At Wilbur Cross, Transition Slows Changes

Melissa Bailey Photo A student advisory won’t get started until March, and a parent governance panel may miss a Jan. 15 deadline, as a new principal inherits plans to “transform” the city’s largest high school.

Principal Peggy Moore, who was placed in charge of Wilbur Cross High School on Aug. 10, gave those updates during a PTO meeting in the school lobby last week. It was her first meeting with the parent group since taking the helm of the 1,466-student comprehensive school on East Rock’s Mitchell Drive.

On short notice, Superintendent Reggie Mayo moved Moore to Cross from Betsy Ross Arts Magnet School, a 480-student magnet middle school she led for 14 years. Mayo promoted Moore to the new leadership position after failing to find a suitable candidate in a national search.

In an hour-long presentation before a dozen parents and two staff members last Tuesday night, Moore outlined some of the changes Cross is undergoing—and some that have yet to take place.

The principal joined Cross at a time as it prepared to launch a dramatic reorganization into “smaller learning communities,” which are self-contained wings of the school governed by separate leadership. The changes are funded by President Obama’s $3.5 billion School Improvement Grant (SIG) program that aimed to “turn around” failing schools. The money comes with strings attached, including grading teachers and principals based on student performance and using data to guide learning. In return for the money, schools have to change the way the school is run, using one of four specified models.

Cross is one of four schools to receive the grant. New Haven got a total of $7.38 million: $2.1 million each for Cross and James Hillhouse High and $1.59 million each for Hill Central Music Academy and Brennan/Rogers, which are both K-8 schools. The money will be spread out over three years; Cross will get $700,000 this school year, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

Cross and Hillhouse are using the “transformation” school model, which calls for replacing the principal, increasing learning time and boosting the “effectiveness” of staff. It was good timing for the district: The principals at both schools happened to retire at the end of last school year.

Standing at a podium in the school lobby while the basketball team played nearby, Moore acknowledged a delay in implementing some changes.

Joining Cross just before school opened “is a little bit impossible,” Moore said.

“When I arrived here, I was told that there was a grant in place, and you need to read this binder” detailing the transition plans, Moore said.

“There was a period of confusion,” Moore said. “We had to work that through.”

Before Moore joined Cross, a transition team from Area Cooperative Educational Services (ACES) and the central school system office planned a way to implement a wide array of changes, all built up around the small learning community model. (Click here to see the grant application, which details all the planned changes.)

Some members of that team were gone by the time the school year started, Moore said. She and a new leadership team were left to determine how to proceed.

After Moore joined the school, at the end of September, Jaime Ramos from the Fair Haven School joined as an assistant principal.

Out of three new administrators, Moore said, “none of us were high school people. I can’t tell you we walked in and knew everything.”

By comparison, Moore noted that Hillhouse High, which is undergoing similar changes, began working on its transition plans about five months earlier, when school staff had a hunch that then-basketball coach Kermit Carolina would get the principal’s job. Unlike Carolina, Moore started the year with few existing relationships in the school.

The snowy Tuesday evening gathering last week was the first time Moore met the parents in the room, including active leaders in the PTO. She introduced herself to parents by running down her biography.

“I was born in Illinois,” the eldest of seven kids, she said. She has two sons; her husband is a New Haven native who attended Hillhouse High. She has worked for the district for nearly 30 years. She taught at Hill Central, Helene Grant and Davis Street schools, became a literacy coach at Beecher, the assistant principal of Betsy Ross, the principal of the Dwight school, before running Betsy Ross as the principal for 14 years. In her last year at Betsy Ross, Moore was chosen by Magnet Schools of America as the Region 1 Principal of the Year.

Moore is the president of the administrators union and sits on the school reform committee guiding a citywide school change campaign that emphasizes accountability and student growth.

She compared Cross to the way she said Betsy Ross was 14 years ago: “in need of improvement.”

Cross has “outstanding” programs for special ed and honors kids but it “needs more for average kids who need to be motivated,” she said.

Moore said so far Cross has rolled out a credit retrieval program for kids who are falling behind and has been giving teachers extra support in how to “differentiate” teaching to kids of different levels. She expressed faith in the new small learning community model’s potential to reach more kids.

Some parents in the room told her that the changes are too slow to come.

One parent asked about a new student advisory program that parents were told would begin at the start of the school year.

What happened to the program? a mother asked.

“It’s not ready yet,” Moore replied.

The program has been delayed, she said, because she found there was confusion surrounding how it would operate. She said some staff wanted to run the advisory one way, and others differed.

“I think people thought it was something you could just implement overnight,” Moore said. She said she has two staffers in training on how to run an advisory.

Moore said she hopes to implement the program “before the year is out.”

“I don’t want to implement programs when we don’t know what we’re doing,” Moore said.

A teacher stood up and announced the program would begin in March.

