Leon Botstein, the president of Bard College and the conductor and artistic director of the American Symphony Orchestra, began his talk on Wednesday night at the Yale Center for British Art by warning the audience that he intended to “infuriate you as much as I can.” Between the title of the night’s talk, “Beyond Fashion and Fear: The Future of the Humanities in the American University” and his opening promise, Botstein provided a humorous opening for what is hardly a funny concern for many humanities students: that their degrees are irrelevant and their prospects poor for finding paid work in a depressed economy.
Botstein’s opening remark in some sense typifies the man himself, who is well known for his outspoken disregard for CollegeBoard, the SAT and college rankings publications. Botstein was ironic throughout his talk, moving effortlessly between jokes satirizing the response of parents to their children’s choice of major and deeply serious suggestions about the state of art and culture in the United States and society at large.
According to him, many parents now dread their children’s turn to English literature, seriously believing that the major is a “dead end into a dark place.” He delighted in recounting his recent visit to Stanford, when he dined with humanities faculty who fret about their increasingly slighted role in the intellectual emphases of the university, quipping that the Stanford arts faculty have “always been marginal” there.
Botstein did take a more serious tone about contemporary society’s real disinterest and detachment from the arts. According to him, our educational system has failed to cultivate an understanding of the relevance and importance of the arts and humanities in the American student. Most Americans, Botstein says, lack a personal attachment to music, art or literature.
To use his example, unlike crazed soccer fans, who literally kill each other over the results of games, such passion does not exist around arts because many people lack even an amateur association with them — most Americans cannot draw or paint or play an instrument. It’s debatable whether even the most hardcore violinists ever think about beating each other up after concerts gone wrong, but this is beside the point to Botstein.
Yale itself, Botstein continues, plays a role in perpetuating some of the “fear” surrounding involvement with the arts and humanities. Strict departmental structure and archaic, technical language of academia prevent scholars from considering important questions that span across disciplines. Students who choose to specialize in tech or natural sciences graduate with degrees that lack a background in the humanities and thus find themselves unprepared to tackle moral and ethical questions that the humanities investigate in depth.
Botstein’s charisma and good humor gave his talk a levity that saved it from falling into a rant about the lack of public interest in the arts and the failings of institutions like Yale to help correct society’s apathy. And according to him there is hope for the future; he sees technology as a positive force for bringing the arts back to the people. But he doesn’t offer much of a vision for how technology can be effectively used to bring classical music and literature back to everyday people.
Nor does Botstein offer an alternative to organizing departments by major, but he is sure that the status quo presents structural impediments to practical application of the arts and humanities. He refused to acknowledge the simple fact that any expansion of music or art programs in schools will require funding that is scarce. Maybe individual science and math teachers can do more in their classrooms to embrace history and literature in order to instill an ethical and moral education in their students. But for schools to emphasize the arts on an institutional level, they will have to spend.
Botstein hints at this conclusion when he acknowledges that struggling orchestras and operations like the Met will potentially have to be subsidized in order to survive. He is clearly wary of the sensitive subject of money, though, and doesn’t press the issue. He explains how at Bard the precarious financial situation drives them to innovate, but the school is practically dedicated to creative study, and public schools have to emphasize the core curriculum over anything else. Most schools simply don’t have the same flexibility that Bard does to throw what little money they have into strengthening their arts programs.
Ultimately, Botstein argues for vast structural changes to public and higher education in order to include the arts and humanities as central pillars of their core curriculums. This is a noble ideal, but in order to cultivate an appreciation of the arts among American students in college, that education will have to start at an elementary school level. And this is a question of funding that Botstein is not ready to address.
Nicole Eisenman is a modern Renaissance woman. A RISD-grad and bona-fide art history buff with a teaching gig at Bard, she boasts a body of work spanning at least three mediums and residing in more than six prestigious museum collections (MoMA among them). Though she maintains the self-assurance of an artist who’s really “made it,” the painter, sculptor and part-time curator remains as down-to-earth and self-deprecating as they come. Eisenman is thoughtful without ever seeming to take herself too seriously and more than willing to chat with WEEKEND about Dracula, the time she accidentally took a bite out of a work of art, and why all budding MFAs should learn how to use power tools, ASAP.
Q: How did you get your start as an artist? When did you realize that your passion for art was something you wanted to make into a career?
A: That, for me, happened pretty young. I decided at some point in high school that I was going to apply to art school, and so I really had an idea pretty early on of what I wanted to do. It wasn’t so much a “career choice” as a pursuit of this passion I had for art-making, and I was — I have been — very fortunate to make a career out of it, and to make a living doing it. I don’t know that I ever pursued it as a career; it was more that I was always interested in art and wanted to do it, and the “career” kind of fell into place — luckily for me — as I went along.
Q: If you had to describe your work to someone unfamiliar with it in a few sentences, what would you say?
A: I am primarily a painter, although I draw, sculpt, print-make, curate and collaborate as well. My work is largely narrative, more often than not figurative, and it’s hard to pin down. Broad strokes, but I think that would be a pretty apt description of it.
Q: What does your studio practice look like?
A: [It’s] pretty straightforward. I come in here usually around 11 in the morning, and I work until 8 or 9 at night. I punch the clock everyday … Basically, I come in at 11, I have lunch looking at the work I did the day before; I play records while I work. And usually I’m distracted, texting friends as I work. I basically spend the day floating between my iPhone and my paintings and my record player.
Q: What’s your craziest art world story? (Because everybody in the art world is crazy…)
A: It’s true … there’s a lot of kook in the art world. Everybody is kooks in the art world; that’s why I try to avoid it as much as I can. [Laughs] My craziest art world stories are totally slanderous! Couldn’t possibly repeat them here. One silly thing comes to mind, though … I did take a bite out of a Robert Gober donut when they were on display at Paula Cooper back in the day. Even after I spit it out, it still didn’t occur to me that I had bitten into an artwork.
Q: Although it sounds like you might try to keep your distance from the art world, are there any events happening — in New York City or elsewhere — that we should know about?
A: I’m not sure I have a lot of super great advice, but the shows that are currently on my docket are Chris Ofili [at the New Museum] and Matisse [at the Museum of Modern Art]. And then there’s a Neo Rauch show opening soon at [David] Zwirner. Those are shows I want to see.
Q: Several biographies, such as one written for the Carnegie Prize, which you received in 2013, mention the influence of art history on your work. What do you consider the role of the history of art in a technical art education?
A: I think it’s an essential part of an artist’s education. I think it’s important to be aware of what’s come before us, probably for a lot of different reasons. But what I like to think is that all of us — all artists, as a subgroup of humankind — are in this big project together. We’re all moving the humanities and art forward together, and we’re part of a family. I feel like I’m part of a family tree of artists, and I want to know who I’m related to; I’m curious about art history because I feel like I have relations to these artists, and I think it’s a place to go to find inspiration.
History can be both inspiring and something to push back against; something to draw inspiration from and to resist. Not to resist in terms of not learning about it — obviously I’m interested in learning about art history and seeing everything — in the sense that young artists need to know about it so they can make an educated resistance against it.
Q: In light of your belief in the importance of art history, do you have any favorite artists, art movements or even particular works that inspire you?
A: It changes all the time. I look at the German Expressionists and the French Impressionists; Munch … I’m interested in everything. I’m looking at my bookshelf right now, and I see Blake, Brueghel, Picasso, Bonnard; I see a book about the pictorial history of monsters in Hollywood movies; I have a book of album cover art; of Hogarth … I mean, I really try to take in everything. It all feeds the beast.
Q: It’s kitschy but … if you could spend an afternoon with anyone — alive or dead — who would it be? (“Yourself” is also a potentially acceptable answer.)
A: I could do better than myself. I actually don’t think I’d want to have dinner with myself … I do that all the time, and it’s not that interesting. [Laughs] Anyways, it’s like Halloween-time, so maybe Dracula? Maybe we could make some kind of deal, and I wouldn’t feel like I would have to make all this art on a deadline … I feel like I could relax and slow down if I had another 500 years.
Q: In reading your bio on Koenig & Clinton’s website, I noticed you live and work in Brooklyn. Do you have any favorite neighborhood spots where you think everyone should go (or not go)?
A: Everybody should avoid the vape bar [Beyond Vape] on Grand Street downstairs from my apartment — it smells like people are smoking strawberry shortcake. That would really be a place to avoid. And a place to go … I like to drink beers at Achilles Heel; it’s a nice old-timey bar. I did a painting last summer called Achilles Heel, actually.
Q: You teach at Bard College. If your students learn one thing from you, what do you hope it to be?
A: Learn how to build walls. I think it’s really important that when you’re graduated from art school, you have some concrete skills: to know how to build things, how to handle a power tool, how to make stretchers and build stuff.
Q: And, more broadly, any advice for young artists?
A: I think my advice would be to keep your eye on what’s important and not to get sidetracked by the art world and having an art career. What’s essential, if you really believe in yourself as an artist, is to put the work — and not the career stuff — forward and to give it primacy in your thinking, so you’re not going to get obsessed with the art world, but obsessed with your process. The idea is just to keep your focus on what’s important and not to lose track of what’s essential, which is the making of your art. And then to be willing to do whatever the hell it takes; to be willing to work whatever crap-ass job you have to work to keep yourself flush in paint.
On a chilly evening in early March, I stepped through the doors of the Yale-New Haven Hospital. Wide-eyed and exhilarated, I was on my way to observe Dr. Katherine Campbell deliver a baby.
I was soon to learn that this delivery was unlike ordinary ones, the deliveries often marked by the predictable but remarkable anticipation of a newborn. This delivery would shift everything I knew about medicine.
“Today, I and a team of surgeons will deliver a baby for a woman who is obese,” Campbell explains as we head toward the patient’s hospital room. The physician-nurse team considers this patient high-risk because her obesity is a threat to not only her own life, but also that of her baby.
After wrestling into an over-sized set of sea-green scrubs, I continue on with Campbell into the maternal-fetal medicine ward of the hospital. An energetic married mother of twins, Campbell is an obstetrician-gynecologist who treats New Haven women with high-risk pregnancies.
She knocks on the door of the patient’s hospital room and enters. The patient is a young Latina woman, who lies listlessly across the hospital bed, clearly in pain. Her family surrounds her with worried expressions. I would soon see this woman stripped, anesthetized and limp on a delivery table with bright lights, physicians and technicians taking the place of her family members.
Campbell, the other surgeons and I would soon be witnesses to the battle between obesity and this woman and her child’s life.
* * *
The only part of the patient I see is her pale belly bulging out of the opening of blue surgical drape sheets. Campbell and the other surgeons use scalpels to peel away her skin, muscle and fat to perform the cesarean section. Blood oozes over their gowns, settling into the mass of towels that are strewn on the bottom of the operating table.
Campbell is intensely focused. As she later puts it, delivery for an obese patient can be strenuous for both doctor and mother. There is more skin and muscle tissue to cut through, and more strength is required from the surgeons to heave through in order to reach the baby.
“We get tired,” she says.
Obese women are also at a greater risk for blood clots during delivery, along with diabetes and hypertension, according to Campbell. Because these illnesses can produce severe complications before, during and after childbirth (hemorrhage, stroke, anesthesia problems, surgical wound infections), Campbell and her team are on their toes, waiting for warning signs such as a drop in the baby’s or mother’s heart rate.
After a flurry of activity, a newborn baby finally emerges. The surgeons hand over the infant to the technicians to be cleaned and taken to the neonatal care unit. Because Campbell has to attend to another patient, she leaves the other surgeons in charge to suture up the incision and whisks me away. My adrenaline high dies down.
