemption and the power of love.

Otherwise, you could wait for my autobiography…just kidding…

posted by: Paul Wessel on September 6, 2013  5:44pm

I think the answers to the “what book would suggest we all read” question were very telling.  Great question to the candidates.  (Much better than your snowstorm question from the televised debate…..)

posted by: Brutus2011 on September 6, 2013  6:14pm

I suggest the candidates, and everyone else for that matter, check out this website:

Knowledge is power and don’t forget the Word:

“My people are destroyed for the lack of knowledge.”

posted by: Bishop on September 6, 2013  6:28pm

I wonder how many of these mayoral candidates would let their own children go to a vocational tech school. Those who argue the “world needs ditch-diggers too” all too often picture those digging ditches with a dark complexion. Just because they’re poor, doesn’t mean they aren’t capable of going to college. Given that the average millennial will change jobs more time than previous generations, how smart is it to equip future workers with such a limited skill set?  I wonder how many of the candidates would be comfortable with their own child not being on the path to graduate from college.

Harp’s desire to eliminate administrators who are responsible for discipline is foolish. Part of the problem that exists at many schools is a lack of ownership over the culture and behavior of the school - low expectations is part of the problem.

Despite Hillhouse’s continued failures, I agree with Carolina that an inability to have control over the people who work in a school is disastrous to a principal - how can one be reasonably held accountable for a school’s performance when they don’t have control over the thing that most drives student achievement: quality teachers!

That said, I’m tired of Harp’s noncommittal attitude towards education - she has no vision. Fernandez just won my vote as he’s the only one willing to put his reputation on the line for the schools which, let’s face it, are the biggest impediment to a true New Haven renaissance and the only one who seems to be willing to think outside of buzzwords. Carolina may have pushed me a little further in his camp, but I can’t see handing over the school system to a man who hasn’t managed to improve outcomes even marginally in his own house.

posted by: True that on September 6, 2013  8:38pm

This was the best of the candidates answer series and Carolina’s answers were by far the best.  It is obvious that his experience as a teacher, assistant principal and now principal have made him more than capable of leading this city; particularly when it comes to improving education.  For those who contend that Carolina has been unsuccessful as principal, I would challenge to think about the following:
- After continued failure under the 20 year leadership of Lonnie Garris, how could any principal be expected to completely turn the school around in just a few years?
- School cultures take years to improve.
- Before Carolina took over, the drop out rate was abysmal (and intentionally misreported to make it look better than it was, students had no connection to the school, and parents hardly if ever participated.  Now, students love their school, parents are actively involved, and the graduation rate has increased significantly.
- Hillhouse college persistence rate grew more than any other high school’s last year
- There are innovations in place that will take time to yield results (smaller learning communities, freshman academy, etc.).

Leading a high school in an urban area is the most challenging responsibility in the public sector.  Carolina is working hard to bring about change, and his work is certain to pay off.

Carolina did a wonderful job in this interview.  It takes courage to publicly go against the latest fads, especially when your colleagues complain quietly but do nothing to put a halt to these half-baked reform schemes.

posted by: cwhig on September 6, 2013  10:10pm

This is a great question, and all four candidates have interesting answers.

There’s a lot to complain about in our town, but the fact is, we have four good choices for mayor. Things could be worse!

posted by: HewNaven on September 7, 2013  9:16am


You may be confused about what a vo-tech school does. To say that they train our children to become “ditch diggers” is insulting, and then to suggest that the schools serve a racist agenda is appallingly hyperbolic and uninformed. In fact, those who graduate from a vo-tech are probably better suited than the average high school graduate. Look at how much a plumber or electrician or mechanic makes per hour and tell me that’s not a good option for our children. Not to mention that these are absolutely essential skills in our society. Should we stop teaching children to build and repair our physical infrastructure and just let it crumble so that we can say we sent every single child to college? That’s absurd. I could also point out that the reason we have so many outside contractors doing business with the city is precisely because there is no vo-tech path for young people. Every sensible community on Earth makes vocational education a part of their school system. Not New Haven! Instead what we have is “go to college or you’ll be a loser destined to fail in life.” That’s a false, misleading message. Most of us can point to dozens of people that we know personally who are successful and did not attend college.

posted by: HhE on September 7, 2013  3:33pm

Well said, True that and HewNaven. 