Moore outlined for parents a new way of involving parents as well as other community members in the day-to-day operations of the school. It’s called a school governance council. According to a new state law, each school has to elect a team of of seven parents, five teachers, and two community leaders, to give recommendations on how to run the school—read more about it here.

Moore said she is determined to have parents who represent the diversity of the student body—not just leadership from the existing PTO. She said she has received seven names for parent candidates.

By law, the school must hold an election for the parent leaders. “It needs to be in place by the 15th of January,” Moore said.

“It won’t be,” she said. She said she would get it done as soon as possible and plans to email parents with short bios on the candidates.

Another parent asked what the principal’s policy is for communicating with parents and students.

“I have an open door policy,” Moore said.

“I don’t feel the change when my daughter comes in here,” one parent told Moore.

Moore replied that except for three new administrators, most of the staff at Cross carried over from last year. She said she is “not so sure everyone was on board” with the school’s overhaul.

Despite the delays, Moore said she’s committed to involving as many parents as possible.

“I don’t think that we’re a failing school,” she said, “because there’s no school that has a better AP [Advanced Placement] program,” Moore said. She said her goal is to boost kids’ learning so that they can all take honors classes.

“We want a school of AP students,” she said.

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posted by: teachergal on January 17, 2011  2:37pm

School climate and culture change cannot occur overnight…this is true. I think that Ms. Moore should be given at least a year to show some improvements. Hopefully, staff will be included in those decisions through a functioning SPMT inclusive of parents, teachers and administration. This is crucial in the success or a school. Good luck to Ms. Moore and her teachers and students in turning Wilbur Cross around.

PS….isn’t it a bit unrealistic to think of all students as being capable of taking and succeeding in AP courses. Even in the best case scenario, I don’t think of this as a realistic expectation. If we really want to differentiate instruction then we have to admit that college and AP course are not for everyone. Let’s meet the kids where they are, find out where they want to go, and help them achieve their goals. Advisory groups would be a good first step to help students determine and then realize their goals.

posted by: Cross Student on January 17, 2011  4:08pm

As a senior at Cross who sometimes had disagreements with our previous principal, Rose Coggins, I can honestly say I was looking forward to a new principal, someone who was looking to build school reform. However, I have been very disappointed with Ms Moore. One striking feature of her leadership is that she doesn’t seem to like students - she doesn’t spend time in the hallways getting to know us, and only talks to us when she wants to yell at us. While she certainly has some grounds to be frustrated with us - we aren’t always the best-behaved student body - I would like to have a principal who seems to care about me and other students. I am sure she is good at some aspects of leadership that I don’t see - things like balancing the budget - yet I haven’t seen anything I like yet.
Our division of the school into four separate houses, while not her idea and therefore not her fault, has been utterly useless. We are still wasting administrator time (the people making 100K per year) on things like monitoring the lunch room (usually at least two administrators at a time.) Student input in the administration is zero. And although she talks about reform, nothing big has changed at the school.
Some of this blame surely should go downtown - she was chosen for the job in August, and didn’t seem to want it when she was picked. Dr Mayo isn’t known for his helpfulness or his responsiveness to student/parent needs. But Ms Moore needs to do more. One example I can give of her attitude towards students came while we were waiting for a speech from NFL star Mike Vick a few months ago. Headware is stictly banned at Cross, and a friend of mine who was leaning back in his chair had his hood covering part of the top of his head. Let me stress that he didn’t have it on intentionally and it was just on his head because of how he was leaning back in his seat. Ms Moore was speaking to the student body when she saw him and pointed to his row, saying “take your hood off.” My friend didn’t know he had his hood on, and so he said “who, me?”. She didn’t respond to him - she screamed (literally) “Get him out of here!” While I respect her for trying to enforce discipline, I expect more from my principal.

posted by: teachergal on January 17, 2011  5:44pm

Also, regarding SPMT….I forgot to include students in the process.

Cross Student: Hopefully, Ms. Moore’s style of management will soften or she will find that she will not be making any of the changes needed at WC. I would be interested to know if she wanted to be moved or was she just “placed” at WC. That would defintely affect her style of management.  If she doesn’t want to be there it will certainly show in how she leads and treats staff, students and families.

To me, leadership by example is the best policy. Should one like to scream at people then don’t be surprised if you find yourself screamed at as well. I’m not recommending it but it sometimes happens when people are put in that position.

I hope that things improve at WC and recommend that you stay positive and try to be part of the solution. Does your school have an active student council? Are students a part of the SPMT? Is there an SPMT?

posted by: Yeah Sure on January 17, 2011  5:57pm

Are you kidding me. You get 12 parent out of 1500 student to show up at a PTO meeting and you expect reform and changes. This whole idea of school reform s nothing more than smoke and mirrors. With out parental involvement were just flushing money down the toilet.

posted by: Gary Doyens on January 18, 2011  8:45am

Rose Coggins announced December 14th she was retiring. Peggy Moore wasn’t officially named until August 6th - 8 months later. That is more than enough time for a minimally competent person to find a new principal. Something failed.

