As New Haven Mayor John DeStefano embarks on a race for governor, his tenure at the helm of the Elm City has become a centerpiece of his campaign. Over the coming weeks, the News will take an in-depth look at DeStefano’s successes and failures — beginning with an examination of the city’s record on education.

Since New Haven Mayor John DeStefano Jr. took office in 1994, the Elm City’s educational system has taken far-reaching steps to address the gap in achievement between city students and those in more affluent areas. But for all its improvement, New Haven schools still produce students performing at lower levels than the rest of Connecticut.

The New Haven school district, which encompasses 49 schools and educates 20,694 students, has implemented a number of initiatives to provide students with personalized opportunities and better resources since DeStefano’s inauguration in 1994.

Literacy and drop-out rates have greatly improved in the last decade. But according to standards set by No Child Left Behind, which dictates that students must make a certain amount of progress every year on the Connecticut Mastery Test in reading, writing and math skills, 16 city schools were cited for deficiencies in one or more areas of the test. New Haven students also continue to lag behind state statistics in various areas.

Since DeStefano began as mayor, New Haven has seen a reduction in the annual high school dropout rate, from 7.9 percent in 1993-1994 down to 4.3 percent in 2002-2003, compared to statewide dropout rates of 4.8 percent in 1993-1994 and 2.1 percent in 2002-2003. The city currently claims the lowest dropout rate of all major cities in Connecticut, according to the Web site for New Haven public schools. Public school attendance has risen 3 percent over the past five years, and 78 percent of high school graduates go on to receive a higher education.

Test scores have also shown marked increases, with students in all grades improving on the Connecticut Mastery Test in every subject. Students achieved 63.5 percent writing proficiency in 2004, up from 56.1 percent in 2000, when the third and current generation of the standardized test was first administered. Math and reading scores posted comparatively larger gains, with math scores rising to 53.7 percent in 2004 from 46.6 percent from 2000 and reading scores increasing to 41.1 percent in 2004 from 37.4 percent in 2000. One generation of tests is not comparable to previous generations.

Despite these improvements in student performance, New Haven students do not meet state performance levels. In 2004, 63.5 percent of New Haven students in grades four, six and eight achieved proficiency in writing, compared to 81.4 percent in Connecticut. In math, the divergence is even more striking, with 53 percent of New Haven students and 78.3 percent of state students achieving proficiency. Reading proficiency showed the widest variation, where only 41.1 percent of New Haven students met standards, compared to 71.5 percent of Connecticut students.

Part of this discrepancy can be attributed to the fact that many new initiatives instituted under DeStefano are in early stages and it is too soon to measure the effects of the changes, Rob Smuts ’01, the mayor’s deputy chief of staff, said.

While New Haven’s early childhood programs are still in their beginning stages, they have been recognized for providing accessible and high-quality preschool education in New Haven. Tina Mannarino, early childhood supervisor at New Haven Public Schools, said the program has made significant strides, including the introduction of a uniform pre-K curriculum across schools.

“Our literacy, math, and science are particularly strong,” Mannarino said. “We’ve also made a lot of gains in introducing credentialed teachers in early care. Now close to 77 percent of our preschool teachers have credentials, many through coursework that we’ve sponsored, so we’ve really been working hard on the quality aspect.”

Public schools in the city currently serve 1,684 preschool-aged children, more than at any other time in its history. Consequently, 73.1 percent of current incoming kindergartners in the district have had a preschool educational experience, compared with only 63.2 percent in 1995.

“These are the most formative years in a child’s development,” Smuts said. “Studies have shown that kids who start behind tend to stay behind. This gives them the skill set and knowledge to succeed as adults starting even before kindergarten.”

New Haven Public Schools spokeswoman Catherine Sullivan-DeCarlo said New Haven is now the largest provider of preschool education in Connecticut.

As mayor, DeStefano has also made the Citywide School Construction program a priority, as one of the first initiatives he implemented as mayor. Begun in 1995 and endowed with a budget of $1.48 billion, the program is the largest school construction program in the state and the largest per capita in the nation. The program has been commended for its innovative use of budget resources and school space as a means of improving education.

