If Rance Smith weren’t running around among U.S. senators in D.C., Greg Baldwin knew exactly where he’d have been during fifth period this week: in microeconomics class at New Haven Academy.
Baldwin, NHA’s principal, has a reputation for knowing by heart not just the names, but the schedules of all 265 students at the high school.
As a test, Baldwin was asked, with no advance preparation, to name Smith’s scheduled fifth-period class. He provided an answer without missing a beat.
Baldwin insisted that he doesn’t have a photographic memory. And that memorizing over 250 schedules — let alone 250 names — is not remarkable.
“It’s not  new kids each year. It’s 75, 80 kids,” he said. “And I help to make the schedules.”
Whatever the explanation, the principal’s close connection to students reflects one of the distinguishing strengths of New Haven Academy in its 13th year of operation.
Smith’s reason for missing microeconomics reflects a second strength: At a time when U.S. schools are geared toward churning out test score-programmed robots, NHA has succeeded in developing “citizens” who think critically and for themselves, who get involved in their community, and who are judged based on a broader body of community-focused work rather than just on standardized scores.
Smith was chosen in a competition to serve as a page in the Senate, shuttling messages to members of the world’s putatively greatest deliberative body. Smith got interested in student government at NHA, where civics isn’t one mere class out of many, but runs through much of what the students spend four years learning.
After wandering among four locations, the school is set to move into a $40 million renovated new home this summer at Orange and Bradley streets from its temporary quarters on State Street. NHA previously occupied the Orange-Bradley building before it closed for a gut-rehab. Officials gave a tour Thursday of the building, the old St. Mary’s School. “We took the building down to its bones,” then rebuilt it, with a new outdoor patio, black-box theater, and bright, spacious rooms, said Scott Pellman of BL Companies, the principal architect.
The 63,000 square-foot state-of-the-art home will represent a landmark for a high school that began with just 68 nine-graders and five teachers in a cramped space on Willow Street. The school will grow to about 300 students next year in its expanded digs, with plans eventually to reach 320 — still small, but big enough to offer lots of opportunities.
As the school has grown, its founding ideas — from smaller school environments and year-long senior “capstone” projects to the “Facing History And Ourselves” curriculum it adopted — have spread across the city and the nation.
The school’s founders, Principal Baldwin and Program Director Meredith Gavrin, spoke about NHA’s birth and growth during an episode of WNHH radio’s “Dateline New Haven” program (during which Baldwin passed the pop quiz). NHA exists today because Baldwin and Gavrin fell in love — with urban education, and with each other.
Devil With A Blue Dress
Baldwin and Gavrin met in 1995 at the Institute for Collaborative Education, an experimental 15-teacher school in New York City’s East Village. It was part of the small schools movement, tied in as well to the move toward “authentic assessment and project-based learning” (as opposed to a focus on rote testing) and the then-little-known racism and anti-Semitism-combating curriculum called “Facing History And Ourselves,” which has students examine key moments in history as shaped by decisions individuals made at all levels of society. (Motto: “People Make Choices. Choices Make History.”)
Baldwin was teaching a combined English-history eighth-grade humanities class. A product of the elite Moses Brown School in Providence, R.I., and Wesleyan University, Baldwin went into teaching to ensure other kids had the same opportunities.
“I’m no different than a lot of kids that don’t have those opportunities. But I had a family that provided for me. That was a big reason to get into education,” he said.
Gavrin, also a product of elite education (Scarsdale High School in New York, Princeton University), was becoming a teacher for similar reasons. She applied for an opening. That day in 1995, she observed Baldwin’s class.
Baldwin didn’t notice Gavrin much on that visit. He was preoccupied with dealing with an eighth grader who was acting out, mouthing off and swearing at him. He did notice Gavrin enough to feel “mortified” at what she was seeing.
Later he would learn that Gavrin thought he’d handled the outburst just fine. “He did very well. He was very passionate” about teaching.
Later Gavrin would learn that the principal showed Baldwin the resumes of applicants for the open job and asked Baldwin’s opinion. Baldwin recommended hiring not Gavrin, but a different candidate who had more classroom experience.
“He apparently lobbied hard to get the other guy hired,” Gavrin recalled. “He underestimated me a bit.”
Not so the principal. In August Baldwin returned for a new school year to find Gavrin teaching in the next room over.
This time they noticed each other more. They noticed how much they had in common.
Six weeks into the semester they joined a group of colleagues on a weekly ritual, attending a movie together after classes on Friday. They went to see Devil in a Blue Dress.
Afterward, the group broke up, and Baldwin and Gavrin found themselves alone at dinner at a nearby Pizzeria Uno. On what, unbeknownst to them, would become their first date.