More importantly, there seems to be a breakdown in best management practices that require replacements be trained and standing in line so that management changes can be execute seamlessly. Why are assistant principals not functioning as a farm team? Why were none of the 8 assistant principals at Cross ready or willing to take over? It is a failure of leadership not to groom the next person, especially at a school like Cross. If assistant principals have no interest in becoming principals, one has to wonder about their commitment.

Just look at what happened at Cross. A person with no experience in high schools takes over and then there are endless delays in executing reforms. The graduation rate at Cross by the way, is less than 50%.

What bothers me most though is this: Where is the urgency? Are we not in a crisis? Would this go slow approach be tolerated in Baltimore where Harries and company just went on a pilgrimage?

posted by: Gotta be kidding on January 18, 2011  10:28am

Peggy Moore…. You just had a closed door meeting with all of us teachers Yelling at us to not speak to the media and to not give any statements to the New Haven Independent yet you are doing it…. Remember your quote ” Whats happens at Cross stays at Cross ” .... and you should also stor talking down to your staff ( Teachers, Custodians & Secretaries ) and start treating them with resopect…. You’ll get more bees with honey than you will with vinegar.

posted by: Teacher at Cross on January 18, 2011  3:12pm

To “Gotta be kidding”:
With all due respect, the Independent is reporting on a public meeting Ms. Moore had with the PTO.  It does not appear that she interviewed with them.  Publicly bashing our leader does not help anything.

posted by: Where is the $$$? on January 18, 2011  3:58pm

This principal has done little to help disadvantaged Cross students.  She would not stay if her principalship were put to vote of no confidence. 

Rose Coggins was more effective.  She at least walked the halls and worked with her staff. 

Suggestion to Peggy Moore: stop threatening your staff with “major changes” that never happen.

Take a careful look at the federal grant linked in this article.  Where is the $700,000 Cross got to support an “After School Academy and Saturday programs, mobile computing labs and student ID systems”?  Did we actually hire two new co-teachers with this new money?  If so, who are they?

Cross does not have a student late bus and students have a difficult time getting city bus tokens.  Many teachers volunteer their time to work with students after school, but only self-motivated students show up.  Is anyone surprised?

ACES consulting has a third of the 700k.  Where is the rest? 

Something is terribly wrong here.  This money is on top of the budget: including the 8 principals that cost over $1 million. 

Taxpayers deserve to be told if money from this grant has been “reallocated” from the needy youth of Cross.

posted by: Cross_Parent on January 18, 2011  8:34pm

Ms. Moore has her work cut out for her. My primary concern is whether the Peter Principle will operate here, where good people rise to the level of their incompetence. (The Peter Principle also has as a corollary that people good at one job are commonly promoted against their will to bigger jobs.)

Now, this is not to suggest that Ms. Moore can’t handle the job, but you have to wonder if she has the right skill set coming from 14 years at Betsy Ross.

Little birdies have informed me that Ms. Moore was appointed to this position despite her lack of interest in it, something which she has publicly espoused—including at the PTO meeting reported here.  That worries me as a parent; it would worry me if I were a teacher.

That is why Gary Doyens’ comments on development of a farm team seem so relevant.  Why wasn’t there a plan to develop assistant principals at Cross or at Hillhouse or principals at the smaller high schools for this position?

posted by: JMS on January 19, 2011  8:35am

Than you to New Haven Independent for keeping people up to date on what is happening at Wilbur Cross. I have been trying to follow these developments since our son is now in 4th grade and we were always thinking he would end up at Cross for High School. But now we have several friends and fellow parents who have either already pulled their kids from Cross or are actively looking for alternative schools… including private school and/or moving out of town. I would hope to avoid either and hope that this situation gets better. We’ve got four years to observe and decide. And for current parents I hope it does not take nearly that long. There seems to be a lot of money being thrown around. I would think the tools are there to make improvements. Unfortunately it also sounds a little like Principal Moore was maybe not the most highly motivated candidate for the job. Hopefully she will prove otherwise.


posted by: I Noticed on January 19, 2011  3:51pm

@ Teacher at Cross

I noticed you didn’t deny anything that Gotta Be Kidding said!!! I don’t consider that bashing. I feel that teacher is keeping the tax payers informed of what is going on behind the curtain and I appreciate that.

Seems to me like we have have a women who doesn’t want to be there, Teachers & Staff who don’t want her there or trust her leadership & Kids who don’t want her there or trust her leadership. I think it’s time for a change.

I think the Board of Ed was so eager to fill the vacancy because of bad publicity over having to have the former principal come back at an overpaid fee that they didn’t think it through and they also let a very capable Asst. Principal slip through there fingers with Mrs. Sherban Klein.