NHPS receives $1 million boost

On Tuesday, New Haven Public Schools announced a nearly $1 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation that will fund a professional development program for teachers, originally drafted by a team of seven teachers and administrators.

The one-year grant of $973,000 will support a teacher professionalism program called Empowered Effective Educators, and seek to improve classroom instruction by providing teachers with more opportunities to collaborate and become school leaders. The pilot program is already underway, with 52 teachers from throughout the district leading small learning communities of five to six teachers who meet to discuss ways to solve problems they face in the classroom, said Hill Regional Career High School history teacher Justin Boucher, who served on the grant-writing committee.

“We are trying to make teacher learning something that happens on a daily basis,” Boucher said. “The teachers really need to be constantly embedded in this professional growth practice in order to improve and learn.”

In the spring, NHPS was among five districts across the nation who were invited to pitch their professional development ideas to the Gates Foundation, which awarded over $15 million to the three best programs.

Although NHPS did not receive this grant in the summer, the district decided to start running their teacher professionalism program using money from a $53 million federal grant they received in 2012, said New Haven Federation of Teachers’ vice president of high schools David Low.

“We didn’t want to abandon the program just because we didn’t get the funding,” Low said. “The point was to create meaningful professional development programs, so we wanted to go ahead and get started on that.”

The program was launched over the summer, when teachers who were selected to serve as teacher facilitators underwent a one-week training session, and for the past two months, the facilitators have been meeting with their “teacher pods,” groups of about half a dozen teachers, Boucher said.

Though the district did not receive the initial grant, the Gates Foundation invited them to apply for a bridge grant, which would fund the program for one year, Low said.

Last week, the district found out that they were awarded this one-year grant, and on Tuesday, Superintendent of Schools Garth Harries ’95, New Haven Federation of Teachers President David Cicarella and other administrators convened at Barnard Elementary to officially announce the award.

This announcement came less than a week after the teachers union and the Board of Education ratified a three-year teacher contract that includes a new focus on teacher professionalism as well as increased compensation for teachers rated as effective, strong or exemplary.

Cicarella said that the grant aligns with the new teacher contract in its goal to keep effective teachers in the classroom while giving them a chance to engage in leadership activities.

“Before, the only options for teachers to advance was to become administrators, but we want the best teachers to stay in the classroom,” Cicarella said. “So the whole point of the fund is that we can give [participating teachers] who participate a stipend for taking on this additional responsibility … we can’t expect them to commit to it voluntarily.”

In addition to funding teacher stipends, Low said that the grant will pay for people to more efficiently schedule teacher collaboration. Currently, some groups are having to meet outside of the regular school day, but that is not a model that teachers can be expected to sustain in the long run, Low added.

Each of the facilitator groups has an individualized focus — ranging from building lessons to student engagement — depending on what the membership needs, Boucher said. During the meetings, the teachers can discuss strategies to make improvements and then reflect on the effectiveness of those strategies.

“It’s not one mind trying to figure out how to get through to students,” Boucher said. “It can be five minds thinking, ‘This is the problem in the classroom, how can we solve it?’”

Other school districts that received professional development grants from the Gates Foundation include Fresno, Calif., Long Beach, Calif. and Jefferson County, Colo.

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