A K-8 “Turnaround” Enlists Hillhouse Seniors

“You got this. Just relax,” Hillhouse’s valedictorian coaxed a timid 4th-grader who had just kicked a second foul ball.

The ball flew into the kickball diamond, marking a small victory in Shaylah McQueen’s new gig at the Wexler/Grant school.

Shaylah (pictured), who’s 17, is one of nine Hillhouse High School seniors dispatched to improve the school climate of the K-8 turnaround school by mentoring and tutoring kids.

The ebullient student knows about motivation—she stuck with school through a pregnancy and became the school’s valedictorian, on track to graduate this year. She aims to share that motivation with her younger peers, as she becomes one of the newest troops enlisted to help “turn around” a struggling school as part of New Haven’s school-reform drive.

“I love motivating them and encouraging them,” she said last Tuesday in the gymnasium of the school.

Her arrival comes as Wexler/Grant pushes through the first year of a turnaround effort. Based on years of low performance on test scores and surveys that described the school as unsafe, the city tapped Wexler/Grant as one of two new turnaround schools last year.

Half of the teachers left the school as the principal, Sabrina Breland, got newfound power to hire and fire staff. As the year progresses, she’s been working on drawing in new resources to improve the school. Breland has already brought in two groups of Yale students to target first and second-grade literacy.

On sunny Tuesday afternoon, Hillhouse students walked over from their school to Wexler/Grant, which serves 400 kids at 55 Foote St. in Dixwell, to join the effort. They’re all seniors taking part in Hillhouse’s teacher prep program, which requires students to spend some time volunteering in city classrooms. The students were making their second or third visit to the school.

Breland greeted them at the door and dispatched them to classrooms to see where they’d make a good fit. One student, who had attended Wexler/Grant in her own youth, sat down with her successors in a kindergarten classroom.

Shaylah, who arrived earlier than her peers, made a beeline to the gym, where she had already started working Friday with gym teachers Seth Mitchell and Andre Huston.

Shaylah said she chose gym class because she likes energizing kids. She has plenty of experience with children; she’s one of eight siblings, ranging in age from 2 to 18.

And she has a child of her own—a 17-month-old son. “My son is my smile,” she said.

On her second day at the class, she was already generating smiles with the little ones at Wexler/Grant.

“Shaylah!” they greeted her Tuesday. “Like a celebrity,” she said.

Two 4th-grade classes joined together for a game of kickball, with big wrestling mats spread out in the room as bases. Shaylah walked onto the court in khaki pants and a pink beret.

She pitched a few balls, ran some bases—and worked to keep her teammates upbeat.

“We’re on a team,” she urged when two kids got upset with each other. “Why you got to fight?”

Others, impressed with their new teammate, shot her questions between plays: “How old are you?” one asked.

“You go to Hillhouse?” asked another.

After a girl softly kicked two foul balls, Shaylah and the teachers demonstrated how to throw your body weight into the kick.

“Yes you can,” Shaylah instructed the girl. The girl connected with the ball and made it to first base.

At other moments, she helped the teachers straighten out lines and spread out the team into position.

The students got along well that afternoon, Principal Breland observed.

“Sometimes in this kind of situation, you can get a lot of conflict,” she said.

Breland said by putting someone like Shaylah in gym class, she’s providing a positive role model who can help kids with behavior—and with Goal No. 1 for Wexler/Grant: To improve the school climate.

On a school survey last year, 58 percent of students and 69 percent of teachers said they feel safe at their school. That’s an improvement over where the school sat when Breland took it over, but she said there’s still a lot of room to improve.

“We want teachers, parents and students to feel safe here,” Breland said.

She said this year, the school is working on ways to tackle behaviors that are “not conducive to a positive work environment.” To that end, the school introduced Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS), an initiative now taking root in many schools, which focuses on rewarding positive behavior.

The Hillhouse students will help that mission by serving as mentors to kids who need extra help, Breland said. The students come for the final hour of the school day on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Breland aims to pair some of them with students in cases where “the day got too much for them.” Older kids are allowed to take a break in the hallway, but younger kids need an adult companion.

On Tuesday, Lamar Folnson (pictured), the only male in the Hillhouse group, took a walk through the halls with a 1st-grade boy who fit that category.

“He was having a bad day,” Lamar reported. The kid had been “disruptive” in class and needed a time out. 

Lamar, who’s deciding between becoming a teacher or a lawyer, said he never acted out in school. His grandma, who raised him, wouldn’t allow that. But he said he can relate to the student. He grew up in New Haven, on Elm Street, and attended Timothy Dwight and Augusta Lewis Troup Schools. After talking to the kid about his behavior, he said, he recognized what the kid needs.

“He really just needs a positive influence,” Lamar said. He plans to be that influence for as many kids as he can.

Breland said the Hillhouse kids will also be focusing on helping kids with “the basic skills they need to be successful,” including literacy.

At this early stage, she’s still not sure what shape the partnership with Hillhouse will take, but she hopes to continue it next year—as well as draw in other groups to help improve the school.

“We’re trying to get as many partners to come in and support,” she said.

For Shaylah McQueen, the arrangement may help in two directions. Besides helping the kids, she said, going to Wexler/Grant is good for her spirit, too.

After she got pregnant, she said, she was confronted with a lot of “haters” who judged her and called her a failure. She said she learned to have a positive attitude, believe in herself, and ignore those comments.

She said when many of her peers are “too negative,” it’s a relief to be around elementary school kids.

Between kicks, McQueen said, she and her new charges found a spare moment to celebrate.

“Even though it’s gym,” she said, “me and the kids was just dancing.”

Past Independent stories on Wexler/Grant:

At “Turnaround,” Half The Teachers Will Stay

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