Twenty years ago, New Haven education was characterized by crumbling school buildings, astonishing high school dropout rates and low standardized test scores that trailed national averages. But today, New Haven is in the midst of a nationally acclaimed education reform movement, and the community is looking to the next mayor to pave the way for further education improvements.
Both Justin Elicker FES ’10 SOM ’10 and Toni Harp ARC ’78 — the two mayoral candidates — have detailed education platforms that include strategies to build upon the reform efforts already underway in New Haven’s School Change Initiative, a program championed by current Mayor John DeStefano Jr.
Implemented in 2010, the School Change Initiative is meant to eliminate the achievement gap, cut the high school dropout rate in half and ensure that students are academically prepared to succeed in and graduate from college.
Elicker and Harp both said that the current education landscape is miles ahead of what it was twenty years ago, but they have articulated different approaches to solving remaining problems including an achievement gap along race and class lines.
Justin Elicker’s vision for stronger schools includes three areas of focus: early-childhood education, character education and transparent policymaking.
“I think we have spent a lot of time focusing on the outside of schools,” Elicker said — referring to DeStefano’s $1.5 billion campaign to rebuild all of New Haven’s school buildings. “As mayor I would address the inside of schools, making sure that kids are getting the best education possible.”
Harp’s campaign similarly includes a focus on widening access to early-childhood education, but differs in its other tenets. Harp’s main strategies include holding every school accountable, giving students higher education or career experiences and rethinking adult education.
“We need to make sure that every student is given a pathway to success, whether that is through taking college classes in high school or getting the work experience they need to find a job,” she said.
EARLY CHILDHOOD EDUCATION
Hundreds of scientific studies have linked quality early childhood education with positive outcomes including decreased juvenile arrests, lower high school dropout rates and a higher likelihood of future employment.
Experts interviewed said access to a quality preschool education is critical in determining whether a child will ultimately graduate from high school and attain a successful career.
Given this wealth of data suggesting that investments in early childhood education yield positive results, both candidates said universal preschool will be one of their top priorities.
Under DeStefano’s leadership, preschool education has become an area of focus. DeStefano established a council dedicated to increasing the quantity and quality of early childhood programs in New Haven, and since 1995, the number of children getting a Pre-K experience has jumped from 63.2 percent to 73.9 percent, the highest of any urban district in the state.
Still, the high cost prevents many low-income families from sending their kids to preschools. According to Connecticut Voices for Children, 86 percent of all infants and toddlers from low-income families are not served by state or federal subsidies for early care and education.
“Kids from low-income families are coming into kindergarten with lower vocabularies than their peers,” said executive officer of ConnCAN Jennifer Alexander. “Providing high quality preschool will help set them on the right track.”
For Harp, expanding early education is one way she will solve what she considers the biggest challenge the district faces: the achievement gap. Harp’s early education plan calls for a citywide initiative that combines funds from Head Start, special education and school readiness as well as unrestricted funds to create a central facility where anyone, regardless of family income, can access quality Pre-K education. Harp said combining these different citywide funds will make Pre-K available for all children in the city.
Like Harp, Elicker said that in order for every child to be able to attend preschool, there ultimately must be more slots available. But in the interim, since this expansion would require additional funds from the state and federal government, he said, the city should try to make the present system easier for parents to maneuver.
“Right now, navigating the system is a bureaucratic nightmare,” he said, adding that he has spoken to parents who are confused by the current enrollment process.
He explained that parents are required to go to different locations in the city for an interview depending on whether the education option is funded by Head Start, School Readiness or a Magnet program. The leaders of the different programs are not in communication with each other, Elicker said, so parents may not be told about the school that is most appropriate for their child.
In order to make the current system run more efficiently, he proposes the “No Wrong Door” policy, where parents can walk into any school and enroll their child in preschool.
Superintendent of NHPS Garth Harries ’95 agreed that the current system has inefficiencies, and said that in the last year, a redistricting committee has focused on clarifying the enrollment process.
“Obviously the programs are different so they each have to be managed differently,” he said. “But when the net result is that the parents are confused about what their options are, we need to address that.”
Both Elicker and Harp have expressed their dedication to expanding early childhood education in New Haven, but political figures like Sen. Chris Murphy and Yale’s labor unions said Harp’s experience at the state level will help her implement her proposals. In an official endorsement, The New Haven Register said Harp, unlike Elicker, has built strong relationships with Gov. Dannel Malloy’s administration and the Board of Aldermen.
In this weeks debate between Ward 1 aldermanic candidates, Sarah Eidelson said that Harp’s recent role in securing a $750,000 grant to support youth violence programs demonstrates that she can initiate change.
