College banners hung from the gym ceiling: Yale alongside Rutgers. Michigan State vying with Princeton. Northwestern. Temple. Duke. Syracuse. Penn State. Seated below them were students who attend Hill Central School, a New Haven pre-K through eighth-grade institution. Each Hill Central student held a smaller flag, celebrating a different college.

Looking out from the stage, Connecticut Commissioner of Education Stefan Pryor called what he saw “a storm of miracles and magic.”

“It is truly remarkable what has happened in the vast majority of schools in New Haven,” he continued.

Hundreds of people, ranging from toddlers to long-serving Mayor John DeStefano Jr., had thronged into Hill Central’s gymnasium on Oct. 21, 2012, for a dedication ceremony commemorating recent renovations at the school. The press scrambled to take pictures of the brand-new gymnasium, the spacious, well-lit hallway and the colorful mural adorning the wall of the cafeteria. The school marching band played exuberantly. Excitement was the order of the day.

“Why do these people build these buildings?” New Haven Public Schools Superintendent Reginald Mayo asked the students. “They build them because they believe in you, believe that you’re going to continue to take your education seriously, that you’re going to prepare yourselves for high school and for college and for the world of work.”

Mayo the bureaucrat became Mayo the mascot for a moment: “Raise those banners and wave them!” he declared. The kids waved their flags; the crowd cheered.

Students at the revamped Hill Central School will embark on a journey through the New Haven public school system unlike the one experienced by generations of alums before them. Their journey is, to a large degree, a product of a very young program: New Haven’s School Change Initiative, a set of plans the city prioritized in 2009 and has trumpeted at a moment when the nation is enamored with education reform. The initiative, which includes a teacher evaluation system, a school tiering system, new extracurricular programs, efforts towards parental engagement and extensive scholarships, is expanding at a brisk pace. This past Monday, the school board accept a grant of over $100,000 from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which approached the city with an offer for funding to help with improve teacher training. Over winter break, College Summit, one Initiative-linked setup that seeks to foster a college-going culture throughout New Haven public schools, was introduced into three more schools in the district. Those three join the two schools that introduced College Summit in 2011–’12 and its first school partnership, established at the Cooperative Arts & Humanities High School in 2009.

Although it is part of the New Haven Promise, College Summit has not been the center of attention the way Promise’s scholarship has, in the news, in rhetoric or in the public eye. In this sense, it crystallizes the nature of the Initiative: Many of the new moves towards educational success are cultural, subtle and focused on mindsets rather than money.

This struggle is not confined to our one small city tucked away in the Northeast. Education reform is increasingly looking like a national imperative for the United States. As cities like New Haven illustrate all too painfully, manufacturing jobs are increasingly scarce in the postindustrial economy and service sector positions, which generally require higher education, form a growing proportion of the jobs available.

Meanwhile, though Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development statistics show that the United States spends more than any other OECD member country on each student each year, the organization has also shown that the United States ranks 14th in the world in the percentage of 25–34 year olds with a higher education. It looks like increased education spending does not necessarily translate to effective education spending. New Haven is a test case for what the latter should look like.

Six-year-old Devon Steed sat through that dedication ceremony at Hill Central with his mother and sister. Like most 6-year-olds, Devon was more concerned about dancing to the marching band’s music than listening to some superintendent discuss education reform. But the speakers at the front of the room, the Smart Boards that will be in his classroom as a part of the school renovation and other products of New Haven’s School Change Initiative may well determine if, in 16 years, Devon will graduate with a degree from one of the colleges whose names were, for that moment, just words on banners above his head.


‘Noise’ in New Haven

Parents who attended Parent University, a series of workshops for New Haven parents held at Gateway Community College on Nov. 3, made it clear that they see school reform as a complicated and potentially fraught endeavor, one whose success hinges on a broad cultural shift. So when Brett Rayford, the director of adolescent and juvenile services for the Connecticut Department of Children and Families, argued in a discussion entitled “Addressing the Needs of Urban Boys” that education is a beacon of hope for their children, they reminded him that these boys are, in different ways, socially conditioned to dismiss educational success.

One of the mothers raised her hand and said academic achievers in local schools are accused of “talking white” and “acting white.”

“The boys don’t want to go there,” she explained, “because they want to fit in.” Straight A’s aren’t helpful when it comes to popularity, so achieving them may simply undermine a student’s social standing.

The crowd issued murmurs of agreement. Another mother, Carla Chappel, the parent of an eighth-grader, raised her hand and shared an example from her own experience: When her son was younger, he was reading a book with his father when another young boy walked over and told him he was “corny” for reading with his dad.

Instead of “corny” activities, students often succumb to the temptations lurking in the streets of New Haven. In the school system’s climate survey from 2009–’10, which is provided among informative materials on the School Change Initiative’s Web page and which asked questions of parents, students and teachers, 30.2 percent of student respondents reported that gang activity occurs at least some of the time at their school.

Such ubiquity means that crime can be discussed as an inevitable future on an everyday basis.

