On Monday, the New Haven Board of Education terminated its food-service contract with the notorious firm Aramark and decided instead to run all food services in-house. Parents, workers, teachers and public-school students have fiercely criticized the company for putting profits before kids by serving poor-quality food and cultivating bad labor-management relations.
There is still much work to be done by the board. They have yet to consider the building-services contract, a matter of equal urgency. In executing building maintenance, Aramark has wasted New Haven’s tax money on unsafe and unnecessary equipment, such as massive bear-proof dumpsters, which required the city to purchase special trucks to empty. And the company has refused to account for its loss of over $1 million of tax money despite multiple requests by the Board of Aldermen. This last fact alone, given the long-standing funding crisis of the public schools and the current budget woes facing the city, should be enough to disqualify Aramark from any more city contracts. The Board of Education should kick Aramark out of our schools entirely and reject once and for all the misguided ideology of privatization that has brought our schools’ basic services to this low point.
Now it’s up to all of us in New Haven to work to see that the city takes further steps in this arena by investing, for example, in locally-grown, sustainable and highly nutritious food of the kind made possible by the Yale Sustainable Food Project. Many studies have shown that giving kids healthful meals greatly improves their performance in the classroom. While such an investment is not cheap, it will no doubt reap huge dividends for years to come.
But the fact remains that New Haven schools need more than just better food and building services. While the challenges can seem daunting, there are some basic steps that can be taken to produce real results. Last weekend I attended a public meeting of Teach Our Children (TOC), a community organization of low- and moderate-income New Haven parents who are working for positive changes in the public schools by demanding that they have a genuine say in the decisions that affect their children’s lives. The meeting was called many weeks ago as an opportunity to present the group’s concerns to the superintendent Reggie Mayo. When Mayo finally arrived he agreed to many of the group’s demands for change in discipline and suspension policies. These changes, if implemented, could make the schools safer and far less hostile environments, while ensuring that kids who are suspended do not fall behind academically. The major disappointment of the meeting was Mayo’s refusal to commit to bring back recess — a time that has well-documented educational benefits — to all public schools. We can be encouraged, however, by Mayo’s proposal to meet with leaders of TOC once a month, a preliminary acknowledgment that the crucial role parents play in their children’s education should be reflected in policy.
Neither getting rid of Aramark nor reforming disciplinary practices will solve all the problems facing our schools overnight. But they do suggest ways that New Haven as a community can organize and act on issues of public education, large and small. We must not sit back and bemoan the schools as an unsolvable, systemically broken institution; rather, we need to take public education seriously and remember that united we can enact tangible change. Education policy is not something that exists out in the ether, something that has just “happened” and just “is.” It is shaped by individuals in positions of power. As such, different people — those who know the facts on the ground and whose lives are actually affected by the decisions that are made — must take their place at the center of those decision-making processes.
Here at Yale, so many students volunteer in schools in one capacity or another. Bearing witness to the conditions of our local schools on a regular basis, they could potentially form a strong and important constituency of public-school activists. Imagine the possibilities if we students joined with parents, teachers and other employees as part of a citywide movement to improve public education. We must not be so egotistical as to imagine ourselves as the solution to these problems — but we must become part of the solution, somehow, and not just wait to become involved after we have left New Haven.
Hugh Baran is a junior in Davenport College. His column runs on alternate Thursdays.