Last year, the city of New Haven announced the start of an ambitious 5-year education reform program. Schools were assigned levels, or “tiers". That’s something that might not affect kids as much as teachers and school administrators.
With summer vacation just a few weeks away, we visited a lower-performing “Tier Three” school to talk with educators and parents about what’s changed this year.
It's early morning and students are just starting to arrive at Barnard Environmental Studies Magnet School in New Haven. But teachers Judy Merriam and Laura Calabrese have been on the job for nearly an hour.
"Jerson and actually Michael probably shouldn’t be together... You don’t think they work well together?"
This year, school days at Barnard have been longer... Not for kids, but for teachers.
"That provides us with time to collaborate."
Principal Michael Crocco.
"Every morning, teachers will share some of their perspectives, planning, what's going on in the classrooms, student data. And that happens four days a week. Then one day a week there’s a flex day where they can meet through grade level teams"
Barnard, a kindergarten through 8th grade program, was identified last year as one of New Haven’s lower-performing Tier Three schools. Higher tiered schools have more independence from central office oversight.
But unlike so-called “turnaround” programs where low-performing schools are reconstituted and principals replaced, Mike Crocco was allowed to stay on.
"Two years ago when I was appointed principal here, literacy scores were at about 33%. After my first year, we went from 30% to 40%. And then last year, we went from 40% to about 50%. So there’s been some positive growth that’s going on. And I think a lot of that is just refocusing."
Under Crocco, all teachers at Barnard are required to work extra long days. They eat lunch with kids to build trust outside the classroom, and take on greater leadership responsibilities.
Nicholas Perrone, a former technology teacher, handles discipline.
"Prior to this, the assistant principal and the principal took on all of the leadership roles. With the new structure, the principal and the assistant principal are freed up to spend more time as instructional leaders."
And Perrone believes this collaborative approach will prove more realistic and sustainable in the long term.
"Because I think with some turnaround models, just shifting people around you may achieve higher numbers in terms of the luck of the draw. But if you’re starting with the same people and improving with them, then you know that the model and the things that you did changed things for the better."
New Haven school reform centers around three strategies: No two schools are alike. So reform is tailored to each individual school. An innovative city teachers’ contract allows for greater flexibility. And, more parental involvement.
Parent Cherlyn Poindexter likes the new direction at Barnard, but says communicating about her son can still sometimes be tough.
"I just recently had an issue regarding reading, telling people where their kids stand on a reading level. Because if you find out in March he’s not at the level where he should be, it’s a little too late to come up with a plan by June to fix it."
To better work with parents, Barnard hired a new family liaison. Poindexter calls the school 'a work in progress'.
"You hit. You miss. You do something. It works. You do something else to see if you can make it better. And I think with everybody talking, the parents, the children, the faculty – then its only going to go up from there."
"One of the dominant impressions I come away from the year is how hard this work is."
Garth Harries is New Haven’s assistant school superintendent.
"Because this is day in, day out, working with students, many of whom come from difficult situations. And trying to orchestrate among many different people to change that student’s sense of what their life outcomes can be."
And now, in this city, those outcomes could be far different than families may have ever once imagined. Because built into New Haven school reform is The Promise - that the cost of college won’t stand in the way. This scholarship guarantees all city students who work hard and attend school - 100% tuition to Connecticut public colleges or universities.