City misses ‘Race’ cut

Despite reforms, schools fumble federal grant

Though New Haven is at the forefront of a national thrust for education reform, the city lost out last week on nearly $30 million in federal funds from Race to the Top, a grant competition launched by President Barack Obama that encourages innovation in public school pedagogy.

Nationwide, 372 school districts including New Haven competed for allocations of Race to the Top’s over $400 million in grant funds. Bridgeport and Hartford were among the Department of Education’s 61 finalists announced Nov. 26, and 15 to 25 of the finalists will be awarded four-year grants varying from $5 million to $40 million. Race to the Top funds would have been allotted to the city’s “Engage New Haven” initiative, a three-prong plan to develop new infrastructure for capturing and responding to student performance data, attract talented educators and endow all district schools with a base level of technology.

But while Garth Harries, the district’s assistant superintendent, said officials were “disappointed” that New Haven did not become a grant finalist, they also anticipated that the district’s application to Race to the Top was a “long shot.” The city was just awarded $53 million in September — which Harries called “a testament to the progress being made in New Haven to improve schools” — from the five-year federal Teacher Incentive Fund, a program that seeks to reward and recruit effective educators.

“We have lots of work going on already in our schools to provide personalized and technology-enhanced learning to students, the focus of the grant,” Harries said. “We are proud of what we are accomplishing with school change, and we continue on that mission.”

Connecticut exhibits the largest achievement gap between low-income and non-low-income students nationwide, according to the Connecticut Council for Education Reform, but New Haven has garnered national attention since 2009 for its groundbreaking reforms in public education. The city was among the first to recognize the correlation between teacher evaluations and student performance, focusing on retaining top talent through salary hikes and merit bonuses to improve student test scores.

The reforms have been lauded by The New York Times, Obama’s Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten. Mayor John DeStefano Jr. called said New Haven public schools provide a “national model” for education reform in his February State of the City address.

Race to the Top funds would have built upon existing programs established through the Teacher Incentive Fund, such as training for new teachers. Grant money provided 22-year-old Lisa Kieslich, a first-year sixth-grade teacher at New Haven’s John S. Martinez School, with the opportunity to seek training in teaching math, allowing her to create better lesson plans that engage students on an individual basis.

“We learned how to really get the students to think on a higher-order level,” Kieslich said. “We could connect it more to their personal life.”

In spite of efforts to boost teacher training, results from this year’s Connecticut Mastery Test and Connecticut Academic Performance Tests do not meet the New Haven district’s goal of improving test scores by 4.6 percent from last year. DeStefano, however, said he was confident that New Haven would remain a leader in education reform.

“We are so far in front of the curve on school reform, it would be the great failure of our time if we don’t see the job of school change through,” DeStefano said in his February address.

New Haven Public Schools will receive their first $12 million installment of Teacher Incentive Fund grants this year.

 

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