For Campbell, this kind of surgery has become routine. As a physician, she’s made it her personal mission to combat the risks involved in obese pregnancies. But the intense, and often emotional, complexities of the problem extend far beyond the operating rooms of Yale-New Haven.
America’s fat problem is hardly new news: Each year, obesity costs the U.S. $150 billion a year and causes 300,000 premature deaths. But obesity takes on an entirely new set of dangers for pregnant women — and with one-fifth of pregnant women in the U.S. currently obese, Campbell’s work is more urgent than ever.
* * *
Campbell and I meet again on a cool morning in early October at Yale-New Haven’s Primary Care Center. Once inside, she eagerly introduces me to “the team” of the day: Elizabeth Miller, Dr. Lydia Shook, Dr. Lisa Zuckerwise and Dr. Stephanie Bakaysa, a group of women aglow with enthusiasm.
Today, there are 20 patient visits scheduled for ultrasounds and non-stress tests, a measure for heart disease in the patient. These meetings serve to keep the team members up-to-date on what diseases the women have had, what diseases they now have, and what they need to have for a healthy pregnancy.
Dr. Bakaysa scans a patient list while placing a hot, steaming spoonful of oatmeal into her mouth. She begins to speak with a thick Boston accent, running off a series of medical conditions of the first patient of the day. “Obesity, congenital heart disease, anxiety, depression, suicide attempt, GERD …” she says, waiting for her audience to ask questions about the patient’s current and past treatment.
“This baby is going to be very sick when it’s born,” Campbell declares abruptly. Questions and comments erupt from the other physicians and the nurse, bouncing from one person to the next. It becomes clear that Campbell is the leader of the group.
“The practice of medicine has had to change so much to accommodate our obese patients,” Campbell later explains. She describes how, although vaginal deliveries are safer than cesarean sections, she often has to quickly decide to perform cesarean sections on obese women. Campbell and her team do these urgent cesarean sections oftentimes because of dystocia, “when the baby is unable to fit down and out the birth canal.” Obese women face a greater risk of dystocia because they have extra soft tissue in the birth canal.
Furthermore, she says, when an obese woman is scheduled to go into the operating room, the labor and delivery team (made up of nursing, anesthesia and surgical teams) must change its protocol for many factors. They must plan for the extra time needed to transfer her into the operating room, the time it takes to position and prepare her for surgery and the time required to administer anesthesia. Most importantly, they must prepare for the added strength and concentration needed to move from making skin incisions to delivering the fetus.
For Campbell and other doctors, when it comes to delivering the child of an obese woman, time is of the essence.
But time can also be their biggest enemy when a baby is under distress, experiencing inconsistent breathing levels and low heart rates. In such cases, the child needs to be delivered quickly, and a slower cesarean section is dangerous. Ultimately, any wasted time in the womb could be fatal for the child.
“We don’t want to be in a situation where we say ‘we need to deliver this baby right now,’” Campbell says.
She contrasts this with the practice for non-obese women whose babies are undergoing similar distress during delivery. She explains the episode of a thin, 160-pound patient who insisted on having a vaginal delivery rather than a cesarean section. When the patient went into labor, the baby’s heart rate began to decelerate abnormally. Campbell and the other surgeons waited for the protocol time of half an hour so that the baby’s heart rate would stabilize and the vaginal delivery could proceed.
It’s a luxury that doctors cannot afford for obese women.
“If this patient had been obese, I never would have waited,” Campbell says firmly.
* * *
It’s 11 a.m., Campbell’s typing information into the electronic system, and I step away for a moment to get a cup of tea. On my way into the break room, I run into Katie Sullivan, who coordinates the diabetes pregnancy program in the maternal-fetal medicine department. As a nurse practitioner, Sullivan works to control and treat diabetes in obese pregnant women.
I speak with Sullivan for a while, who tells me that when treating these obese pregnant women, “it’s all about education.” Sullivan believes, above all, that education and communication are the most effective ways to minimize risks in the pregnancy. Further, education and communication ensure that obese pregnant women not only understand their own condition, but also the dangers it poses for their future children.
To educate patients, Sullivan is upfront: “The way you eat is the problem.”
If this is true, what is Campbell doing to educate her patients about the risks they face? She introduces me to a patient whose case illustrates just how crucial education is in lowering the risks of obese pregnant women.
* * *
Don’i Caesar is the most glamorous pregnant woman I’ve ever seen. A pink bandana garnishes her head, green eye shadow glitters her eyelids and floral pants and animal print acrylics add a special touch to her ensemble. She is 34, single and 22 weeks pregnant. According to her chart, she’s also clinically obese.
On a Tuesday in mid-October, in a room in the back of the Tompkins clinic, I sit down with Caesar to talk.
A school bus driver in the neighboring town of Milford, Caesar had five children before this one, all boys. “My 6-year old and 3-year old were both born early,” she explains. “26 weeks for the 6-year-old, and 30 weeks for the 3-year-old. The one who came out at 26 weeks weighed two pounds.”
A full-term baby is born anywhere from 37 to 40 weeks into the pregnancy and weighs five to eight pounds. In many ways, the startlingly low birth weight of Caesar’s child was to be expected: preterm birth is one and a half times more common in obese women than it is for normal weight women.
Caesar tells me her children are all healthy today, but when the 26-week-old boy was born, “he couldn’t keep his body warmth.”
This is because Caesar had preeclampsia, which occurs when a pregnant woman develops high blood pressure. Sometimes it can cause the baby to grow slowly, and it can lead to more life-threatening outcomes. Obese women have six times the risk of developing preeclampsia compared to women of normal weight.
“They gave him a 10 percent chance to live,” she recalls. “They said that his lungs were underdeveloped. They thought he would be handicapped, but now, he doesn’t have any issues at all. The only thing is at nine months, he developed asthma.”
I turn the focus of the conversation to Caesar herself. “Do you have any health problems?” I ask.
“I’ve had diabetes for eight years, and high blood pressure for three years,” she tells me. “I take care of the diabetes with insulin, but now that I’m high-risk and pregnant, I can’t take anything for the blood pressure.”
Caesar tells me the diabetes “goes up and down, but lately it’s been good.” She also says that her high blood pressure has been fine recently.
Although I don’t know Caesar well, I want to know her answer to a critical question. What is she afraid of with this pregnancy?
“Having another baby early,” she says quietly. “Some babies are born with a lot of complications.”
Caesar is well informed. She tells me Campbell has been teaching her “a lot” about her condition, and she frequently uses to internet to look up information. She also tells me that she has been following Campbell’s instructions and watching what she eats, avoiding starch and bread and trying to be active.
Caesar seems to have a thorough understanding of her situation, but does she consider herself as obese?
“I would probably say I’m overweight,” she says.
The clinical definitions of “obesity” and “overweight” are different. While overweight is defined as having a BMI as over 25, obesity is defined as having a BMI of over 30.
Campbell tries to dispel these misconceptions — the definitional difference between “obese” and “overweight” — from the moment she meets a new patient. She undergoes a thorough education session with each of her obese pregnant patients at the beginning of their pregnancies. In this session, she defines obesity; explains the patient’s increased risks for diabetes, preterm birth, stillborn birth, blood clotting and wound infection; talks about optimal weight gain during pregnancy; and explains the proper eating and exercise habits.
Despite all this education, obesity is still a tough issue to discuss.
“Sometimes it’s hard to talk about [obesity], or patients may not have the same language. For example, Don’i may not fully understand the word ‘obese’ and think that ‘obese’ and ‘overweight’ are interchangeable,” Campbell says.
Still Campbell says Caesar “had insight into her risks.” Most of her patients understand that their pregnancies are more complicated than other pregnancies, even though they may not like talking about it.
“Some women embrace the necessary changes during their pregnancy and do a great job, but some women are not as organized as that,” she says. “It’s very hard to change your diet, especially if you grow up in a household where you eat a certain way.”
But others are less successful, and many of these patients are faced with myriad economic and social factors that may limit their understanding or capacity for change, she adds. The frustration that comes from attempting to lose weight, while also naturally gaining weight from the pregnancy, leads many women to give up entirely. Furthermore, Campbell says that her obese patients often live and work around other obese people, clouding their understanding of where their weight falls on the spectrum.
Both nurse Katie Sullivan and Campbell agree that, while they can provide the education and support needed to make these changes, it’s up to the patients to follow through.
“Ultimately the patient makes their independent decision … whether they are going to buy the whole grain pasta or the cookies,” Campbell says. “It’s two-sided — we’re a team and they have to meet us in the middle.”
According to Campbell, such is what makes Caesar’s case particularly encouraging. Caesar’s efforts have proven, above all, that her methods for minimizing risks of obese pregnancies are “making a visible difference” in the lives of her patients.
* * *
A couple of months after my conversation with Caesar, Campbell informs me that she delivered a premature baby.
Under the lights of the operating table, Caesar was the portrait of a woman who heeded the advice of her doctor, taking every precautionary step to ensure the safe delivery of her baby. For Campbell, the preparation was as thorough as possible, with every preventative measure fulfilled. But even with all these bases covered, and then some, the severe risks of an obese pregnancy remained. This reality speaks to the larger cultural problem of obesity, one that Campbell and her team consistently must face during each day, each delivery.
The pregnant and obese women who file into these operating and consulting rooms are soldiers; they carry their fears on their backs like a rucksack, unpacking their loads in the hearts and minds of the physicians, nurses and receptionists who wait on them every step of the way. But as Caesar shows, many are open to learning about their risks, eager to change their habits to improve their own health and the health of their future children.
Campbell understands that for the most part, the roots of obesity are beyond her control.
“Every patient has the potential to change,” Campbell says. “And as a physician, it’s my job to unlock that potential for my patients and let them see that they are capable of making changes to improve their health.”
If you chat with Matt Brimer ’09, Jake Schwartz ’00 and Brad Hargreaves ’08 for a bit, you’re likely to hear some business jargon. Reference might be made to the “digital ecosystem” — networking, itself jargon, might become “connectivity.” But given the way General Assembly has taken off since the trio founded it in 2011, it seems there just might be something behind all that mumbo jumbo. General Assembly, or “GA,” as its three founders call it, is a New York educator and incubator for other tech start-ups. From simply providing the physical space and amenities necessary for start-ups to grow — office space, in other words — General Assembly has expanded to offer a host of courses for aspiring entrepreneurs at locations across the globe, winning over $4 million in seed funding and a spot among Forbes’ “Top 30 Under 30” in the process. The company reports that 96 percent of students enrolled in the most immersive programs go on to find jobs within three months. WEEKEND gave the three Yalies behind GA a call to find out how they made it all happen.
Q. Jake Schwartz was quoted in a Yahoo! News article about you guys saying that in today’s job market, it’s not enough to “write and think and figure out what you need to do.” How does what you learn at General Assembly relate to traditional higher education?
Brad: We look at General Assembly as a complement to liberal arts education, not as a replacement. Liberal arts has an incredibly important role in the American education system, and that’s not one we’re looking to replace, but 98 percent of our current and previous students already have a college degree. Our audience is not coming to GA as an alternative to traditional education. Many of these are students who went to really good schools. I’m sure we could find Yale alums who have been through our program. It’s really students who are looking for a very specific skill set, whether they want to become a user experience designer, they want to become a web developer, they want to get into digital marketing: Those are the profiles of the students we’re seeing.
