Jesus Tirado ’04 is a true product of the New Haven educational system.
Upon graduation from the city’s Wilbur Cross High School, Tirado and half his class made it to college — in his case, even to Yale. From a school of metal detectors and security guards, Tirado entered a world of ivy-covered walls and portraits of former presidents.
With the University serving as a daily reminder of academic excellence for students like Tirado, it is no surprise that Republican mayoral candidate and Yale graduate Joel Schiavone ’58 has placed education at the forefront of his political platform.
In an education proposal released Monday, Schiavone cited the school system as the crux of New Haven’s socioeconomic problems. The poor quality of public education in the city has resulted in a mass exodus of the middle-class in the last 50 years, he wrote.
“The failing schools are not just one of the major issues. They are the only issue,” Schiavone wrote in the proposal. “If we have great schools, then we will have great neighborhoods. Great neighborhoods are the building blocks to every great city.”
In order to implement his new system of education, Schiavone has proposed making some radical changes, such as eliminating junior high schools in favor of expanded elementary schools, capping each school at 350 students, and cutting back on the number of education administrators.
“Education hasn’t changed at all during the past few years under [current mayor John] DeStefano [Jr.],” Schiavone said. “It may have improved a bit, but our students’ performances are well below the levels of surrounding towns and the state. If we want to compete with them, we’re going to need to make some radical changes.”
Schiavone also said he wants to grant more autonomy to the schools themselves. Currently, New Haven teachers receive teaching schedules each Monday that describe, in minute detail, what they are supposed to do with their classes each day.
“The school board has taken away every ounce of authority from the schools,” Schiavone said. “But if you don’t give the schools power, things aren’t going to change. I think schools should have the ability to hire, fire and build their own curriculums.”
But perhaps the most controversial item on the agenda has been school choice. While DeStefano has said all New Haven students should have a chance to attend the city’s magnet schools, Schiavone said he believes standards for students should be set so such schools become veritable centers of excellence.
Under the current system, students must enter a lottery to have a chance to attend magnet schools, such as the popular Edgewood School. As a result, many students must travel to different areas of the city simply to attend school.
“The concept of going to school in your neighborhood is appealing, but there are larger social issues at stake here,” said Julio Gonzalez ’99, DeStefano’s campaign manger. “The mayor’s school choice program has led to more socioeconomic and ethnic integration.”
While the candidates disagree on many education issues, there is some common ground between the two. In fact, a number of Schiavone’s objectives, such as universal preschool and better financial treatment of teachers, are in line with DeStefano’s.
“I think it’s laughable that he’d include universal preschool education when the mayor has become a national leader for the cause,” Gonzalez said.
Throughout his term, DeStefano has been praised by many education administrators for his efforts to improve New Haven’s schools.
“I think we’re definitely heading in the right direction,” said Leida Pacini, the city’s director of instruction. “We have a mayor who’s made education a big priority and who’s extremely concerned with the welfare of the children of New Haven.”
But despite such sentiments, Schiavone maintained that changes need to be made, not only in policy but also in thinking.
“Many administrators say that these urban kids can’t learn because of their backgrounds and family problems,” Schiavone said. “And I think this is 100 percent wrong. These kids can learn.”