While I am a supporter of Justin Elicker, I found Mr. Carolina’s answers here to be the best.

posted by: Bishop on September 7, 2013  4:04pm


Following the recession of 2008, the employment rate plummeted by 10% for those who didn’t have a college degree. For those who did, it dropped a little under 2%. Why? Because people who had college degrees were able to shift into new jobs whereas people who didn’t were stuck looking for jobs they were trained for but no longer existed.

To tell the children of this city that an specialized technical skill will provide a lifetime of viable income may have been somewhat true in the past (though the Bureau of Labor Statistics says that the Baby Boomers themselves, the very people you’re talking about, had an average of 11.3 jobs between the ages of 18 and 46), but it’s not true anymore. Most people will change jobs many times over the course of their lives, and educating someone with a specialized skill leaves them vulnerable to changing technologies and economies.

Just because it’s what every industrialized country has done IN THE PAST does not make it a blueprint FOR OUR FUTURE. Show me the data that supports training people in narrow fields protects their income then I’ll reconsider.

posted by: Brutus2011 on September 7, 2013  9:32pm

to Bishop:

I would like to suggest that having a college degree and even an advanced degree might not be an advantage to a minority male.

How about an academic Phi Beta Kappa with a MA in an academic degree?

Guess what?

White people with less get the jobs.

Now before you say “race card” or “try harder” or whatever, let me tell you this kind of thing happens all the time.

Am I suggesting that minority kids eschew college? Not at all.

I will tell you how I am counseling my child.

College prep gung-ho yes, but also learn a trade just in case.

Sort of a cross between DuBois and Booker T., after living a while, I find that they were both right.

posted by: Atticus Shrugged on September 8, 2013  8:20am

First, I think each candidate’s must read book should have been “Waiting for Superman.”  Indeed, if education is such a key part of their platform, it should have been the only book listed as they all seem on board for school reform.  That or Michelle Rhee’s “Radical: Fighting to Put Student’s First?”  But I’m a huge M. Rhee fan.

With regards to education, deans and assistant principals don’t necessarily make schools better.  And more is often a waste, not better.  It would be disingenuous to say that all assistant principals or deans are necessary or good in light of the fact that New Haven spends more money per student than many neighborhood districts and gets worse results. 

With regards to Vo-tech, there are many jobs available for highly skilled workers that the U.S. can’t fill.  Indeed, the same can be said for HVAC technicians, electricians, masons, etc.  There is a need for those those jobs and we don’t have the labor force to meet the needs of those jobs.  And yes, many of those jobs aren’t in CT but not every one of our kids needs to remain here if they can’t make a decent life for himself/herself.

Lastly, I disagree with the school within a school concept.  It shows certain kids that they are not as good as their peers and reinforces certain stereotypes.

posted by: THREEFIFTHS on September 8, 2013  10:41am

posted by: Atticus Shrugged on September 8, 2013 8:20am

First, I think each candidate’s must read book should have been “Waiting for Superman.”  Indeed, if education is such a key part of their platform, it should have been the only book listed as they all seem on board for school reform.  That or Michelle Rhee’s “Radical: Fighting to Put Student’s First?”  But I’m a huge M. Rhee fan.

You and each Candidate need to see the movie.

The Inconvenient Truth Behind Waiting for Superman

But I’m a huge M. Rhee fan.

Did you know that Michelle Rhee would put Duct Tape on the students lips and would pull the tape off and as she pull off the tape their skin is coming off and that they are bleeding.