Jake: I almost think of [GA] like the last mile. I loved my Yale experience. It was a great education, but I didn’t come out with any way to just create economic value for my employer. So I really had to hustle and leverage whatever else I could find to even get someone to hire me. If you want to go off the beaten path, you need to be able to hit the ground running. All these companies aren’t just looking for people who are smart — they’re looking for people who can do things.
Q. How did Yale prepare you guys for what you are doing now?
Brad: When I look at what I’m doing today, the biggest thing that Yale provided me is connections to my co-founders. Matt and I have known each other since he was a freshman at college and I was a sophomore. Matt met Jake through a Yale alumni event. The connectivity that Yale provides is incredibly important. Part of what we are trying to do at General Assembly is not just take the educational content and deliver it but also deliver that connectivity and that brand imprimatur that you get from going to an institution like Yale.
Matt: I also think Yale provided a certain sense of magic to our undergraduate experience. When we think about what we’re creating at General Assembly, being able to surprise and delight and provide serendipity is important, because I think that’s what creates long-term success: when you can create very memorable but also impactful experiences for people. When we think about what learning means at GA, a lot of our experience originates from Yale.
Jake: When I got out, I experienced firsthand the major letdown of getting into the real world and realizing that there were a million people just like me. Yale has this way of building you up to think that you’re special, and then I had that very long, hard letdown that, in a lot of ways, is what inspired me to start GA. I had a great experience at Yale in many ways, my best friends are from there, and I think Yale did a really great job with the way it approaches this idea of a big idea with a bunch of little details that make up the big idea. The interplay and the tension between those two levels of thought is really the same way I still think about strategy and tactics in a start-up, in a business.
Q. That same Yahoo article had Jake saying that there was a sort of stigma in American education around purely vocational training. How do you guys hope to change that?
Brad: It’s really about delivering a lot of the non-educational value that has traditionally been associated with, say, Ivy league schools — for instance, providing a strong alumni network and incredibly high job placement rates. Obviously, education and skills are a big part of it, but for us it’s really skills plus community equals opportunity, and that has not traditionally been part of the vocational school value proposition. That’s one of the ways we think what we’re doing is unique.
Q. One of the things that makes GA stand out is its connections to the established tech industry: You have guys from Facebook and Google teaching classes, and then when people complete your class, you’re able to launch them off into the tech world. How have you guys managed that level of integration?
Matt: In many ways, General Assembly began in a very community-oriented, grassroots way. It began with a series of conversations and ideas between myself, Brad and Jake, and a number of the members of the tech and start-up community in New York City. A lot of it was about not only getting interested but also involved, getting people who we wanted involved in our greater vision. A lot of it is about being out there in the community, going to events, creating goodwill, facilitating introductions and favors for other people in the tech community so that we can get great karma around us. Doing those favors eventually comes back to us. It’s about playing an active and participatory role in the communities we are in.
Jake: A lot of that is that we’ve now been around for three years, and we’ve worked really, really hard. That’s the other thing: There are no shortcuts — there was no magic bullet that got us there other than hustle. We all went to as many events as we could, we met everybody, we probably gave hundreds of tours of the space before we launched the original GA. It was through all of that and having a mission and a set of values that people believe in, that allowed us to have that presence today. We’re still working on it — it’s not something that ever stops.
Q. How daunting is it to start a company from scratch? What does it feel like when you realize, “This is going to work”?
Jake: It’s the wildest ride of your life. It’s hard to describe. A friend of mine describes starting a business as one of the most psychedelic experiences in life because your reality is constantly shifting around you. I always liked that.
Q. When someone walks into GA with an idea for a start-up, can you tell if they have what it takes to make their idea work?
Jake: A lot of people think it’s about the quality of the idea, and they get very defensive about the idea, and one of the things that can help me know if an entrepreneur is going to be successful is how un-defensive and eager for all sorts of feedback they are. A good entrepreneur knows it’s not the idea — it’s the ability to get it done that matters, and they look for any kind of feedback or gaps or holes or vulnerabilities in how they’re thinking. Whereas somebody who is a little defensive and a little closed off to that, they may think that means they have a strong vision, but typically what it means is that they’re not open to the data that the world is providing, that could help them make their idea stronger.
Q. Any brief, pithy advice you guys would give to a Yale student who wanted to found a start-up, tech or otherwise?
Brad: I would say, failure is OK. Failure can be a learning experience. The start-up that Brad and I founded before General Assembly, it was in the social gaming space. We ran that for a couple years, and it never ended up working out in the long term. But the failure and the lessons learned from that company really allowed us to create General Assembly and allowed us to be a lot more successful the second time around. The first company you start as a Yale student very well might not work out, but getting that experience — getting that education — is absolutely paramount for being successful in the future.
Jake: Well, I would say there’s no time like the present, right? Just do it. But I think, more importantly, don’t think that just because you’re smart you’ve got something to add. It’s going to take hard work and constant learning to really be a valuable member of a start-up team.
It was almost impossible to make out what Zachary Groff ’13 was trying to say on the other end of the line. All you could hear were the sounds of children: shouting and shrieking.
Eventually, Groff decided to leave his classroom in search of a quieter space. A brief silence, and then his voice reappeared. We resumed our conversation. It was just after 4 p.m. on a Wednesday afternoon. Groff was only halfway through his week.
Groff is currently teaching first grade at Jumoke Academy Honors at Dunbar School in Bridgeport, Conn. Every weekday, Groff is at the school from around 7:30 in the morning until 6:00 p.m. He doesn’t get back to New Haven, where he lives, until after 7:00 p.m.
More than one thousand miles away, Groff’s former suitemate and best friend Bradley Cho ’13 goes through a similar routine — in rural Mississippi.
“If you told me a year ago that I was going to be teaching or in Mississippi, I wouldn’t have believed it,” Cho said, chuckling on the other side of our phone call. While at Yale he majored in history and always thought he was going to go to law school.
Groff also hadn’t planned to go into education during his Yale years. And both he and Cho are unsure whether they’ll continue to teach. After two years of teaching, they will decide whether to stay at their respective schools, move to one somewhere else or pursue something else entirely. These are not unusual choices for corps members in Teach for America.
In 1989, Wendy Kopp was a senior at Princeton. In her senior thesis she proposed the idea that more top college students wanted to give back to society. But at the time, there were few well-organized, or well-publicized, programs that allowed them to do so. She developed Teach for America, which has since sent tens of thousands of high-achieving college graduates to participate in two-year teaching programs in some of the poorest pockets of America, many of which suffer from a shortage of qualified teachers.
Last year, over 57,000 college graduates, many hailing from some of America’s most revered universities, applied for TFA’s 4,000 teaching positions. The program has an acceptance rate that rivals Yale’s own in terms of selectivity.
Yet successful applicants from Yale to the program are not always greeted with the praise and even envy that they might receive if they had instead gotten a job offer from Google or a place at Harvard Med School in their senior year. If they accept TFA’s offer, these seniors will find themselves in the midst of a heated national debate instead.
From education experts to opinion columnists on-campus, the prestigious program has received a myriad of criticism recently, ranging from its alleged failure to prepare teachers adequately for the classroom to the claim that TFA actively seeks to dismantle America’s public school system.
Despite these critiques, Yale students are still drawn to TFA. From the Class of 2013, 30 Yalies joined the corps, making the non-profit the second-largest employer of Yale graduates, behind only the University itself, and ahead of prestigious consulting and finance firms such as J.P. Morgan, McKinsey & Company and Goldman Sachs.
Yale students who have enrolled in TFA readily admit to the existence of flaws in the program, but most believe that they profit from their experience. At times the program fails to live up to its lofty ideals, but Yalies in the program continue to find meaning in this work.
Boarding the School Bus
Students interested in Teach for America must first submit an application by one of five deadlines that fall between August and February.
In the next round, applicants are given a phone interview and are asked to fill out yet another set of short answer questions. In the final interview process, candidates spend a day answering face-to-face questions and mimicking classroom duties, such as designing and teaching a five-minute lesson.
“I’ve heard that sometimes the interviewers will ask very antagonistic questions and pretend to be short of understanding,” said Meredith Redick ’14, who has recently been accepted to TFA and has committed to teaching at a school in Chicago. Though she didn’t receive any of these hardball questions, she said the final interview process was nerve wracking nonetheless.
Redick also called this grueling two-cmonth process a “major time commitment,” and it’s one that doesn’t always pay off. Only 14 percent of all applicants are accepted.
Despite the many hoops one must jump through to apply, many Yalies persist, citing their affinity for TFA’s mission.
Cho, whose family immigrated to Los Angeles when he was very young, said that the opportunity to give back to underprivileged communities like the one he grew up in was his number one reason for taking on the job.
“I believe that service to your community and country is one of the best things you can do,” he said, asserting that you need a certain idealism to do this job.
Many other former Yalies cited this desire to give back among their primary reasons for joining TFA, and some said the pressure weighs harder on those from more privileged backgrounds.
Chris Clarke ’13, a first year TFA core member who teaches 11th grade history in Chicago, pointed out that time in the program can be seen as a way to atone in advance more cutthroat career choices later.
“A lot of people [at Yale] see TFA as an ethical alternative or obligation to repay your privilege before getting your ‘real’ career started,” he lamented. Clarke hasn’t decided whether he wants to pursue teaching full-time but said he plans to spend at least another two years in the field after he completes his obligations to TFA.
Coming from an immigrant household with a special-needs sibling, Cathy Huang ’14 came to college with a desire to become a teacher. However, working for TFA wasn’t in her initial plan.
Huang cited the elimination of Yale’s Teacher Preparation program during her sophomore year as a prominent reason why she turned to TFA. Even in her first years of college, Huang knew she wanted to be a teacher, but, once that program was cut, she had no way to obtain a teaching certification without going outside the University.
Huang laid out her options: she could take night courses at a different university, pay for “emergency certification” through state-specific certification programs or become a corps member of the TFA with a guarantee of a stable, salaried job for at least two years. With TFA, she could be financially independent and work in a high-need community. For Huang, there really was no better alternative.
Elizabeth Carroll, director of Yale’s new Education Studies program, said that without the prospect of obtaining teacher certification at Yale, Yalies aspiring to be teachers have three options: TFA and similar programs (Carroll herself was certified through the New York City Teaching Fellows), three-to-five-year residency programs that train teachers over one year before allowing them to teach in their classrooms independently, or a traditional yearlong Master’s degree program that provides certification without a job guarantee.
Therefore, Yalies like Huang who want to pursue a career in teaching find themselves with limited set of options.
“Yale unexpectedly forced my hand in some ways,” she said.
But as students are funneled into TFA, they also find themselves entering a national debate about whom the program actually benefits, and if it really lives up to its high-minded ideals.
The most recent, most discussed criticism comes from Olivia Blanchard, who wrote an immensely popular cover story for The Atlantic Magazine this September. In it, she explained why she quit TFA after just one year.
She took her complaints to the press in September of this year when she wrote an article for The Atlantic titled “I Quit Teach for America.” In the article she decried the contrast between the promise of the program and what she actually experienced.
Blanchard’s critique of TFA began with how the program markets itself: as a morally good alternative to other post-college options. Blanchard entered TFA after graduating from the University of North Carolina Chapel-Hill. She chose the program because she believed that as a TFA Corps Member, she would be an important leader in a community that would lack such role models.
“Although I was thinking of working in Washington or going to law school, I decided to do TFA in part because I wanted to contribute something to society and I was really interested in social justice,” Blanchard said.
But Blanchard didn’t believe that she got the training that she needed to be the role model she imagined.
Assigned to teach 5th grade math and science in Atlanta, Ga., she found herself at a loss. Like all TFA Corps Members, Blanchard underwent an intensive five-week training program in the June and July before her first year at TFA, but she said that she found this training insufficient.