Elicker supporters said that his experience in the city of New Haven gives him a better idea of the education issues specific to the Elm City. Several Yalies said that Elicker’s efforts to interact with both students and residents leave him prepared to represent New Haven and address issues including early childhood education.
“I honestly haven’t even seen much of Toni Harp’s platform on education, but Elicker is very accessible and his education platform is provocative,” Ward 1 Alderman candidate Paul Chandler ’14 said. “He is community-oriented, which will help him get the job done.”
DIVERGING AREAS OF FOCUS
While both candidates agree that access to early education is critical, they have different ideas of how the city should invest in education reform.
Harp said that more resources should be directed to improving adult education opportunities.
Often times, kids who drop out of school later realize that they need an education to succeed and they decide to go back to get a degree, Harp said. Currently, New Haven has over 2,000 students in adult education programs, and while regular classrooms spend 17,000 to 18,000 dollars per student, the city only spends approximately 800 for adult students, she said.
“I believe people deserve a second chance and that our school system needs to give adults the kinds of skills they need to move forward with their lives,” Harp said. She added that she did not think that Elicker had ever explicated a policy on adult education.
While Harp plans to direct resources towards adult education, Elicker said that one of his main focuses as mayor would be character education, an idea that writer Paul Tough pioneered in his book “How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character.” Tough argues that character traits like grit, perseverance and optimism are better predictors of success than math and reading test scores, Elicker said.
Elicker said skills like anger management, honesty and diligence will help students develop tools to succeed academically. Implementing character education in schools, Elicker said, would require everyone who plays a role in a child’s development to work together.
“It isn’t like you teach character education in a class,” he said. “This needs to be the culture of the whole school.”
Elicker added that some schools in the district including Achievement First and New Haven Academy — have integrated personal development into their education systems and have been successful, but that the district should work to systematically incorporate the curriculum into all schools.
Harries has also talked about implementing personal development into NHPS, and five parents interviewed at a recent Title I meeting said that they agree that schools should integrate character development into their curriculums. Jessie Lopez, the parent of two NHPS students, said that she supports character education as a way for students to learn skills beyond test taking and homework.
When asked about the value of character education, Harp said that she was not sure whether such a program would be impactful in New Haven.
“Honestly, I’m not really sure what Elicker means by character education,” she said. “And I haven’t seen any numbers that show it would work with the population we have here.”
HYBRID BOARD OF EDUCATION
When voters fill out their ballots on Nov. 5, they will not only be selecting a mayoral candidate, they will also vote on changes to the city charter that affect the education system. One charter revision question on the ballot asks voters whether they support changing the makeup of the Board of Education from a mayor-appointed model to partially elected board.
Currently, New Haven’s Board of Education consists of the mayor and seven members appointed by the mayor. If voters approve the charter revision, however, the Board would be partially elected, comprised of the Mayor, four appointed members, two elected members and two non-voting student representatives.
Both Harp and Elicker said they support an elected Board of Education, as elections increase transparency and give community members a greater voice in education reform initiatives. However, Harries said an elected board may politicize education, giving special interest groups a chance to manipulate the system. Hybrid school boards, he added, serve as a good compromise.
While the mayoral candidates will not determine whether the makeup of the Board will change, the extent to which they have addressed the hybrid board reveals how they will approach other aspects of school reform, said Yale’s Director of Education Studies Elizabeth Carroll. Both candidates said that they support the charter reform on the ballot, though only Elicker incorporates the hybrid board as part of his education platform.
“Toni has stated that if voters decide to revise the charter she will obviously go along with it, but she doesn’t seem to view it as a key priority,” Carroll said. “Elicker’s support for transparent policymaking is directly tied in with the city’s charter reform, which makes it seem like his platform is New Haven-focused whereas it seems like Harp could be running on the same platform in any small city.”
A lack of enthusiasm for a hybrid board could be well founded, Carroll added, noting that the School Change Initiative was created and implemented by a school board appointed by the mayor. Additionally, a report by the Center for American Progress found that mayoral governance has improved urban school districts — including New Haven — by narrowing the district-state achievement gap andgiving districts an ability to leverage revenues to support K-12 education.
Currently, New Haven is the only district in Connecticut with a fully appointed board, so a transition to a hybrid board would align with state trends.
Whether Harp or Elicker takes office in January, the city will continue to see education reform, and gradually, the city can continue to build off of what was started through the School Change Initiative, said Director of Public School Partnerships Claudia Merson.
“Education reform isn’t a sprint, it’s a marathon,” she said. “And I’m optimistic that the next mayor will make new strides.”