The new principal of Amistad Academy Middle School told neighbors that the Edgewood Avenue charter school will no longer prioritize “compliance for compliance’s sake,” instead promoting student safety, independent thinking, and a well-rounded, liberal arts education.
Victoria McCall identified those goals for her tenure at the head of the local charter middle school during a brief presentation at the Dwight Community Management Team’s monthly meeting in Amistad Academy’s gymnasium on Edgewood Avenue.
McCall, a 32-year-old Baltimore native, ascended to the top job at the local 367-student Achievement First-run middle school in July 2018. She previously served as the academic dean at Achievement First’s Bridgeport Academy Middle School.
Less than a year into her new New Haven job, and just over a month after the principal of Achievement First’s Amistad High School on Dixwell Avenue resigned amidst a controversy over his shoving of a student, McCall told Dwight neighbors on Tuesday night that she is committed to fostering a learning environment that is orderly without being mercenary, that is structured without stifling individual intellectual development.
She said she is interested in “taking out a lot of the compliance for compliance’s sake” at Amistad Middle School “and making sure that children are given the ability to develop themselves as independent thinkers.”
Still, she said, her first none months on the job have been focused on “getting the foundation of safety back. There were moments where the school was legitimately unsafe for students.”
Westville resident Dennis Serfilippi asked at Tuesday night’s meeting what she meant by safety. Is the school a physically dangerous place for students and teachers to be?
No, McCall replied. In her mind, safety doesn’t just refer to physical safety. It also refers to how conducive the school’s environment is to focus and education.
“Is this a place where children are learning to the max?” she asked. “That was not happening.”
She said that she has focused on a clear and firm “re-establishing of rules,” so that students know exactly what is and is not acceptable behavior on school grounds.
“Even though children fight back,” she said, “children really love consistency. They need to know, ‘Every time I come into this building, I can and cannot do these things.”
But safety and orderliness are just one part of what she wants for the charter middle school, McCall said. She also wants to see more opportunities for students to build meaningful academic relationships with their teachers, to craft their own individualized course schedules, and to develop a lifelong love of learning.
“What we should do is realize the dream of W.E.B. DuBois,” she said, “who believed in a liberal arts education as a means to opening up kids to a plethora of things they want to do in the future.”
She said that Achievement First as a charter school network has dwelt too much on discipline, and not enough on instilling that love of learning.
“I’m not going to lie and act as if the current model of Achievement First isn’t a bit paternalistic,” she said. “That’s the reality, and it has undermined what children, specifically black and brown children, can do. There’s a lot of hand-holding and a lot of, ‘We’re going to make you stand in line because we’re gonna make sure that we can see what this looks like.’ And that children are under control.”
So, Dwight Management Team Chair Florita Gillespie asked, what does McCall plan to do about that?
McCall said that, later this spring, she plans on engaging students, teachers, parents, and community members in conversations about what exactly the school culture at Amistad Middle School should look like going forward.
There is a difference between rigidity and high expectations, McCall said. And she doesn’t want Amistad’s teachers, students, parents, or administrators to believe that one necessarily equals the other. “I want those two things to be distinguished,” she said.