“The training program is ineffective in part because it’s just not specialized,” she said, adding that it was “disconcerting” that she, as a fifth-grade math teacher, was going through the exact same training schedule as someone who may have to teach twelfth-grade American history.
All seven other current or former TFA Corps members interviewed agreed with Blanchard in saying that the training program was insufficient.
“Are you ready to be thrown into a classroom of loud and bored kids after five weeks of training? No, not at all,” said Clarke of his experience in Chicago.
But proponents of TFA push back on the notion that it doesn’t prepare teachers well enough.
Aisha Turner ’02, the managing director of Corporate and Foundation Relations for Teach for America in New York argued that, while traditionally teachers come into their first jobs after years of graduate school in education, that training isn’t much better than practical experience.
“You learn how to be a good teacher by teaching and studies show that a first year TFA teacher performs as well or better than other first year teachers,” she said.
But Blanchard pointed out that the program’s members generally don’t stay in teaching long enough to learn these skills.
She said that in addition to those, like her, who quit before their two-year term ended, many corps members teach for an additional year or two before heading to graduate school or other more high-paying jobs. They don’t have time to ever get comfortable in a classroom.
Others on the job disagreed with Blanchard, arguing that most members remain involved in education in some capacity.
Clarke admitted that he knows colleagues and fellow corps members who have told him that they see TFA as a stepping stone or a line in their resume, a way to get into medical or law school, especially if they don’t have the background of coming from an elite university. He maintained, however, that most TFA members are interested in pursuing education as a full-time commitment.
“Whether a TFA corps member is a good teacher is more important than whether the member is doing it for the right reasons,” Clarke said.
And Rikki Crouse, a TFA member from the University of Oregon teaching middle school math at Domus Academy in New Haven, pointed out that those who come to TFA for the wrong reasons are often the ones who quit during institute training, not those who drop out on the job.
Still, dedicated TFA members face challenges beyond their control. Blanchard arrived in an Atlanta school in the midst of a cheating scandal. And, when she needed help with a special education student who wasn’t supposed to be in her class, for instance, neither the school nor TFA was responsive.
In situations like these, Blanchard was meant to rely on her advisor in the program, an MTLD (Master of Teacher-Leader Development). While she said that she found her MTLD supportive, and invested in her success, she said that the program’s advisors are spread too thin.
“My MTLD really cared a lot and was absolutely terrific and invested in my success, but she had thirty other teachers to take care of,” said Blanchard.
TFA also faces criticism, not on specific policies, but on how the program runs as a whole.
Clarke said that as a TFA member in Chicago, he has often been personally attacked or vilified by public school teachers who see the program as a threat to the system.
“The Union leader of the Chicago public schools called TFA the Devil recently,” he said. He added, however, that he taught at a charter school where teachers and administrators are generally more supportive of the TFA mission.
For some, including Diane Ravitch, a historian of education at New York University and a former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education during the presidency of George W. Bush ’68, the road to hell really is paved with good intentions.
She argued that TFA offers a low-cost and low-quality alternative to unionized public school teachers. While funding for TFA is expanding, teachers are being laid off in many cities — and these two trends are no coincidence, Ravitch argues in her writings.
“[TFA] has become the handmaiden of the privatization movement,” she wrote on her website, The Diane Ravitch Blog, in a September post.
Off the Syllabus
Yalies admitted to TFA find that their experience isn’t always the life they imagined.
As soon as future corps members are admitted, they are taught TFA’s five core values — diversity, transformational change, leadership, teamwork and respect/humility — through activities like putting pictures of each value on Pinterest. In addition, TFA recruits are given readings on race, economic justice, urban issues and more.
In June, a training institute begins. For most TFA trainees, this is a five-week boot camp of sorts, during which future corps members are made to teach for most of the day, attend lectures on teaching in the evenings and create lesson plans at night.
Clarke said that during “Institute” — which he described as being “like finals on steroids” — TFA recruits read books such as “The New Jim Crow” to heighten their cultural sensitivity and awareness of issues salient to low-income communities. They also openly discuss whether it is morally acceptable for privileged graduates from elite colleges such as Yale to be teaching in predominantly African-American or Hispanic schools. When this process ends, the trained teachers attend an orientation and take a quick break before moving into their assigned classrooms at the beginning of the school year.
The teachers interviewed agreed that the first days, weeks, even months of school are hectic as can be.
“Nothing prepares you for when you’re in charge of classrooms,” Mariel Novas ’10 said. “You’re expected to [teach] like a twenty-year veteran.”
During this make-or-break period, the new teachers struggled with the obstacles of effective classroom management. Once, in Cho’s classroom, a student burst out crying. He had no idea what to do. Groff’s students acted similarly. They would often be playing, talking or even fighting with one another when he was trying to teach.
Thankfully for Groff, the situation improved once he figured out how to take control of his students. Still, he called the job “physically, emotionally and mentally draining” because of the need to be thinking about so many things simultaneously.
In addition to maintaining a healthy classroom climate, the new teachers have to deal with the new responsibilities thrust upon them.
Novas initially felt weighed down by the pressure to change her students’ lives and provide them with the opportunities that she had had. She learned, however, to embrace this pressure and use it as a driving force toward positive change and better classroom practices.
“I understood the system that had to be in place to manage a classroom and ensure that the students are learning,” she said. She added that she felt she has learned the importance of being honest and genuine in response to her students’ needs.
Shanaz Chowdhery ’13 teaches fifth grade math in Washington, D.C. She spoke about all of the unexpected obstacles encountered while teaching, including managing student behavior, working with parents as partners and navigating relationships with coworkers.
She also emphasized the long hours of the job — during our early evening phone conversation, Chowdhery was simultaneously creating an answer key for a quiz that she planned to administer in the next couple of days.
“I’ve been working harder than I’ve ever worked in my entire life,” Chowdhery admitted.
And complaints, in the end become a common theme.
Clarke enjoys his time in working in Chicago, but says that many corps members bond through mutual pessimism.
“TFA members complain a lot. That’s what we do to socialize,” he said.
Ultimately, some TFA teachers can’t take the heat.
Teacher retention and attrition rates — already one of the biggest problems facing schools in high-poverty communities — are particularly high for TFA members, said Clarke. And more than 50 percent of TFA members do not remain in the classroom after their two-year tenure is up.
Crouse said that, as a second-year TFA student, she knows of only a handful of colleagues from her five-week training period that quit during the two-year program.
“Do a lot of TFA members think of quitting? Yes, absolutely, but most people get through it,” she said.
The number one reason for staying? The kids, of course.
In a phone interview, Cho shouted over the line that he loved his kids. Unlike Gross’s call, however, Cho’s took place after school hours. His kids couldn’t be heard in the background.
But, like his former suitemate, Cho knows how taxing a daily routine with them can be. He wakes up early — at 5:30 a.m. in Hollandale, Miss., population: 2,500. After a twenty mile drive, he arrives at Simmons High School in Leland, Miss., population: 4,400. There he teaches for seven out of eight class periods, finally leaving the school at 3:40 p.m. When he gets home, he’ll spend hours making lesson plans and grading papers.
Cho also said that you often “hope that you’re making a difference,” and that’s what matters. There is a teacher shortage in his region of Mississippi, and he believes that, even if he’s only there for a short amount of time, he can be a positive influence.
When asked about teachers who struggle with quitting, he admitted that some of his co-workers have left the program. But he also said that he has witnessed many discover that they have the “grit” to preserve.
“I’ve seen teachers cry after school, and still come back to their desks in the morning.”
212 College Street is no Linsly-Chittenden Hall. It lacks the classroom building’s mammoth, marble stairwell, its luminous chandelier, its austere, oval Harkness tables. It lacks heat.
Here — at the People’s Art Collective — you’re a far cry from your English section in LC 209. You’re not in for a discussion on Dante but you can still learn about literature in a class called “Art & the Poetic Function.” Maybe you’re a science person and would rather take part in “Do It Yourself Herbal Medicine” or “Fermentation,” like chemistry sans the test tubes and titration. These are just three of the 13 classes offered at the New Haven Free Skool, the first project of the fledging People’s Art Collective, which opened its doors last fall at the corner of College and Crown streets, just a block and a half from Phelps Gate.
At the Free Skool, you won’t be graded on your work. You don’t have to apply and your classes don’t have prerequisites. You can take one class or all 13. And you won’t pay a dime.
Each hour of class at Yale costs roughly $100. My math is admittedly inexact: I arrive at that figure based on $42,300 in tuition and approximately 13 hours of class per week and 27 weeks of classes per year. But the exact calculation is not important. This week, I went to school for free — or skool, I should say.
“The misspelling is intentional and absolutely central,” I learn from one of the school’s organizers, Diana Ofosu ’12, who founded PAC along with Kenneth Reveiz ’12 and Gabriel DeLeon ’14 last September. “The ‘k’ signifies alternative pedagogy. It makes it clear that we’re interested in a different way of learning.”
I start to see what sort of learning that is when I arrive at my first Free Skool class Monday evening — Herbal Medicine.
I push open the glass front door to find five people seated in a circle of folding-chairs and a piano bench. As I scan the group for a teacher — it’s a collection of 20- to 40-year-olds, three women and two men, of racially diverse backgrounds — a slight woman in jeans and a neon vest speaks up. I learn that she is the instructor, a Woodbridge, Conn. native named Diane Litwin who gained experience in holistic medicine from working on an experimental farm for two years after college. As Litwin assembles a collection of herb-infused oils, one of the students, Jackie Trickett-Sargent, tells me she’s here because of her broader interest in fermentation, something she’s been experimenting with on her own. Trickett-Sargent, a resident of East Haven, works with Yale’s Information Technology Services.
As we pass around tinctures — herb-infused oils — to smell, Diane speaks of the different plants that give the concoctions their fragrance: plantain, lavender, calendula and St. John’s wort. She then turns the class loose to research the medicinal properties of each herb. The students rise from their chairs and move to the back of the room, which is outfitted with rows of unfinished wood tables folding up to white walls plastered with posters.
“FOOD NOT BOMBS” a sign reads in all caps on one wall. That’s also the name of one of the Free Skool’s most popular classes, Ofosu tells me. It meets on Saturday, when students gather at PAC to cook food acquired through the week in a series of “dumpster dives.” Ofosu calls it a “food rescue and redistribution mission.” Broccoli and pie crusts are typical finds, she says, gems amid the trash outside the Trader Joe’s in Orange, Conn.
They cook the meal all together back at PAC, using donated hot plates and crock-pots.
One of those crock-pots sits on a back table in the room as the students in Herbal Medicine flip through medicinal plant textbooks for information on the herbs, instructed by Litwin to write down each herb’s medicinal qualities on the dry-erase board hanging on the back wall. Lavender, we learn, cures headaches and insomnia and can be used to treat open sores. St. John’s wort restores nerve tissue and treats acne. As the students write up each herb’s medicinal benefits, one asks if he should avoid mixing marker colors.
“Use your creative freedom,” Litwin jokes in reply.
Turning from the board to a table strewn with cooking supplies, Litwin explains that all it takes to make a salve is a quarter cup of beeswax to one cup of herb-infused oil. Describing them as “life elixirs,” Litwin says she uses the salves on her face and hands when she feels like she’s getting sick. Later, she calls the oils her “friends.”
“I feel like an alchemist,” one student remarks as he grates a block of beeswax into the crock-pot filled with a cup of oil.
Set over a light, the beeswax soon melts into the concoction, and we ladle it out into small glass jars that the students take home with them.
