Three years ago, the Elm City began a School Change Initiative that sought to completely transform New Haven Public Schools.
School Change had ambitious goals and an equally ambitious plan. Through scholarships, parent workshops, a school tiering system, community partnerships and a new teacher contract, the district pledged to eliminate the achievement gap, cut the dropout rate in half and prepare every student for college. So far, the program, although in its infancy, has shown moderate success. The district’s graduation rate has risen 12.4 percent and the dropout rate has decreased by approximately 10 percentage points, while at the same time more students are qualifying for New Haven Promise, a Yale-funded college scholarship program.
The city now stands on the brink of electing a new leader, who will have power to influence the reform process in the coming years. So far, former President of the Greater New Haven Chamber of Commerce Matthew Nemerson, Ward 10 Alderman Justin Elicker FES ’10 SOM ’10, plumber Sundiata Keitazulu, State Rep. Gary Holder-Winfield and former city Economic Development Administrator Henry Fernandez LAW ’94 have announced their candidacy for mayor. And each election contestant brings with him a different plan for how education reform in New Haven should proceed.
THE BASIC PLATFORMS
Though all candidates emphasized a strong commitment to improving New Haven education, their plans for how to continue School Change vary in focus.
Nemerson, a proponent of early childhood education, said that he would like to see universal preschool for city residents. He said studies indicate that high-quality preschools are critical for future educational success, and that by the time students are behind at upper-grade levels, it is very difficult to close the gap. Nemerson has also proposed the idea of a selective New Haven Public High School, similar to Boston’s Boston Latin, which would provide great educational opportunities for students and draw people to the city.
Elicker champions character and early childhood education as keys to school success. Character education, he said, is about building school culture around principles, like integrity, perseverance and citizenship.
But Fernandez cautioned against education cure-alls, adding that he is committed to what he called the “actual hard work of school reform” — focusing on improving low-performing schools.
“Some of these ideas are thrown out there as silver bullets,” Fernandez said, “What we’re doing is going to be hard.”
Besides new initiatives, Fernandez and Elicker both stressed the need for greater transparency in the school system. As the parent of a second-grader in New Haven Public Schools, Fernandez said he knows that NHPS provides a lot of information to parents, but the information is often difficult for parents to understand.
Holder-Winfield could not be reached for comment.
One of Elicker’s proposals to increase transparency and hold the Board of Education accountable is to give New Haven residents a chance to elect at least part of the school board.
On Tuesday night the charter revision commission, which meets once every 10 years to suggest changes to the city’s charter, suggested that two of the seven members of the New Haven Board of Education be elected rather than appointed by the mayor. Elicker said the change would help increase accessibility and parental input.
The other candidates have shown less support for a hybrid board model. Nemerson said that around the country, big cities have had much success with school boards that are appointed by a mayor, but the political climate in New Haven may call for a change.
“Whether it’s New York or Chicago or other cities, there’s real trend in well-run cities to have school boards and school systems run with the accountability as a department of government,” Nemerson said. “We are entering a point in the city’s history when people are really hungry for reallocating power.”
Fernandez had a similarly cautious reaction to the hybrid model proposal. On the one hand, he said it is important to hold the mayor accountable for the success of a school system guided by a Board of Education he appoints. But at the same time, Fernandez said New Haven residents should have a voice in their school system.
At a discussion about education reform hosted by Yale Students for Holder-Winfield in early April, Holder-Winfield was not entirely supportive of the idea of electing members of the Board of Education. He said that his ideal model for the Board of Education would be a hybrid board dominated by appointed members.
“There’s certainly a lot of value that comes with having an appointed board,” Holder-Winfield said. “As for an elected board, I’m not sure it would solve all of the problems people have been talking about with appointed boards. You could still have elected members who represent particular interests that don’t have anything to do with the schools.”
Candidates have different opinions of New Haven’s current school reform effort, ranging from skepticism to praise.
Nemerson alluded to the various school reform programs that New Haven has created in an attempt to build successful schools with a college-going culture, including New Haven Promise and Parent University.
“I think it would be impossible to say that people aren’t throwing a lot of spaghetti at the walls and seeing what sticks,” Nemerson said.
On the other hand, Fernandez praised the current teachers’ contract system in NHPS. Unlike many others around the country, the city’s contract outlines a teacher evaluation system that has been accepted by both the teachers’ union and the administration. He called the agreement between the union and the administration a “unique situation” that should make New Haven residents proud.
All candidates interviewed said education will be one of their top priorities as mayor. Beyond being intrinsically valuable, both Fernandez and Elicker said that education is linked to decreasing crime and increasing economic development. Nemerson said that graduating from high school is not like playing collegiate soccer: There is only one division, and everyone must have the ability to be competitive.
“The important thing is that everybody graduates from the 12th grade with the ability to compete in America,” Nemerson said. “As long as you can look every parent in the eye, I don’t care what system we have.”