“We’ve put $623 million into 20 projects so far,” Sullivan-DeCarlo said. “That means more than half of our students are in renovated buildings, many of which have facilities that are also available to the surrounding communities.”

Additionally, the inter-district Magnet Schools Program, the largest in Connecticut, allows 9,000 New Haven students to attend a “school of choice,” while also including over 1,000 students in 23 surrounding towns. Patricia Avallone, supervisor of the Magnet Schools Program, said students benefit from the ability to select a school that appeals to their different learning styles and interests.

“If a child has an interest in the science of robotics or video editing, they have the option of going to Sheridan [Communication and Technology School] which has a program with NASA,” Avallone said. “But if another child is into song and dance or poetry and performance, they have the opportunity to go to Betsy Ross [Arts Magnet School].”

Smuts compared the program to that of the Wake County Public Schools in North Carolina, which received recent publicity for its success in raising test scores by integrating students across socio-economic backgrounds.

“What they did in Raleigh really speaks to what we’re trying to accomplish here,” Smuts said. “We’re facing a lot of the same concerns and addressing them with more economically and racially integrated schools.”

However, Jonathan Gillette GRD ’85, head of the Yale Teacher Prep Program, said a performance discrepancy remains between white students and students of color in New Haven.

“There’s a great deal more to be done on the instructional side,” Gillette said. “We can never accept as normal the fact that any kid in New Haven would be outperformed by kids anywhere else. We have to be relentless. We cannot be anything else.”

But discrepancies in performance, Gillette said, resonate beyond New Haven as a state-wide problem. Gillette said the achievement gap between Connecticut students from different socio-economic and ethnic backgrounds — the largest gap of any state — could be attributed to the extreme range of neighborhoods it encompasses, from the affluent Fairfield County to the more underprivileged areas of New Haven and Hartford. He said he still believes there is no reason for white Connecticut students to outperform white students across the nation, when the same is not true of students of color.

“We need to find ways for students of color to outperform their counterparts in other states,” Gillette said. “The district’s construction project is highly impressive, but it’s a question of financial capital, whereas student achievement is a question of human capital. It’s a more challenging question, but also more important.”

Connecticut is currently challenging the No Child Left Behind Act, which instituted measures to ensure students perform at equitable levels. Because Connecticut already faces such a large performance gap between students of different classes and ethnicities, the act places unrealistic demands on state resources, Gillette said.

Charles Warner, director of New Haven Public Schools, said that the district is working very hard to address discrepancies in performance based on students’ racial and economic backgrounds.

“All our programs are for all our kids,” Warner said. “We give every child a combination of academic and enrichment activities that enhance the learning process, and all that helps the process of closing the achievement gap.”

As a student raised and educated in the South, Warner said he understood poverty’s effects on an individual’s opportunity to succeed academically, but didn’t think that it would ever be possible to close the socio-economic gap in student performance.

“It’s a long and arduous task,” Warner said. “I don’t think the achievement gap will ever be closed in this country. I read [Jonathan Kozol’s book] “Savage Inequality” in 1996, and nearly ten years later it’s still a very vivid image of what education is like in our nation.”

Aaron Tang ’05, the founder of the national educational activism organization “Our Education,” said the achievement gap between white and minority students in New Haven is also part of a larger national problem.

“These are fundamental problems in cities across the country,” Tang said. “If you’re in the top 20 percent of wealthy families in America, you are seven times more likely to attend college than a kid in the bottom 20 percent of families. The average 17-year-old African-American or Latino student currently performs in reading and math assessments on the same level as the average 13-year-old white student. The question is, why are we okay with this?”

On the other hand, Tang cautioned against blaming either the schools or the administration for these problems.

“New Haven has worked hard to narrow the achievement gap,” Tang said. “Parents have the right to demand high quality education no matter where they live, but we can neither blame the people in charge nor expect them to fix it on their own. These are much wider problems.”