At Sketch Comedy on Wednesday evening, I meet Eliza Caldwell and her five students, though, as with the Herbal Medicine, they tell me attendance in the class was once higher. According to Reveiz, 150 students are registered for the current session of the school, now in its second term. 19 teachers guide a total of 13 classes this session. Some are co-taught, such as Queer Art, Thought and Action, a course on LGBTQ issues that Reveiz leads along with a Yale Ph.D. student.
“Anyone who emails us or who we think could provide something galvanizing for the community we let teach,” Reveiz tells me.
Caldwell’s experience with sketch comedy comes from her participation in a college improv group at the University of Connecticut, where she went to school before coming to live in New Haven.
She guides the group through a series of warm ups and exercises, as students improvise scenes of bashful children, blind dates and suicide hotline centers. At the end of the session, Caldwell lingers behind with a number of students, including Alex Lew ’15. They discuss forming a New Haven improv group and consider possible venues.
Lew, who is a member of the Yale Ex!t Players improv comedy group, says he’s taking the class to learn technique — but also to make new friends.
“It’s always great to get the perspective of other improvisationalists, to experiment with someone who learned their technique somewhere else,” he explains. “There’s something about doing improv all the time with a bunch of 18- to 22-year-olds who share the same cultural references based on similar backgrounds as largely upper-middle-class Yale students. Taking this class is a really cool way to make friends with people who come from a different sort of community. Improv relies so much on trust, support and friendship.”
A NEW WAY OF SCHOOLING
The dearth of community centers in New Haven has not gone unnoticed among city leaders. Ward 1 Alderman Sarah Eidelson ’12 is currently working on plans to revamp the Goffe Street Armory into a youth and neighborhood center. Eidelson and Citywide Youth Coalition Director Rachel Heerema have said that the closing of the Dixwell “Q” House has left a hole in the community that needs to be filled.
“It’s absurd that there’s no real community center in New Haven,” Reveiz tells me. He adds that the PAC is specifically designed to provide a safe space and “support group for queer youth.”
Language from the group’s webpage lays out PAC’s focus on “the creative agency of women, queer-identifying folks, people of color and youth.”
Reveiz says the organizers’ feelings of privilege weigh heavily on the project.
“I’ve heard of other people trying to start art projects or things like this, and they just hit a wall,” he said. “We’re lucky — and we’re highly aware of our positions of privilege.”
212 College St. became home to PAC with the help of Helen Kauder, who runs Artspace and sits on the board of the Co-Op Center for Creativity. Artspace is a contemporary art gallery and non-profit arts advocacy organization located at 50 Orange St., just three blocks down Crown Street from PAC. Established in 2009, the Center for Creativity leases storefronts from the Co-Op Arts & Humanities High School. Reveiz, Ofosu and DeLeon, who are artists-in-residence at the Center, are subletting the space for $250 per month. The Collective has raised over $3,000 by crowdsourcing through Indiegogo, an online platform for crowdfunding, and community fundraising. At the Free Skool, they go without central heating, using space heaters when the sun goes down and the temperature drops.
“I think a lot of it has to do with the privilege and recognition that come with being Yale alums,” Reveiz says, speaking of their success in using makeshift means of running the school. “The question is how can we use that privilege to give people a kind of hope. People have very little to do who lack jobs or after work if they do have jobs, and that contributes to violence and a general culture of fear.”
When I ask her about the potential impact of the Free Skool, Eidelson describes the operation as “an exciting community and youth space.” She says more programs in the city should be free of charge.
Reveiz echoes that sentiment. He says money increasingly pervades all social interactions, and that the Free Skool is an experiment in extricating education from market forces.
Taking away the need to pay allows the school to cut across myriad communities, whereas “education is often only for those who can afford it,” Reveiz explains. The intersection of historically separate communities is one that he says the program is uniquely situated to foster.
“The school pushes people to a kind of realness. Yale students will introduce themselves as sophomores to people who might not consider being a sophomore a pertinent identity category,” he explains. “A lot of New Haven residents are sometimes turned off or intimidated by Yale students, and our challenge is against that, too. It’s really cool — people are making friends across communities.”
About 40 to 50 percent of Free Skool students are affiliated with Yale. For these students especially, the Free Skool may come as a culture shock, says Ofosu.
At Yale, she continues, education is “formalized,” students relating to teachers in a strict hierarchy. Learning at the Free Skool happens by “engaging others as equals.”
Reveiz says the Free Skool represents education-as-community-building. The school is animated by the idea of a more democratic model of education that emphasizes “empowerment and generosity.”
Free schools exist nationwide — in Buffalo, in Austin, in Santa Cruz — Ofosu tells me. These models served as inspiration when she and her fellow PAC leaders were considering the potential work of their collective. When I call the Free Skool a project, she corrects me, saying they call their work “interventions.”
“We think of what we’re doing at the Skool as an intervention into modes of living that are unsustainable or unjust,” Ofosu says.
WHERE ART MEETS ACTIVISM
When I ask Ofosu and Reveiz about the politics behind the school, they are reticent to endorse a specific political ideology.
“We all have our own political motivations,” Ofosu says.
Ultimately, Ofosu said, the Free Skool — and PAC as a whole — aims to work toward a new type of activism, one that fuses politics with artistic creation.
“I’m interested in proactively building alternatives to oppressive modes of being,” she says. “A lot of activism is reactionary — terrible shit happens and you need to respond. I’m into that, but the artist in me feels passionately about actively building new spaces to access information outside of dominant modes of knowledge.”
The front windows of PAC are covered in artwork and posters. One window is emblazoned with the Collective’s logo. Another is painted with the words “Justice for Jewu.” Jewu Richardson is a New Haven man fighting a felony charge based on reports he crashed into a police car shortly before being shot in the chest. The PAC logo is nuanced and colorful, with patterned shapes arranged to form its letters. “Justice for Jewu” is painted in stark black letters.
Though its organizers disclaim an overt political agenda, the Free Skool is not isolated from the political and social needs of the community it serves. As the Yale grads both tell me, this is a place where art and activism meet.
“The Free Skool is a way of advancing relationships and actions that root out a multiplicity of oppressions we see in this city — racial, economic, gender-based,” Reveiz says. “This is a social infrastructure that represents something more like a world we want to live in.”
From her perch in the Calhoun dining hall, card-swiper Jessika Booker plays mother hen to Yale students not much younger than she is. She teases one boy about his mustache; she recommends hot chocolate to the flock coming in from the cold. And underneath her seat, she stores a shelled, white thing — this mother hen’s equivalent to a nested egg.
It’s a textbook.
“I’m a full-time mom, full-time employee, full-time student,” Jessika chirped. At 23, this Gateway Community College student pays her own way through school. She whips out her schoolwork during pauses — burps — in the hubbub of the dining hall where she happens to be employed.
Or if you want to look at it another way: She’s a Yale employee who happens to go to Gateway.
Student or worker, which is she? A pedantic question, perhaps. But to Yale employees officially classed in the Clerical & Technical, Service & Maintenance and Managerial & Professional divisions and weighing enrollment at a local or online college, the answer can seem obvious: Your job comes first. This is especially true because the only way many can pay for school is by taking advantage of Yale’s tuition reimbursements program, an opportunity available to workers as long as they remain on Yale’s payroll for the duration of their course of study.
And things get complicated. Full-time employees who have been here for five or more years pocket a 100 percent reimbursement (not to exceed $4,600 a year). Meanwhile, full-time employees with less than five years’ service claim 75 percent reimbursement (and up to $2,300 a year).
The provisos, unwinding, could dizzy you. Yale’s Human Resources Office writes on its website that all employees seeking tuition reimbursements must receive a passing grade of C- or better to claim the promised benefit. But, back in Calhoun, Booker was under the impression that she needed at least a B average.
Other dining hall staffers tried to disabuse me of the notion that Yale would pay for them to study whatever the hell they want — now, why would Yale do that, they asked, assuming limits on the degree programs they could pursue.
They were wrong, but not entirely: Yale does not dictate what employees should study, but does offer a separate subsidy for professional development (a consequence of local union bargaining). For workers weighing education costs, the two programs are easy to confuse.
Rather than getting caught up in the obscure nuances of benefits, many employees seem largely nonchalant about them. At most, they are slightly peeved at what they perceive as irrelevant minutiae — if they’re even aware of all the differences in benefits, which none of the 10 interviewed for this piece were.
K.C Mills, the operations manager at Silliman College, is cheerfully, if sporadically, pursuing a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of New Haven. Mills, who earlier in her life completed some course work at another UNH (the University of New Hampshire), showed me her online reimbursement portal and explained that she plugs in her information, and that’s that. There’s no point in haggling with a computer, and for Mills, who has had her entire tuition covered by Yale, no need. She’s content.
Calm like Mills’ is the norm, but that’s until employees’ plans hit a roadblock. Imagine the dilemma: They’ve used up their reimbursement funds. They’re not exactly full-time, and don’t qualify for sufficient reimbursement. They don’t know reimbursement will cover a degree in art history.
That’s where the Yale Women’s Organization (YUWO) scholarships might come in handy.
For a woman.
* * *
While students are scrambling for grants and fellowships, it’s also application season for some female staff on campus. If Yale won’t fully reimburse their course tuition, the little-known but well-funded YUWO might, provided they apply by March 1. Decisions are reported by April 30.
When Working Mother magazine cited Yale as one of the 100 best (read: working mother-friendly) companies in the nation, it specifically mentioned the YUWO scholarships, along with the University’s tuition reimbursement program. But while a national magazine caught wind of the opportunity, many of its potential beneficiaries have not.
At five residential college dining halls, female pantry workers interviewed said they had never heard of the YUWO scholarships. One refused to volunteer her name, lest we report her to her manager for even considering the option. Some thought we were hawking wares. “Tell me more about this scholarship?” they said, leaning in.
Felicia Tencza, the current scholarships coordinator for YUWO, says the organization sends flyers to supervisors and department managers, and that information about the scholarships appears in the newsletter “Working at Yale.”
And Trudy Bollier, a YUWO member and scholarships coordinator for 2010–’11, says some candidates to the scholarship have applied at their supervisor’s urging.
But based on those dining hall conversations, one can suspect that certain supervisors — maybe a sampling error’s amount — are loath to accommodate an employee prioritizing education over work.
When asked whether she would now consider applying for the scholarships after having been informed about it, one dining hall worker, the same one who withheld her name, laughed us off.
“I don’t have time anyway, because my schedule’s all messed up.”
One might think the Yale University Women’s Organization is out of touch with the lives of the women it’s trying to help.
But its scholarships were conceived out of empathy, not sympathy. Kay Ross, the founder of the scholarships, whose husband, Bollier says, was an administrator in the sciences, had her own college studies interrupted before her marriage. In 1972, she awarded a first scholarship of $100.
Since then, the YUWO — now a club of local female Yale affiliates — has been awarding scholarships to women employees or the wives of Yale employees wishing to start or resume an associate’s or bachelor’s degree, or to pursue a degree from another certificate-granting program (say, for teaching). It’s sincerely looking to help women who had their studies interrupted before they completed their higher education.
Yes, their name might make one think of a prissy, white-gloved society luncheon — this is Yale, after all. And, as if on cue, Bollier told me that the group’s three highlights — in addition to the interest groups, like book, bridge and music clubs, advertised in their brochure — are a wine-and-cheese event, a holiday party and a May luncheon.
But the holiday party serves a noble purpose: fundraising for the scholarships. The guests of honor at that May luncheon are scholarship recipients.
