At a “state of the Community” summit in the Dwight neighborhood this past weekend, truth spoke to power in New Haven. But if recent history is any indication, power may not have been listening.
During the impassioned discussion, local officials and community members offered refreshing straight talk. State Sen. Toni Harp called for the end of complacency in the New Haven Public Schools administration: “Trying hard,” she said, according to the New Haven Independent, “is just not enough anymore.”
Newly elected Ward 2 Alderwoman Gina Calder ’03 EPH ’08 called for a new community center and helped lead a successful effort to outline a plan for the future of Dwight and the surrounding area. Other residents, too, called for not only puissant speech but powerful action. Harp went so far as to point out that to criticize eight-term Mayor John DeStefano Jr. is to face a potential political downfall in New Haven. “If you speak out … in this town to hold the school system to accountability, they threaten you,” she said. “They run someone against you!”
At the community meeting, Harp and Calder, among other local leaders, demonstrated their courage and ingenuity, and they should be commended for doing so. Indeed, it is difficult to dissent in a community ruled by one party — and controlled, more or less, by one faction of that elite group.
More important, though, is what the substance of Harp’s remarks makes us remember: Despite the “from good to great” motto of the public schools in New Haven, neither adjective quite fits the system in 2008.
Although the city’s interdistrict magnet program is one of the largest in the state — and gradual growth is evident in some sectors of the district — writing scores have dropped and, as Harp pointed out, 36 percent of third-graders are still not reading at a proficient level.
We urge local officials, including the area’s other aldermen, to take Harp’s lead and publicly level constructive critique where critique is needed. It should not be only the mayor’s declared opponents — an occasional alderman here, at an occasional meeting there — who feel comfortable mounting pressure on City Hall to strive for greatness.
The dangers of democratic malaise can be overcome with the breed of metabolic and courageous leadership that the Dwight neighborhood saw this past weekend.