Lea Winter and Isaiah Lee are trying to reform New Haven education.
Winter, a senior, and Lee, a junior, have a personal interest in reforming the school system — they are students at Wilbur Cross High School.
In the midst of New Haven’s school reform initiative and following the August appointment of new principal Peggy Moore, Lee and Winter became curious about the state of their education system. In March, Lee organized a rally protesting high salaries for administrators, teacher layoffs and inadequate school resources. When Moore learned of the rally, Lee said, she called him to her office and asked him to cancel it.
But Lee was determined to make a point and, having already spoken with lawyers and police representatives, he said he knew he had the “right and authority” to host the rally despite her request; he decided to continue as planned.
“They can’t put a muzzle on anything we say,” Lee said. “We should have some say in where it’s going because it is our education.”
Moore could not be reached for comment.
Lee and Winter are working through separate student organizations to increase student engagement with education issues as well as to instigate institutional change.
Winter serves as Wilbur Cross’ Student Council President, while Lee has created a group called New Haven Students for Change (NHSC) which uses more radical tactics such as rallies and petitions to campaign for school budget reform among other issues. One of the groups’ major concerns, Lee and Winter said, is the discrepancy between administrators’ and teachers’ salaries. While Winter said the student council works within the school and city bureaucracy, Lee said NHSC prefers to take a more hands-on approach.
“We’re frenemies,” Lee said of the relationship between student council and NHSC. “[But NHSC members] see past the rhetoric … I don’t think anyone is going to respond, so I might as well get their attention.”
Lee met with Mayor John DeStefano after the March rally, and one-and-a-half weeks later, several students from their groups met with Board of Education’s Chief Operating Officer William Clark and Chief of Staff Leida Pacini to discuss concerns. Now he is in the process of planning a boycott of mandatory district standardized tests because Director of Instruction and High Schools Charles Williams and New Haven Superintendent of Schools Reginald Mayo have yet to fulfill their promise to meet with the student council. As of Sunday, Lee said 157 students had signed the petition.
Winter said the Wilbur Cross student council was reinvigorated three years ago, but that its members are still struggling to overcome communication barriers within the student body and let other students know they exist. While anyone can join, only 30 students are registered and about 10 come to each meeting, Winter said.
As for Lee, he is currently recruiting six officers to NHSC to help oversee what he estimates will be a membership of 50 students. Lee said he also hopes to eventually expand NHSC to other local schools, such as James Hillhouse High School.
“I’ve had a tons of students come up to me and say, ‘Isaiah, what’s going on?’” Lee said, emphasizing that he aims to conduct research and inform the entire group about education reform. “This isn’t Isaiah Lee’s campaign,” he said, noting that the NHSC is a group effort.
The student council team has chosen to tackle their goals diplomatically, sending emails and leaving phone messages with school officials requesting meetings to go over issues such as inconsistencies in student discipline, inadequate availability of school materials, and an inaccessible administration. Members said they also hope for student representation on the New Haven Board of Education, which currently is composed of eight members, including the mayor.
Ward 10 Alderman Justin Elicker FES ’10 SOM ’10 said he thought having a student on the Board would provide necessary insight, adding that student attendance at Board of Aldermen’s meetings, though infrequent, has been helpful.
“These kids who ‘cause problems’ are the ones who actually really care,” he said. “They should have input in their educational system.”
DeStefano said that he understood the students’ concerns and appreciated their involvement with the discussions surrounding the school’s budget, but believed the responsibility lies with the principal to engage and support the students.
Christopher Hoffman, director of communications at New Haven Public Schools, added that he believes the school’s student council is taking the best approach for voicing their concerns.
Since their meeting with Clark and Pacini, Winter said student council now wants to look more closely at issues such as respect between teachers and students, tutoring available for students and energy conservation at Wilbur Cross.
“We share some of the goals but not all of the means,” Winter said of the differing approaches between student council and NHSC. “At least one of us will get through.”
Though Wilbur Cross student activists have received increasing media attention, they still face a tough road ahead — previous attempts to engage with school policy have been thwarted.
The Political Action Club was disbanded in early April when the advisor’s resignation was announced following Lee’s rally and students’ later engagement in other protests. Katharine Gallogly ’12, who worked with the students through Dwight Hall’s Yale Political Engagement Project, said their purpose in working with the group was to allow the students the “opportunity to use their political voice by learning leadership and advocacy tools,” but students now speculate that the adviser had been forced to resign by their principal. Both Gallogly and Alan Williams, who was president of the club, said they hope to reform with a new advisor soon.
“These are students who really care about their school and their community,” Gallogly wrote. “They are willing to be activists for what they think is just.”
Winter and student council treasurer Alexandra Torresquintero said that because the high school community at Wilbur Cross includes a diverse range of students, changing education policies — such as those concerning undocumented immigrants — often affect people with whom they are friends.
Still, the diversity can make it difficult for student leaders to catch everyone’s attention, said Wilbur Cross senior Jordy Padilla, who has done volunteer work with Lee.
“It’s very hard sometimes to get the school to notice things,” he said.
Sophomore Tarpley Hitt said she thought forming a coalition to discuss matters between students and administrators might instead be more effective. There are mixed feelings among a majority of the student body about Lee’s rally, she said, adding that few people know about the student council’s activities.
And students are not alone in their concerns. Lee and Winter have received support from a number of teachers, though they said many have been hesitant to do so for fear of angering the administration.
A Wilbur Cross teacher who asked to remain anonymous because of what he called the school’s “terrible” environment for both teachers and students, said Lee and Winter represent a group of “engaging kids” who deserve to be heard. Whereas the teacher said the administration ought to be making a larger effort to talk to Wilbur Cross students about their experiences, the teacher said there has been little — if any — transparency from the administration who the students already believe are being paid too much.
“You get a lot of really well-meaning kids who are really engaging, caring, thoughtful [and] really would do well by having richer conversations with their principal,” the teacher said. “They and many, many more deserve to be heard.”
A citywide student council meeting will be held April 27, Winter said.