They’re not the patronizing old birds we’d like to imagine, instead the YUWO’s leaders prove to be a classy bunch sans snobbery.
* * *
YUWO wants to help — but it can only do so much.
Nowadays, depending on the generosity of donors, YUWO awards around seven annual scholarships — one of them in honor of Kay Ross — that each provide between $1,000 and $3,000. According to its website, the organization has awarded 310 scholarships, totaling some $316,675.
Money for the scholarships comes entirely from donations, mostly from the over 300 members of the Women’s Organization and their friends, Bollier says. Those donations are made on top of membership fees.
So, given the state of the economy, the organization’s resource pool has predictably shrunk. In lockstep, the number of awards has steadily declined in the past few years. In 2008, 12 scholarships were granted. In 2009, nine. In 2010 and 2011, seven.
Last year, only five scholarships were awarded.
“What we’ve tried to do is move to larger awards as opposed to something under $1,000, because it’s a little more meaningful,” current coordinator Tencza says. But she emphasizes that the number and size of the scholarships depend on “who applies and what their financial need is.”
In a follow-up email, Tencza wrote that, in order to reduce the number of inquiries from ineligible candidates, YUWO “strives to sharpen our narrative description of eligibility.”
“It seems to be working. … Inquiries are reduced, not eliminated,” she wrote.
The application process for the scholarship is not especially arduous. Aside from basic (mostly financial) information, it asks for a one-page statement of purpose and two letters of recommendation. It is hard to imagine that many degree-seeking Yale employees don’t qualify.
Of course, first they need to be aware of its existence.
Michelle Gary, the card-swiper at Branford dining hall, was the last potentially eligible Yale employee interviewed for this piece. And her verdict on the scholarship was clear: “We should know these things.”
College banners hung from the gym ceiling: Yale alongside Rutgers. Michigan State vying with Princeton. Northwestern. Temple. Duke. Syracuse. Penn State. Seated below them were students who attend Hill Central School, a New Haven pre-K through eighth-grade institution. Each Hill Central student held a smaller flag, celebrating a different college.
Looking out from the stage, Connecticut Commissioner of Education Stefan Pryor called what he saw “a storm of miracles and magic.”
“It is truly remarkable what has happened in the vast majority of schools in New Haven,” he continued.
Hundreds of people, ranging from toddlers to long-serving Mayor John DeStefano Jr., had thronged into Hill Central’s gymnasium on Oct. 21, 2012, for a dedication ceremony commemorating recent renovations at the school. The press scrambled to take pictures of the brand-new gymnasium, the spacious, well-lit hallway and the colorful mural adorning the wall of the cafeteria. The school marching band played exuberantly. Excitement was the order of the day.
“Why do these people build these buildings?” New Haven Public Schools Superintendent Reginald Mayo asked the students. “They build them because they believe in you, believe that you’re going to continue to take your education seriously, that you’re going to prepare yourselves for high school and for college and for the world of work.”
Mayo the bureaucrat became Mayo the mascot for a moment: “Raise those banners and wave them!” he declared. The kids waved their flags; the crowd cheered.
Students at the revamped Hill Central School will embark on a journey through the New Haven public school system unlike the one experienced by generations of alums before them. Their journey is, to a large degree, a product of a very young program: New Haven’s School Change Initiative, a set of plans the city prioritized in 2009 and has trumpeted at a moment when the nation is enamored with education reform. The initiative, which includes a teacher evaluation system, a school tiering system, new extracurricular programs, efforts towards parental engagement and extensive scholarships, is expanding at a brisk pace. This past Monday, the school board accept a grant of over $100,000 from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which approached the city with an offer for funding to help with improve teacher training. Over winter break, College Summit, one Initiative-linked setup that seeks to foster a college-going culture throughout New Haven public schools, was introduced into three more schools in the district. Those three join the two schools that introduced College Summit in 2011–’12 and its first school partnership, established at the Cooperative Arts & Humanities High School in 2009.
Although it is part of the New Haven Promise, College Summit has not been the center of attention the way Promise’s scholarship has, in the news, in rhetoric or in the public eye. In this sense, it crystallizes the nature of the Initiative: Many of the new moves towards educational success are cultural, subtle and focused on mindsets rather than money.
This struggle is not confined to our one small city tucked away in the Northeast. Education reform is increasingly looking like a national imperative for the United States. As cities like New Haven illustrate all too painfully, manufacturing jobs are increasingly scarce in the postindustrial economy and service sector positions, which generally require higher education, form a growing proportion of the jobs available.
Meanwhile, though Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development statistics show that the United States spends more than any other OECD member country on each student each year, the organization has also shown that the United States ranks 14th in the world in the percentage of 25–34 year olds with a higher education. It looks like increased education spending does not necessarily translate to effective education spending. New Haven is a test case for what the latter should look like.
Six-year-old Devon Steed sat through that dedication ceremony at Hill Central with his mother and sister. Like most 6-year-olds, Devon was more concerned about dancing to the marching band’s music than listening to some superintendent discuss education reform. But the speakers at the front of the room, the Smart Boards that will be in his classroom as a part of the school renovation and other products of New Haven’s School Change Initiative may well determine if, in 16 years, Devon will graduate with a degree from one of the colleges whose names were, for that moment, just words on banners above his head.
‘Noise’ in New Haven
Parents who attended Parent University, a series of workshops for New Haven parents held at Gateway Community College on Nov. 3, made it clear that they see school reform as a complicated and potentially fraught endeavor, one whose success hinges on a broad cultural shift. So when Brett Rayford, the director of adolescent and juvenile services for the Connecticut Department of Children and Families, argued in a discussion entitled “Addressing the Needs of Urban Boys” that education is a beacon of hope for their children, they reminded him that these boys are, in different ways, socially conditioned to dismiss educational success.
One of the mothers raised her hand and said academic achievers in local schools are accused of “talking white” and “acting white.”
“The boys don’t want to go there,” she explained, “because they want to fit in.” Straight A’s aren’t helpful when it comes to popularity, so achieving them may simply undermine a student’s social standing.
The crowd issued murmurs of agreement. Another mother, Carla Chappel, the parent of an eighth-grader, raised her hand and shared an example from her own experience: When her son was younger, he was reading a book with his father when another young boy walked over and told him he was “corny” for reading with his dad.
Instead of “corny” activities, students often succumb to the temptations lurking in the streets of New Haven. In the school system’s climate survey from 2009–’10, which is provided among informative materials on the School Change Initiative’s Web page and which asked questions of parents, students and teachers, 30.2 percent of student respondents reported that gang activity occurs at least some of the time at their school.
Such ubiquity means that crime can be discussed as an inevitable future on an everyday basis.
At Brennan Rogers, another city pre-K through eighth-grade school, every student participates in crew meetings in the morning, discussing the path to college on a weekly basis. This past Nov. 9. crew leader and teacher Florence Rosarbo decided to talk to her students about addressing “noise” — personal problems they face.
She told students to identify their goals and chart two paths, one that described a life with noise and one without noise. “Remember in the beginning of the year when we read the poem ‘The Road Less Traveled’ by Robert Frost?” Ms. Rosarbo asked the class. “Right now, we need to start thinking about taking the road less traveled by some of your peers.”
As the students began to think about their two paths, another teacher jumped in to help: “It’s easy to look at your life with noise: Look at the people you know who aren’t doing anything.”
Two of the boys in the room started laughing.
The teacher guessed the person they were laughing about, a former student. “He’s walking around with a bracelet (the tracking instrument that inmates wear in jail or on house arrest),” the teacher said, in response to the student’s repeated giggles.
“You’re laughing, but it was one real bad decision that he made.”
One of the boys who had been laughing looked up and said: “My father said all his friends are either dead or in jail.”
At the end of the class, when students were asked to put the noise in their life on the board, one of the first things written was “the hood.”
Solutions that dominate headlines
In 2009, city administrators decided that “the timing was really right” for education reform, says Laoise King, who was working as deputy chief of staff to Mayor DeStefano at the time and is now the vice president of education initiatives for the United Way of Greater New Haven. The school district was winding down a comprehensive construction program that renovated almost every educational institution in the area. President Barack Obama had just been elected and had appointed Arne Duncan, a key proponent of school reform in his former role as the Chicago Public Schools superintendent, as the Secretary of Education. Meanwhile, New Haven Public Schools also had a new hire: Garth Harries ’95, who helped design school reform in New York City, and would now serve as one of New Haven’s assistant superintendents. Taken together, these developments produced an impetus for progress — and the School Change Initiative was born.
The New Haven Promise would be the diva, the glamorous star, of any film about the Initiative. Much-discussed in the media and seen by some as the key fix built into the Initiative, Promise provides a full-tuition scholarship to any public college in Connecticut (or a partial one to a private institution).
“When Promise was announced two years ago, it generated a reaction of excitement and hope that I had never seen in my years in New Haven,” recalls William Ginsberg, the CEO of the Community Foundation for Greater New Haven, a philanthropic organization that administers Promise.
The scholarships are funded by Yale, one of the key accomplishments of DeStefano’s close ties with University President Richard Levin, and can be obtained by any student who lives in the city, attends New Haven public schools, has a positive disciplinary record, completes 40 hours of community service, has a 90 percent attendance record and receives a cumulative GPA of 3.0 or higher.
If there is one thing that on its face looks like a silver bullet in terms of students attending college, it’s Promise. It seems like dreamland, a middle-class fantasy. But in a school district like New Haven, a scholarship does not get to the core of the problem, to the issues addressed at venues like Parent University.
In 2011, 151 students qualified for Promise and 110 accepted it — i.e., only 10 percent of graduates in the school district actually qualified for the scholarship. In 2012, 172 students qualified, but even that 15 percent increase covers only a fraction of the district’s high school grads.
If they don’t turn to the gang culture some students speak of, New Haven’s youth may simply choose to not go the college route. As one parent said at Parent University, to the approval of her peers, not all students in the district may be “suited” for college. The Sound School, a vocational agricultural high school which draws students from the city of New Haven as well as its suburbs, is home to a student population which U.S. News & World Report statistics show is 81 percent proficient in reading and 78 percent proficient in math, far above the district average percentages of 59 percent and 52 percent proficiency. When asked if most of the seniors in their class at the Sound School were planning to attend college, two seniors, Frannie Villano and Dionna Shipman, looked at each other and responded with a resounding “No.”
They said that most seniors there plan to attend vocational schools, join the army or enter the workforce. When asked about the New Haven Promise, Villano says, “Most kids nowadays don’t take advantage of it. A lot of kids are lazy and don’t want to do the paperwork.”
Villano herself will apply for the scholarship. But she adds that, in doing so, she is one of the few in her graduating class who is considering the Promise option.
Students at another city high school, the High School in the Community, also say Promise is not the ultimate factor in their decision about where they will be after high school. For those like Chastity Berrios, a senior from a single-parent household who is on track to receive a scholarship, Promise may be a relief, but it is not a driving force. “It has been a motivator, but I wouldn’t say it’s been my motivation,” Berrios says. “I’ve kind of always been motivated for college anyway.” And some of her peers, on the other hand, have not been.
New Haven is not the first city to offer a Promise-type initiative and find that a scholarship does not overcome students’ attitudes towards college and how they approach educational achievement. In Kalamazoo, Mich., the Kalamazoo Promise — a full-tuition scholarship for students who attend public tertiary institutions in the state — has ensured that, now, 95 percent of high school graduates in the city of Kalamazoo attend college, says the program’s executive director, Bob Jorth. He estimates that prior to the introduction of the Kalamazoo Promise, only 75 percent of high school grads went on to college.