At Brennan Rogers, another city pre-K through eighth-grade school, every student participates in crew meetings in the morning, discussing the path to college on a weekly basis. This past Nov. 9. crew leader and teacher Florence Rosarbo decided to talk to her students about addressing “noise” — personal problems they face.

She told students to identify their goals and chart two paths, one that described a life with noise and one without noise. “Remember in the beginning of the year when we read the poem ‘The Road Less Traveled’ by Robert Frost?” Ms. Rosarbo asked the class. “Right now, we need to start thinking about taking the road less traveled by some of your peers.”

As the students began to think about their two paths, another teacher jumped in to help: “It’s easy to look at your life with noise: Look at the people you know who aren’t doing anything.”

Two of the boys in the room started laughing.

The teacher guessed the person they were laughing about, a former student. “He’s walking around with a bracelet (the tracking instrument that inmates wear in jail or on house arrest),” the teacher said, in response to the student’s repeated giggles.

“You’re laughing, but it was one real bad decision that he made.”

One of the boys who had been laughing looked up and said: “My father said all his friends are either dead or in jail.”

At the end of the class, when students were asked to put the noise in their life on the board, one of the first things written was “the hood.”


Solutions that dominate headlines

In 2009, city administrators decided that “the timing was really right” for education reform, says Laoise King, who was working as deputy chief of staff to Mayor DeStefano at the time and is now the vice president of education initiatives for the United Way of Greater New Haven. The school district was winding down a comprehensive construction program that renovated almost every educational institution in the area. President Barack Obama had just been elected and had appointed Arne Duncan, a key proponent of school reform in his former role as the Chicago Public Schools superintendent, as the Secretary of Education. Meanwhile, New Haven Public Schools also had a new hire: Garth Harries ’95, who helped design school reform in New York City, and would now serve as one of New Haven’s assistant superintendents. Taken together, these developments produced an impetus for progress — and the School Change Initiative was born.

The New Haven Promise would be the diva, the glamorous star, of any film about the Initiative. Much-discussed in the media and seen by some as the key fix built into the Initiative, Promise provides a full-tuition scholarship to any public college in Connecticut (or a partial one to a private institution).

“When Promise was announced two years ago, it generated a reaction of excitement and hope that I had never seen in my years in New Haven,” recalls William Ginsberg, the CEO of the Community Foundation for Greater New Haven, a philanthropic organization that administers Promise.

The scholarships are funded by Yale, one of the key accomplishments of DeStefano’s close ties with University President Richard Levin, and can be obtained by any student who lives in the city, attends New Haven public schools, has a positive disciplinary record, completes 40 hours of community service, has a 90 percent attendance record and receives a cumulative GPA of 3.0 or higher.

If there is one thing that on its face looks like a silver bullet in terms of students attending college, it’s Promise. It seems like dreamland, a middle-class fantasy. But in a school district like New Haven, a scholarship does not get to the core of the problem, to the issues addressed at venues like Parent University.

In 2011, 151 students qualified for Promise and 110 accepted it — i.e., only 10 percent of graduates in the school district actually qualified for the scholarship. In 2012, 172 students qualified, but even that 15 percent increase covers only a fraction of the district’s high school grads.

If they don’t turn to the gang culture some students speak of, New Haven’s youth may simply choose to not go the college route. As one parent said at Parent University, to the approval of her peers, not all students in the district may be “suited” for college. The Sound School, a vocational agricultural high school which draws students from the city of New Haven as well as its suburbs, is home to a student population which U.S. News & World Report statistics show is 81 percent proficient in reading and 78 percent proficient in math, far above the district average percentages of 59 percent and 52 percent proficiency. When asked if most of the seniors in their class at the Sound School were planning to attend college, two seniors, Frannie Villano and Dionna Shipman, looked at each other and responded with a resounding “No.”

They said that most seniors there plan to attend vocational schools, join the army or enter the workforce. When asked about the New Haven Promise, Villano says, “Most kids nowadays don’t take advantage of it. A lot of kids are lazy and don’t want to do the paperwork.”

Villano herself will apply for the scholarship. But she adds that, in doing so, she is one of the few in her graduating class who is considering the Promise option.

Students at another city high school, the High School in the Community, also say Promise is not the ultimate factor in their decision about where they will be after high school. For those like Chastity Berrios, a senior from a single-parent household who is on track to receive a scholarship, Promise may be a relief, but it is not a driving force. “It has been a motivator, but I wouldn’t say it’s been my motivation,” Berrios says. “I’ve kind of always been motivated for college anyway.” And some of her peers, on the other hand, have not been.

New Haven is not the first city to offer a Promise-type initiative and find that a scholarship does not overcome students’ attitudes towards college and how they approach educational achievement. In Kalamazoo, Mich., the Kalamazoo Promise — a full-tuition scholarship for students who attend public tertiary institutions in the state — has ensured that, now, 95 percent of high school graduates in the city of Kalamazoo attend college, says the program’s executive director, Bob Jorth. He estimates that prior to the introduction of the Kalamazoo Promise, only 75 percent of high school grads went on to college.

Still, the actual proportion of students who do graduate from Kalamazoo high schools has remained fairly static.