They kept their budding romance a secret as they continued working closely together on the school’s tiny staff. Not until the end of that school year did colleagues discover they’d been dating. A year later they married.
“We were very discreet people. We did not want our work to be about our personal life,” Gavrin recalled.
That discreetness would carry over years later when the couple realized their joint ambition: to start a family and to start their own school. In reverse order. Somewhere other than New York.
Thinking Big About Small
They wanted to build on what they learned at the New York school. They wanted to do that in a smaller community somewhere between their families’ homes in Rhode Island and New York.
So why not New Haven? Baldwin had spent summers in the Elm City with relatives who worked at the hospital. They didn’t know anyone else in town, except for two then-law students. They decided to move here anyway after their marriage in 1998 and give their idea a go.
With the help of some seed-grant money from the Smart Family Foundation, they spent a few years pitching their idea to local decision-makers for a small high school that would push kids to go to college and become active citizens and critical thinkers.
Their timing was propitious: New Haven was embracing small schools and was on the track to opening a bunch of them. And Connecticut was supporting new magnet schools, drawing together suburban and urban kids, as part of a racial desegregation order.
Working with then-school Superintendent Reggie Mayo and magnet school director Ed Linehan, Baldwin and Gavrin won school board approval to apply for state approval to open New Haven Academy, which they won in 2003. The school opened that August in a small space at Willow and Nicoll Streets.
At the time it was one of 10 nationwide members of an “Innovative Schools Network” tied to Facing History and Ourselves. (Now there are 80 across the country; Gavrin is a board member.) Besides using that curriculum, Baldwin and Gavrin made a point of making the school work for each kid. And having the students think about their place in society.
NHA seniors work on year-long “capstone” projects. They identify a social issue they care about. They study it. They create a project to undertake in the community to promote it. (New Haven’s Cooperative Arts & Humanities High School also does capstones projects in the arts with its seniors. High School in the Community does year-long social action projects.)
NHA capstone projects have included organizing breast cancer, HIV/AIDS, and police-misconduct awareness drives; a campaign to “unplug” students from social media; and a mentorship program at one student’s former middle school.
Regular in-school debates prompt students to challenge their own assumptions by taking devil’s-advocate positions on issues like the death penalty.
NHA experimented as well with mandatory yoga classes for one semester. The kids loved yoga, Baldwin and Gavrin reported; it gave them quiet time to recalibrate. The grant supporting the program ran out, so it’s now available on a smaller scale as a popular elective.
NHA has had success steering most of its students to college, then seeing them stay there. Its “college persistence rate” of around 80 percent is among the highest in the city, according to Superintendent of Schools Garth Harries. He said the rate reflects the success of the school’s tripartite motto, which is emblazoned on the new building’s east outdoor wall: “Think Critically / Be Responsible / Get Involved.”
Meanwhile, Baldwin and Gavrin have grown their family. They now have three children, all of whom attend Worthington Hooker School in their neighborhood. Somehow, with the shuttling and constant scheduling, they’re able to run their school and keep up with parental duties.
A rule their kids made helps: Dinner is “protected time.” No talk about work.
Exercising, Then Claiming, The Vote
A visit this week to Saul Fussiner’s senior civics class at NHA week demonstrated the school’s citizenship ethos.
New Haven’s Democratic and Republican registrars of voters, Shannel Evans and Delores Knight, were there with voter-registration forms to sign up all students who’ll turn 18 by November. That included every student in the class but one.
While registering to vote as a Democrat, Tamerick Morrison spoke of how the class “ties current events in with what we’re doing in our everyday life.” An aspiring forensic scientist, Morrison is organizing a food bank for his capstone project at Fair Haven’s Cathedral of the Holy Spirit Church, which his grandparents helped found.
Janae McMillan — whose capstone project entails informing people about the health dangers of, and natural alternatives to, deodorant — described life plans that start with voting for other people, and then eventually asking people to vote for her.
She said she plans to study political science in college. “I’ve gotten into 11 schools; I’m waiting on seven more,” she said. The next planned stop is law school. “I have dreams of becoming a U.S. senator,” McMillan said. “But I’ll start off with law school and see where it goes from there.”
In the short term, fellow student Rance Smith will be returning to the school with a firsthand report about what happens in the Senate. Perhaps he can answer this pop-quiz question as well: Why do senators still need pages to ferry messages in the cell phone, text message/email era?
Click on or upload the above sound file to hear the full “Dateline New Haven” interview with Baldwin and Gavrin.
The deadline for applying to enroll in New Haven magnet schools for the coming year is this Sunday, March 13. This website has information as well as the application.