School policy requires every room in the Barnard Environmental Studies Interdistrict Magnet School to have a non-human living thing in it — and for Michael Crocco, the school’s principal, that thing is a fish in a small tank in his office.

But across the room sits a whiteboard on which Crocco outlines his goals for improving the Pre-K through eighth grade school. In March, Barnard, one of the seven pilot schools in New Haven’s school reform plan, was ranked by the district as a “Tier III — Improvement” school, the second to lowest classification in the district’s system.

Tier III Improvement schools like Barnard, while not quite at the bottom of the barrel, nevertheless must improve under the watchful eye of the New Haven Public Schools’ central office. The changes these schools attempt to implement, beginning in the 2010-’11 school year, and the results they achieve will be a template for the district as a whole when the rest of the city’s schools are classified into tiers come next fall.

Barnard’s challenges are clear: The percentage of students in grades three through eight that scored at or above a proficient level on the Connecticut Mastery Test in reading, writing and math was lower than the district and state averages in the 2008-’09 school year. Only 44 percent of Barnard’s students had proficient or above scores on the Connecticut Mastery Test’s reading section, compared to 53 percent in the district and 78 percent in the state.

But walking around the school, past rooms like the “Discovery Room” — a mini science lab for elementary school students that brims with animals, plants and projects — most of the students seem engaged. The building, which opened in 2006 after a $43 million renovation and expansion, was part of Mayor John DeStefano Jr.’s $1 billion plus Citywide School Construction program. The state’s first LEED-certified public school, Barnard, located on Derby Avenue, has a solar panel display, which in 2006 was the largest in Connecticut, and an enclosed bridge that leads to the Nature Center, which is maintained by the city’s Department of Parks, Recreation and Trees but is used by the school.

Now, Crocco is working to improve students’ reading, writing and arithmetic curricula by bringing the school’s academics up to the same level as its facilities and environmental studies programs, which set the school apart from its peers.

“He’s really trying to be cutting edge in things he’s trying to get done,” Imma Canelli, assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction, said of Crocco. “What we are looking for is collaboration between teachers, administrators and central office.”

Lined up in classrooms and along the hallways at Barnard last Wednesday were 83 science fair projects — worked on by all the school’s students, Crocco said. In one fifth-grade classroom, three girls sat in front of their project, in which they had attempted to determine whether water or sand heats up faster. (The answer, which they said disproved their hypothesis, was water.)

“At the same time we’re helping the Earth and we learn new stuff,” said Patricia Jimenez, 10.

At Barnard — which converted from a neighborhood school to an environmentally focused magnet schools five years ago — students engage in environmentally oriented activities outside of the classroom, such as working in the school’s garden. Crocco said the school’s environmental focus is likely why a higher percentage of Barnard students scored at a proficient or above level on the science section of the Connecticut Mastery Test than at other schools in the district in the 2008-’09 school year. At Barnard, 65 percent of students were at a proficient or above level in science, whereas only 52 percent were in the district.

But the success of the environmental programs, which consist of activities that take place away from normal classroom work, is not translating to other areas of the school, Crocco said.

In March the city gave Barnard the second lowest ranking it could have, based on city-approved metrics that take into account not only standardized test scores but also how engaged students are, based on criteria that include attendance.

Crocco said he was not surprised by Barnard’s classification as a Tier III school, which he said he views as an opportunity to integrate the school’s environmental studies programs with the curriculum’s traditional components.

So far the district’s central office has proposed a number of changes to teachers’ work rules, which have not been finalized. The proposed changes, which the district has the authority to mandate because Barnard is a Tier III school, include adding an extra hour to teachers’ days so they can have more time to collaborate with each other. Other changes include having teachers be more involved with students’ lives outside the classroom, such as sending classroom and grade-level newsletters, eating lunch with students and monitoring students as they get on and off buses, which Crocco said he supports.

Some teachers at Barnard already interact with their students outside the classroom, Crocco said, but now such activities will be mandatory. Crocco said creating a community where students see their teachers outside of the classroom will increase their respect for teachers, which will eventually lead to better test scores.

“One of our goals is to increase the amount of face time,” Crocco said motioning to a teacher, Jennifer Fretts, who had joined a group of Pre-K students running around with colored balls in the gym.

Although New Haven Federation of Teachers President David Cicarella said Barnard’s staff will communicate with the school district’s central office to give their opinions on the proposed changes, ultimately, he said it is the central office that determines what changes become permanent.

Judith Merriam, a second grade teacher at Barnard, said she supports the proposed changes.

“It’s going to allow teachers more time to collaborate, and that’s critical,” Merriam said.

Changes to the work rules will be finalized by the end of this month, Crocco said, and Barnard has to incorporate the district’s proposed changes into its improvement plan, developed collaboratively with staff and the district’s central office, which it will present to Canelli and the Board of Education by as early as late May.

Though Crocco said last week that he has specific ideas, he declined to comment further because he said he has not yet presented them to his staff. Since starting at Barnard last school year, Crocco said, he started plans for improvement that include improving literacy through small group instruction at each grade level.

All changes will have to be approved by Superintendent of Schools Reginald Mayo and Cicarella, Cicarella said.

“It’s an exciting time,” Crocco said. “You get a chance to look at different models.”