School Privatization Fraud: Michelle Rhee May Yet Join Beverly Hall in the Dock

Michelle Rhee and Masking Tape. Where is the Outrage?

posted by: TheMadcap on September 8, 2013  1:33pm


You’re missing very one large factor in the statistic, most of the reduction in the workforce among non degree holding people was in the service industry. The hate against vocational schools in America is pretty absurd, especially given the fact good electricians, carpenters, plumbers, ect can actually make more than your average bachelor degree holder. We should be taking a lesson from Germany on this. More of their students go into vocational schools than traditional university. The only thing the incessant drive for bachelor degrees has gotten us is a glut of people with highly generalized degrees as a bachelor degree becomes the new high school diploma, and now it requires racking up $40,000 in debt just to get a 12/hr office job.

posted by: Samuel T. Ross-Lee on September 9, 2013  7:55am

The debate here between vo-tech and college seems to focus on how much money (or steady money) one makes with either type of schooling.  Instead of focusing on how much money students can make based on the school track they are on, we should be focusing on the type of education they will receive in High School and how/if it prepares them and lays a foundation for further education in their future.

Some here have accurately pointed out that vo-tech jobs tend to limit employees to single skill based employment.  What is missed in that critique, however, is that many college students also limit themselves to single skill employment as they focus their education too narrowly with majors that train them for work but do not educate them for the world in which they will live outside of the so-called hallow halls of the academy.

What is needed at the secondary school level is an educational foundation that helps students transition into life ready to learn at the next level of life, whether they go to college (right away) or not. Present High School students need to be prepared for future learning, as that is the ultimate goal of education, not making money, which, by the way is easier to do the better students are set up for further learning.

posted by: cunningham on September 9, 2013  8:15am

I’d like to echo some of the sentiments regarding college vs. vocational school. Look at me: I graduated from SCSU in 2010 with a liberal arts BA. A month out of school I got a job as a copywriter for an ecommerce company. It paid $10/hr, and I was in Westbrook, over 30 miles away down I-95. I still work there, only now my workload has more than doubled, and I’m only at $15/hr. I can’t find anything else. Everyone I graduated with? They all work in the service industry.

Now look at my little brother’s childhood best friend. Graduated high school, goofed off for a year, went to study HVAC. Two years younger than me and he’s out of school before me, making probably about double what I make, and with much less debt.

Let’s not disparage vo-tech. Black or white’s got nothing to do with it.

posted by: Dwightstreeter on September 9, 2013  8:37am

Ross-Lee makes an important point that seemed lost in some of the debates: education is about something bigger than just a job -as important as that may ultimately be.
European trades people do not have a limited education geared to their particular trade, but study the same history and literature as their more academically bound peers. This adds a dimension to their lives and also allows them more cultural confidence.
Students are not a product to be consumed by employers. A successful education would let each student find his/her interests and talents and support their efforts to pursue happiness.

posted by: THREEFIFTHS on September 9, 2013  11:15am

Forget about vo-tech.I tell people if you want to make some money.Then Civil Service Jobs are the way to go.All of my children work for Civil Service.You have people who work for civil service who make more then college professors.What does a New Haven Firefighther make? How about State Police,Correction Officer.
And Most Civil Service Jobs you just need a high school diploma.How about metro north conductors,What do you think they make.Like I said to hell with vo-tech.Go Civil Service Jobs.Trust Me I know I did 30 years with them.

posted by: SteveOnAnderson on September 10, 2013  9:31am

Excellent & informative article. I am most concerned about Elicker’s & Fernandez’s support of Yale SOM training for high school principles. I think this is a very bad idea, but is in line with the corporatization of education that we are seeing across the country. I think it speaks to Elicker’s & Fernandez’s ideological resonance with the “entrepreneurial mayor” model, which is a major reason I cannot back either of their campaigns.

If New Haven does use Jane Jacobs’ _Death and Life of Great American Cities_ as its next “Big Read,” I hope Elicker & others would consider attaching Marshall Berman’s insightful critique of Jacobs from his 1982 book _All That Is Solid Melts Into Air_. Berman asks the important question, “What is relevant and disturbing here is that ideologues of the New Right have more than once cited Jacobs as one of their patron saints. Is the connection entirely fraudulant?” The answer, for Berman, is a firm no:
“ is the problem: there is no ‘Washington’ in Jacobs’ bomber, i.e., no blacks on her block. This is what makes her neighborhood vision seem pastoral: it is the city before the blacks got there. Her world ranges from solid working-class whites at the bottom to professional middle-class whites at the top. There is nothing and no one above; what matters more here, however, is that there is nothing and no one below—there are no stepchildren in Jacobs’ family of eyes.” (p. 324)