Still, the actual proportion of students who do graduate from Kalamazoo high schools has remained fairly static.
“It’s the last number that we expect to change,” Jorth said. “There has been an incremental increase, but not a huge increase.”
Students who can make it through high school, then, do receive new opportunities. But the scholarship has not proven to incentivize more students in such schools to push up their grades and graduate, much less attain a B average.
Implementing nonscholarship changes worked in another instance, the Academy @ Shawnee, a high school in Louisville, Ky. The Academy @ Shawnee became a federal turnaround model and was thus required to replace at least 50 percent of its staff with new hires. Soon after, the school posted gains of more than 20 percent in math and reading proficiency levels, and even made it to Education Week magazine. All this occurred without a Promise-like scholarship program.
“I’m not going to turn it down,” says Principal Keith Look, when asked about scholarship options for students. “But in and of itself it is not going to be enough. … [It’s] not changing any of the systems that take place in the school. It’s just changing the incentive.”
Without a cultural shift, money serves as a flashy, simple-to-explain fix, but not a far-reaching one.
Sheila Brantley, who helps facilitate Yale Child Study Center psychiatrist James Comer’s school development program in New Haven public schools, sums up what’s needed with a story about the New Haven Promise. She remembers telling a group of high school students about the Promise when it was first announced.
As Brantley excitedly told students they would no longer have to pay for their college tuition, one girl raised her hand and asked, “What’s tuition?”
A different kind of promise
While Promise may not be the key to reshaping the attitudes of students already in school and on paths to academic or nonacademic futures, administrators say they hope that it will incentivize the parents of students currently in lower grades to make their children start thinking about college — and the educational success it will take to get there — early on. United Way of Greater New Haven education official King, for instance, calls the city’s school reform effort “a baby” and notes that the program may well have its greatest impact on students who are only in elementary school right now, by influencing their parents’ views of their educational futures.
“One of the ways Promise fits in is it’s a quite bold experiment in parent engagement,” says Ginsberg, the CEO of the Promise-administering Community Foundation. “Can we use a significant financial incentive to get parental engagement?”
Right now, says Lisa Pressey, the mother of an eighth-grader at Worthington Hooker School, New Haven parents often tell their kids they cannot afford college. That kind of “diminishes your dreams,” she explains.
Promise, Pressey says, is “empowering.”
That’s because it changes families’ thinking at its roots. Pressey, a single mother, says the financial support Promise offers may be vital to her son’s college career. And that’s a security she now has much earlier, so she’s not scrambling to look for funding options his senior year. Oma Amrit-Singh, the mother of a kindergartner, heard about Promise and the opportunity it could her provide her kindergarten-age daughter and had goosebumps, she says. At least one question about the young girl’s future may be partly solved. Her performance at school now looks that much more likely to result in her attaining higher education — one stumbling block is out of the way.
Promise thus tackles New Haven residents’ mindsets, parenting techniques and broader cultural perceptions, which its leaders, like Ginsberg, feel are the reason for students’ currently problematic performance.
“The culture of New Haven, with the manufacturing past, was not an economy that required high education credentials. Generations ago, young people could graduate from high school and get jobs in manufacturing, own a home and raise a family and live a life that was economically and socially acceptable,” Ginsberg suggests. “That is just not true anymore.”
Promise’s second component focuses explicitly on building a new pro-college culture within schools. The program has cultivated a far-reaching partnership for a number of New Haven schools with College Summit, an organization that promotes college enrollment among students at every level from kindergarten to high school.
Promise Director Patricia Melton ’82 explains that College Summit starts early. She recalls personally going into schools to ask kindergartners what they want to be when they grow up. Then, for kids at higher levels, College Summit’s message is communicated by specially trained educators in the schools themselves, with teachers and peer leaders helping high school students through the college application process.
Meanwhile, the non-Promise programs under the umbrella of the School Change Initiative are attempting to develop cultural change using out-of-the-classroom experiences unique to each student. Dr. Rayford for one, the state official leading the Parent University discussion on the troubles faced by urban boys, told the assembled New Haven parents he met that November afternoon that he believes each student has a “hook” that will help her become engaged and invested in education.
For some students, he suggested, that “hook” may be connecting chemistry to hip-hop. For others, it is learning about their ancestry, be it Puerto Rican, Cuban or African-American, or being exposed to areas outside their own neighborhoods.
At that workshop, a teenage boy raised his hand and told attendees the story of one of his friends. One day, the boy said, his friend’s father left home — and suddenly the friend became a “terror.”
Now, that “terror” is a talented basketball player at Wilbur Cross High School, a high school in the New Haven Public Schools system, and just “has this energy,” the teenager went on.
Dr. Rayford told him the basketball served a crucial purpose: “They found this kid’s hook.”
Boost!, a School Change Initiative program sponsored by the United Way of Greater New Haven, looks for those hooks. It puts together a range of programs that help students succeed outside of the classroom. After an initial test year for their plans, Boost! representatives constructed a needs assessment of which wraparound services certain New Haven schools needed and matched the educational institutions with nonprofits in the community that can provide these services. So, for instance, the school identified as having no after-school programs for sixth and seventh grade girls inspired Boost! staffers to seek out such programs and plug the gap.
Boost!’s tentacles are now felt throughout New Haven public schools. At Columbus Family Academy, while teachers were having a routine meeting about their projects, one teacher brought up a student who she described as sometimes behaving like a “goofball.” She explained that to try to jump-start his performance, she emailed representatives of Squash Haven, a Boost!-sponsored activity that teaches kids to play squash and also takes an interest in players’ academics.
Her “goofball” student “brought his grade up 30 points in, like, two weeks.”
Were students are not engaged in such alternatives to the common path of getting into trouble out of peer pressure, college would be a lost cause regardless of scholarships or academic improvements. “You have to look beyond just a cognitive academic curriculum and instruction,” says Brantley, who implements the Yale Child Study Center’s Comer School Development program for the improvement of students in nonacademic ways. “These students come into the classroom with a whole life experience that’s not even touched.”
Brantley’s view isn’t just a matter of opinion. Test results confirm that wraparound services are critical. All five of the schools in which Boost! launched in the 2010–’11 school year saw Connecticut state test improvement at a rate higher than the district average. Three of the Boost! schools were in the top 10 most improved schools in the district on the CMTs, Connecticut’s state test for elementary and middle school students. The three schools — Wexler-Grant, August Lewis Troup and Barnard Environmental Studies School — improved test scores by 7.4, 7.2 and 3.5 percent respectively. These figures compare to a district average improvement rate of approximately 2 percent. One of the remaining schools, Clinton, improved test scores by more than 2.5 percent. And Metropolitan Business Academy, a high school which does not administer the CMTs and was the only high school Boost! worked on in its first year, saw 42 percent of students participating in a Boost! activity improve their attendance.
The school change crusade
Administrators in offices are not the only ones campaigning for school reform. Acknowledging that the larger culture of their city has to change, New Haven residents took to the streets earlier this year to spread the word about the new approach to schooling.
Hill Career Regional High School’s cafeteria buzzed with school reform energy on Oct. 13, as dozens of volunteers, from infants carrying dinosaur lunch-boxes to company CEOs, grabbed brochures and Dunkin’ Donuts coffee before heading into neighborhoods to tell people about the new school reform initiatives.
This door-to-door canvass was the last of three that the School Change Initiative put together. Each informed New Haven residents about different aspects of education, from entering kindergarten to New Haven Promise. Locals showed up in droves for the kindergarten canvass in particular. Over 200 volunteers knocked on nearly 1,500 doors and talked to about half of the families sending a child to kindergarten in New Haven.
The effort to get parents involved in schools needs to feel like a “political campaign,” according to Assistant Superintendent Harries, the school district’s New York-imported education reform specialist. He believes the school district must go after parents with “the intensity and penetration that swing states have just been through in regards to the election.”
And Jack Healy, the CEO of United Way of Greater New Haven, sympathizes. Healy was invited to the White House this past October along with about a half dozen other school reform representatives to discuss school change. The main agreement that came out of the meeting, he says, was that community involvement is crucial for successful school reform.
“Schools cannot reform themselves without it being a communitywide effort that mobilizes the resources of the public, private and nonprofit sectors,” Healy concludes.
Yet while the canvasses are a step in Healy’s desired direction, it is still unclear whether the entire New Haven community understands or even backs school reform. In the classroom next to Ms. Rosarbo’s, where she was speaking with students about noise in their lives, fellow Brennan Rogers teacher Bryan Merritt also discussed obstacles to college with his students. In addition to peer pressure, the streets, drugs and violence, Merritt says, money came up, “obviously.” When asked why money was still a concern since these children have access to the New Haven Promise, Merritt explains, “We’ve talked about it ad nauseum, but it’s so far away it doesn’t resonate.”
The public school system’s 2009–’10 climate survey also showed mixed results about the community’s attitude toward school reform.
In the parental survey, the schools did indeed poll well in most categories such as “the school environment is conducive to learning” and “the school has high academic expectations for my child.”
Then again, only 23.1 percent of parents in the district took the survey.
New Haven as a model
According to Community Foundation CEO Ginsberg, the board of New Haven Promise has been charged with evaluating the city’s entire School Change Initiative. The team, which includes Levin, Ginsberg and DeStefano, is almost finished with the evaluation design. Ginsberg says he hopes the evaluation will take place in 2013.
But so far, there seems to be incremental improvement. When asked if he is pleased with the progress of school reform, Harries tells me he thinks there is “potential,” but then adds that the city is “not there yet.”
The high school graduation rate, one of the most important indicators for education reform, has increased by 2 percent in the last year, up to 64.3 percent in 2011 from 62.5 percent in 2010. The percentage of students on track to graduate, which is a measure of whether students have adequate credit accumulated for their grade level, has increased by about 9 percent. And the dropout rate has recently decreased, falling from 27.1 percent in 2010 to 25.1 percent in 2011.
Meanwhile, 21 more students qualified for Promise in its second year than in its first, and in 2012, elementary schools came one point closer to closing the achievement gap with the state as a whole.
High schools, however, slipped backward from gains made in 2011. The district qualified for a $53 million dollar grant to train and develop educators, but did not qualify for the federal Race to the Top grant, which awards exemplary education reform plans.
The results may be mixed, but one thing is certain. In New Haven, there is hope. If New Haven is going to succeed, it will not be because the public was dazzled with scholarships or because educators concentrated all of their energy on one aspect of school change. If New Haven succeeds, it will be because a new team of reformers took an entire city’s educational culture and flipped it upside down.
At the end of the dedication ceremony at Hill Central, Sheena Steed turned to her son Devon and said, “Don’t you love school, Devon?”
“Yes,” said Devon, who continued eating his Ben & Jerry’s ice cream and dancing to the Spanish music playing in the background. There are thousands of Devons in the United States, in cities like New Haven, craving the kind of real change that lessens the achievement gap and helps them enter college. It is not clear whether New Haven has discovered the solution to Devon’s educational future, but whoever does will not only shape Devon’s future — they will shape the next generation of Americans.
It’s 10:30 on a Thursday morning, and Mr. McAfee’s juniors are warming up for class.
“Head voice!” he calls out, then “Chest voice!” and the row of students whooeep and heeay and hiiii, shaking from side to side before they’re told to inhale. “Now say your names, say, ‘Hi, my name is,’ and then the name of your character,” he continues. “It has to be big and full and vibrating, so everyone in the space can hear it without even trying.”
“Hi, my name is Polonius.”
“Hi, my name is Claudius.”
