Turnaround Team Sets To Work

Melissa Bailey PhotoTavares Bussey left South Carolina to start work at the Katherine Brennan School. He’s one five out-of-state recruits on a new team that aims to transform one of the city’s lowest-performing schools.

On his first day of work this week, Bussey (at right in photo) reached for the hand of Amy Bernor (at left), a special education teacher. Bernor just moved to New Haven two weeks ago. On Monday, they found themselves in the gymnasium of their new workplace, on the first day of training for what’s being billed as a monumental school year.

Brennan/Rogers, which comprises Katherine Brennan (3-8) and Clarence Rogers (K-2) in West Rock, is the city’s first in-district turnaround school. It earned that designation in March as part of a budding school reform drive that centers on accountability. The label means it scored at the bottom of the district on test scores and student improvement—and as a consequence, will be dramatically overhauled.

Now it’s becoming a test case with national implication—New Haven’s bet that failing schools can turn around without being turned over to charters.

Principal Karen Lott (pictured) has big changes in store when school starts on Sept. 1, including a slew of new teachers and an expanded rewards system for good behavior. Click here for background.

Teachers got their first opportunity Monday to meet their new coworkers and learn about the road ahead. They gathered in the gymnasium for the first day of a four-day training session at the school on Wilmot Road. There were a lot of new faces in the balloon-filled room.

Of the 41 teachers now on staff, only 12 are returnees. Another four are transfers from within the district. The rest come from beyond district boundaries, including five beyond state lines—from South Carolina, Virginia, Washington, New York and New Jersey.

Bussey, who’s 29, came the farthest. He said he has spent his whole life in South Carolina, where his family remains.

“Everyone I know is from South Carolina,” he said. He moved to Hamden, solo, to explore the Northeast and take on a new challenge.

Principal Makes The Calls

Bussey and his colleagues were welcomed Monday with a pep talk from their new superintendent, Reggie Mayo.

Twirling around in a circle, Mayo announced that he was standing in the district’s first “turnaround school.” (Click on the play arrow to watch his remarks.)

A second turnaround school, formerly known as Urban Youth, is being taken over by a not-for-profit charter school group called Domus; Katherine Brennan will be the first turnaround under district management.

“We’re dependent on you. You’re the first,” Mayo told the teachers, who sat at cafeteria tables stocked with fresh pens and pink Post-It notes.

The teachers were selected by Principal Lott from a pool of 300 applicants.

Mayo emphasized that the application process marked a departure from the norm.

“This is a whole different thing—giving autonomy to the principal of a school and saying, you select the people who you want to work in your school,” he said. “Each and every one of you is here because the principal wants you here.”

He set the expectations high: The school aims to be the number one school in the district, state and country.

“That’s the challenge to you,” Mayo said. “To turn Katherine Brennan around.”

Teachers need to “get inside of that kid,” find out what motivates him, and spend the time to help the student improve, Mayo said.

“If teachers don’t have that passion, it’s not going to get done.”

Later in the day, teachers would start to learn just how much needs to “get done” when Lott shared some data on the school.

Students’ performance on the Connecticut Mastery Test “certainly wasn’t a performance that made me jump up and down,” she said. For example, only 12 percent of third-graders reached state goal on reading, compared to 57 percent statewide. Lott said those scores provide a “benchmark” for improvement. (Click here to find the rest of the school’s test results.)

Lott also planned to relay how students rated their school on so-called “school climate surveys,” whose findings were released in July. All 117 Katherine Brennan students in grades 5 to 8 took the surveys. Results were mixed: 18 percent said they do not feel safe at school. On the other hand, most students, 87 percent, said their teachers inspire them to want to learn. Click here to read the full results.

Before they delved into their students’ feedback, teachers got to work on an important first step—learning to work together and to pronounce each other’s names. In one corner of the gym, one group of teachers played the name game with a red volleyball.

In another, nine teachers grabbed each other’s hands, then worked to untie their human knot.

“You’re the jam!” announced an onlooker as Bussey’s group successfully untangled themselves. They gave themselves a round of applause.

As they moved onto the next game—passing an orange cone down the line using knees, feet and elbows—giggles rose up to the gym’s high windows.

Principal Lott said it gave her a great relief to see her new crew assembled in the gym.

“It’s a different kind of energy than it was last year,” she said.

Past stories on the Brennan/Rogers School:

Two Failing Schools Aim High
West Rock Kids Reap Two-Wheeled Rewards
Brennan/Rogers Prepares For Turnaround

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posted by: FIX THE SCHOOLS on August 11, 2010  2:21pm

Good Luck Principal Lott!  We’re counting on you!

posted by: Mrs. Robertson on August 11, 2010  10:14pm

So how do we “turn around” Dr. Mayo? Can we vote him out or make him do a portfolio we can grade. By we i mean us parents. How has he been held accountable? He has been in charge of a failing system for so long and nothing is gonna change with him in charge. Mr. Garries was brought in to compete for “race to the top” funds and he ended up empty handed. Is he a failure? Folks are quick to call our children and their teachers failures, but how about these guys. Why we blaming the lil guy?

I asked at a BOE meeting how my son and daughter could go through 4 and 5 years at Roberto Clemente with all rookie teachers. I think the teachers were good people and tried their best but had no support. I asked why they were gonna leave and they all said it was the difficulties with the administration, not the pay or students or tough hood. So my question is how can Dr. Williams keep his job for so long and be considered a “good” principal if he looses 75% + of his staff each year? The kids suffer cause the teachers are not prepared and experienced. My daughters last teacher would of been great in NHPS but left cause of the administrations lack of support. I mean come on the principals that can’t support and keep staff should be shown the door. You can’t run a business if the environment you create is not good for the employees.

Why are Principals making mad money and failing their staff and playing the blame game.

Dr. Mayo and Dr. Williams and crew come on times up. We want real change and reform

Thanks you,
Mrs. Robertson

posted by: 1234 on August 12, 2010  7:09am

I guess I’m not going to get too worked up about silly team building exercises, but I hope there are some serious discussions going on there too.  Pep talks and little games will only take you so far without real strategies for teaching hard to reach students and dealing with disruptions.

Mayo turning around in circles doesn’t give me a whole lot of confidence, but I’m keeping an open mind.

posted by: Teacher gal on August 12, 2010  12:52pm

Good luck KB. I hope your leaders are participating in your team building games. I’ve participated in a lot of that kind of team development work over my years teaching in new haven and without the administration being involved it’s not productive.

  My big question is, how will teachers be supported with those students who will not follow rules, be respectful, nor do any kind of assigned work? What kind of support will teachers receive when parents are not receptive, cannot be reached, and continually point the finger at others for their childrens issues? Holding hands and singing kumba ya is not always going to work especially for
our older 6 through 8th grade students.

I’ll pray for your success as I know younhave a tough job ahead of you!