McAfee stops a girl in a blue sweatshirt who he doesn’t think has spoken loudly enough, and asks her to try again.
“HI, MY NAME IS OPHELIA,” she shouts.
“See you’re going to hurt your voice that way, you can’t be hurting your voice,” McAfee tells her. “You can be that loud without straining yourself. You have a lot of lines so I want to make sure everyone hears them, because you’re doing some great stuff.”
There’s a collective “awwwwww” from the other students standing on stage, and after a couple of giggles the group carries on.
“Hi, my name is Hamlet.”
“Hi, my name is Rosencrantz.”
* * *
These students are putting on “Hamlet” as a class as part of their work at the Theater Department at the Cooperative Arts and Humanities High School in downtown New Haven (known as the Co-op). The school is located less than two blocks from Old Campus, on the corner of College and Crown streets.
While 65 percent of students at Co-op live in New Haven, 35 percent come from outside the city. The Interdistrict Magnet Schools system provides free bus transportation to students, including those from towns such as Guilford and North Branford, and travel can take as much as an hour each way.
Like all of the 18 New Haven Magnet Schools, the only way to get into the Co-op is by a lottery which takes place in February of each year. Though no one can audition or submit a writing portfolio, students must select one of the school’s five arts departments to apply to: creative writing, visual arts, music, dance and theater.
Infinity Jean, a junior at the school, said that she was so set on working on theater that Co-op was the only school to which she applied. “It’s a good thing I got in,” she added. “Or I would have gone to Hillhouse [her neighborhood public school in New Haven].”
Jean was luckier than a lot of students: for each spot in its freshman class, the school is forced to turn away many more students than it accepts. With a total enrollment of 650, Co-op consistently has the longest waiting list each year of any school in the magnet system, according to Arts Director Suzannah Holsenbeck ’05.
A passion for the arts is not the only reason some apply to Co-op. Theater teacher Robert Esposito said that he always begins with a new group of students by asking, “Why are you here?” And for some students, the answer is simply “because my mom doesn’t want me to go to Hillhouse.
Esposito can sympathize with the parents: Co-op, he said, has a kinder environment than some surrounding neighborhood schools. On top of the Co-op’s strong academic reputation and sparkling new facilities, Esposito said students are less likely to be bullied there. The school is heavily female, and has a large openly gay community.
“I know for me, I have an 11-year-old daughter. I would love for her to come to Co-op,” Esposito said. “I think that says a lot — I totally understand why parents force their kids to come here.”
* * *
While the Co-op offers a standard, college preparatory academic track, students spend an hour and a half on their chosen arts every day — a full 25 percent of their total instructional time, and the largest concentration in any subject matter that they have.
For the first two years the theater curriculum strives to expose students to the widest possible range of aspects of theater, with freshmen focusing on ensemble building and sophomores on scene study. In these two years they’ll study everything from the Stanislavski method of acting to technical theater, read “Oedipus Rex” and learn techniques for auditioning. As juniors they’ll split off into technical and acting tracks based on students’ interests, and study Shakespeare before moving into modern drama their senior year.
Senior Frankie Douglass said that while she has always liked theater, before coming to Co-op she didn’t consider herself an artist. The Co-op school was her second choice after the Educational Center for the Arts (ECA), also located in downtown New Haven — which selects students through a merit-based, competitive application process. “It was my first time auditioning for anything,” she said. “I messed it up.”
After three and a half years at Co-op, she has realized that not only does she belong among the arts, she needs them. “I feel like we all look at the world differently now,” Douglass said. “Now situations, tragedies we go through, we can take all that and we have somewhere to put it.”
Despite representing a similar economic demographic as other area public schools, the Co-op can boast significantly higher test scores, and rates of college attendance. Of all the students who graduated from the Theater Department last year, Esposito said that maybe all but two are now in college, while noting that funding can remain an obstacle for many students from low-income families.
“When you’re dealing with any kind of at-risk population you have to give students a reason to come to school,” he said. “When they realize they have a show in a month and people are depending on [them], they’re gonna go to school. The largest step is getting them in the building.”
Senior Lyanne Segui thinks having arts every day helps their academics by giving them something to do that requires focus but still gives them a break.
Co-op students’ enthusiasm for the arts is palpable. During a break between classes, a girl asks her friend about the student dance show that took place the weekend before while fixing her hair in the bathroom mirror. Later, two boys talk about a visual arts student’s capstone project presented earlier in the day on their way to lunch. One girl in McAfee’s class actually complained that the school had closed the day before, “for just like, two inches of snow,” making the group miss a day of rehearsal for “Hamlet.”
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Because of the lottery system, the students who come to Co-op each year come from very diverse backgrounds, theater teacher Christi Sargent explained: some come from arts magnet middle schools, others have little experience, or interest, in the arts at all. While this range of experience can pose a challenge to instructors, Esposito said that he wouldn’t necessarily change the system.
“There would be so many kids we’d miss out on because they wouldn’t have the confidence or savvy to come and audition,” he said. “When I look back, all the kids I think were most special and got the most out of it would never have had the guts to audition, would have had no clue they had any talent.”
And Sargent maintains that with enough hard work and focus, everyone can succeed in the theater program. One of her main tasks is simply helping those who don’t come in with a high level of confidence in themselves to grow comfortable with the kind of risk-taking theater requires.
“The people you meet in theater class are not people you’re going to meet in creative writing,” senior Yasmari Collazo said. “They’re out there, they don’t care, that weirdness rubs off on you.” Simone Ngongi, a junior, said the Co-op theater program has helped her get used to stepping out of her comfort zone.
Esposito said that the Co-op is not immune from problems that plague lower-income schools, such as students who come in with low reading levels, and with a correspondingly low level of faith in their own abilities. Nevertheless, teaching at Co-op is “easy” compared to the Fair Haven Middle School where he began working as a teacher.
The main task for Esposito is to focus on what students do well and build from that, no matter how small the victories may seem at first. He recalled one past student who, when first asked to do a presentation as a freshman, simply lost her breath and ran out of the room. But by her senior year, he said, she was the lead in the class mainstage.
Sargent said one of her current freshman initially broke down in tears when asked to participate in class, and she had to work in small increments to overcome her fears. “Every day I gave her new goals to accomplish,” Sargent said, “Tomorrow she’s going to be in her first play.”
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Sargent does not push her kids to go into theater professionally, and doesn’t see that as the purpose of the program. “I want to show students how this can change their lives in terms of confidence,” she said. “These skills transition to all aspects of life, whether you want to be a nurse or a secretary.”
When it comes to the future, students themselves are largely pragmatic. According to Segui, most of her classmates don’t plan to pursue theater because they want to be financially stable, not because they don’t enjoy it. Douglass said that she plans to be a culinary nutritionist in college, and perhaps someday later she will go back to acting, perhaps even attend a conservatory.
But though Segui is very aware of the uncertainty involved in a career in theater, she is certain that she wants to pursue it nevertheless.
“There’s just never been anything else I’ve found as interesting,” she said.
Collazo, who recently finished her college applications, said that she used to dream of growing up to be a famous actress and starring in movies, but that over the years her perspective has gotten a dose of reality.
“I realized I need a game plan,” she laughed. But while Collazo said acting isn’t the main thing she wants to focus on in college, she was equally apprehensive about quitting it altogether. “How do you let go of something you do every day?” she said. “This school takes the arts and really shoves them into our personalities.”
New Haven’s educational system finished the year with a strong showing: 90 percent of teachers scored within the top three categories — “exemplary,” “strong” or “effective” — a sign that city representatives say indicates the success of the city’s new teacher evaluation system.
The new method of evaluation takes a top-to-bottom approach and focuses on the development process. This year, 20 teachers who were initially flagged as at risk for dismissal improved their ratings, and 13 percent of teachers were ranked “exemplary” — compared to 8 percent last year.
“The job of turning around schools and raising academic achievement is a complex one and our teachers and administrators have met that challenge with passion,” said Superintendent of Schools Reginald Mayo in a Tuesday statement. “These evaluation results underscore the commitment by both teachers and administrators to demanding nothing short of the best for our kids.”
Twenty-eight teachers, who collectively represented 1.9 percent of the teaching workforce, left the district voluntarily because they failed to improve after receiving a poor rating.
Teachers rated “exemplary” are recognized in their school districts, while those with unfavorable ratings are given training and support. In the past year, five of the 58 teachers who went through training jumped from a “needs improvement” rating to “effective,” while 15 went from “improved” to “developing.”
Fifty percent of teachers said they were satisfied with the system, and 76 percent of principals and assistant principals said they felt the system helped improve classroom instruction, according to the statement.
In an opinion piece published by CNN on Monday, Physics Department Chair Meg Urry argued that the discrepancy in the number of female faculty members in the sciences can be largely traced back to unconscious biases.
Urry cited evidence from social research that shows how women in STEM fields — which represents science, technology, engineering and mathematics — were considered “less capable” and “less worthy of hiring,” even though these women had identical credentials as their male counterparts.
In addition, Urry referred to other studies that show how people unconsciously consider the gender of a name on a résumé when evaluating a person’s skills.
“Objectivity is the core value of science,” Urry wrote. “But as the new study tells us, despite our best hopes, we scientists, like everyone else, expect men to be better scientists as women.”
Unconscious gender biases are too deeply ingrained within our society, Urry said. Instead of pretending to ignore the issue, she proposed that people try to acknowledge their inner biases and do their best to avoid them. By doing so, Urry said, it may be possible for “bright young women to move forward in STEM careers as easily as the men do, making discoveries, improving our lives, changing our preconceptions and reducing our unconscious biases.”
Urry also said gender biases can be found across a variety of work environments, including academia, law enforcement and medicine.
New Haven teachers’ union leader David Cicarella was honored at the White House Tuesday for his role in the city’s progress on education reform.
Cicarella, the president of the New Haven Federation of teachers since 2007, was named a “White House Champion of Change” by President Barack Obama for his efforts in bringing about the ratification of a 2009 teacher’s union contract that has been hailed by some as a model for low-performing school districts nationwide. The contract is most noted for its introduction of a teacher evaluation system that included student learning — considered a breakthrough at a time when many urban school districts remained in gridlock over teacher contracts.
“This award is a true honor for me and also for the many talented teachers of New Haven Public Schools who face the challenges of urban education by demanding nothing less than the best for our students,” Cicarella said in a statement. “Our teachers had a seat at the table when it came to defining New Haven’s School Change Initiative and they have gone above and beyond in working toward the goal of transforming all of our schools into top learning institutions.”
Cicarella was honored alongside 11 other educational leaders from around the country Tuesday afternoon in a ceremony in the White House’s Eisenhower Executive Office Building. According to the Champions of Change website, the awards seek to foster collaboration between “ordinary Americans … doing extraordinary things in their communities to out-innovate, out-educate, and out-build the rest of the world.”
In a statement, Stefan Pryor ’93 LAW ’98, Connecticut’s education commissioner and a charter school founder, called Cicarella’s work as union president proof that “the relationship between teachers’ representatives and district management can truly be one that emphasizes collaboration and meaningful reform.”
Superintendent Reggie Mayo and Mayor John DeStefano Jr., who has made education reform one of his top policy priorities in recent years, also saluted Cicarella’s work in the city’s public schools.
Before his election to the union’s top post, Cicarella was a classroom teacher and instructional coach in New Haven for 28 years.
Cicarella is the second New Haven educator to be named a Champion of Change: Tom Cipriano, the district’s food services director, won the award last spring for his efforts in educating children about food and improving the nutritiousness of food served in New Haven school cafeterias.