“It’s the last number that we expect to change,” Jorth said. “There has been an incremental increase, but not a huge increase.”

Students who can make it through high school, then, do receive new opportunities. But the scholarship has not proven to incentivize more students in such schools to push up their grades and graduate, much less attain a B average.

Implementing nonscholarship changes worked in another instance, the Academy @ Shawnee, a high school in Louisville, Ky. The Academy @ Shawnee became a federal turnaround model and was thus required to replace at least 50 percent of its staff with new hires. Soon after, the school posted gains of more than 20 percent in math and reading proficiency levels, and even made it to Education Week magazine. All this occurred without a Promise-like scholarship program.

“I’m not going to turn it down,” says Principal Keith Look, when asked about scholarship options for students. “But in and of itself it is not going to be enough. … [It’s] not changing any of the systems that take place in the school. It’s just changing the incentive.”

Without a cultural shift, money serves as a flashy, simple-to-explain fix, but not a far-reaching one.

Sheila Brantley, who helps facilitate Yale Child Study Center psychiatrist James Comer’s school development program in New Haven public schools, sums up what’s needed with a story about the New Haven Promise. She remembers telling a group of high school students about the Promise when it was first announced.

As Brantley excitedly told students they would no longer have to pay for their college tuition, one girl raised her hand and asked, “What’s tuition?”


A different kind of promise

While Promise may not be the key to reshaping the attitudes of students already in school and on paths to academic or nonacademic futures, administrators say they hope that it will incentivize the parents of students currently in lower grades to make their children start thinking about college — and the educational success it will take to get there — early on. United Way of Greater New Haven education official King, for instance, calls the city’s school reform effort “a baby” and notes that the program may well have its greatest impact on students who are only in elementary school right now, by influencing their parents’ views of their educational futures.

“One of the ways Promise fits in is it’s a quite bold experiment in parent engagement,” says Ginsberg, the CEO of the Promise-administering Community Foundation. “Can we use a significant financial incentive to get parental engagement?”

Right now, says Lisa Pressey, the mother of an eighth-grader at Worthington Hooker School, New Haven parents often tell their kids they cannot afford college. That kind of “diminishes your dreams,” she explains.

Promise, Pressey says, is “empowering.”

That’s because it changes families’ thinking at its roots. Pressey, a single mother, says the financial support Promise offers may be vital to her son’s college career. And that’s a security she now has much earlier, so she’s not scrambling to look for funding options his senior year. Oma Amrit-Singh, the mother of a kindergartner, heard about Promise and the opportunity it could her provide her kindergarten-age daughter and had goosebumps, she says. At least one question about the young girl’s future may be partly solved. Her performance at school now looks that much more likely to result in her attaining higher education — one stumbling block is out of the way.

Promise thus tackles New Haven residents’ mindsets, parenting techniques and broader cultural perceptions, which its leaders, like Ginsberg, feel are the reason for students’ currently problematic performance.

“The culture of New Haven, with the manufacturing past, was not an economy that required high education credentials. Generations ago, young people could graduate from high school and get jobs in manufacturing, own a home and raise a family and live a life that was economically and socially acceptable,” Ginsberg suggests. “That is just not true anymore.”

Promise’s second component focuses explicitly on building a new pro-college culture within schools. The program has cultivated a far-reaching partnership for a number of New Haven schools with College Summit, an organization that promotes college enrollment among students at every level from kindergarten to high school.

Promise Director Patricia Melton ’82 explains that College Summit starts early. She recalls personally going into schools to ask kindergartners what they want to be when they grow up. Then, for kids at higher levels, College Summit’s message is communicated by specially trained educators in the schools themselves, with teachers and peer leaders helping high school students through the college application process.

Meanwhile, the non-Promise programs under the umbrella of the School Change Initiative are attempting to develop cultural change using out-of-the-classroom experiences unique to each student. Dr. Rayford for one, the state official leading the Parent University discussion on the troubles faced by urban boys, told the assembled New Haven parents he met that November afternoon that he believes each student has a “hook” that will help her become engaged and invested in education.

For some students, he suggested, that “hook” may be connecting chemistry to hip-hop. For others, it is learning about their ancestry, be it Puerto Rican, Cuban or African-American, or being exposed to areas outside their own neighborhoods.

At that workshop, a teenage boy raised his hand and told attendees the story of one of his friends. One day, the boy said, his friend’s father left home — and suddenly the friend became a “terror.”

Now, that “terror” is a talented basketball player at Wilbur Cross High School, a high school in the New Haven Public Schools system, and just “has this energy,” the teenager went on.

Dr. Rayford told him the basketball served a crucial purpose: “They found this kid’s hook.”

Boost!, a School Change Initiative program sponsored by the United Way of Greater New Haven, looks for those hooks. It puts together a range of programs that help students succeed outside of the classroom. After an initial test year for their plans, Boost! representatives constructed a needs assessment of which wraparound services certain New Haven schools needed and matched the educational institutions with nonprofits in the community that can provide these services. So, for instance, the school identified as having no after-school programs for sixth and seventh grade girls inspired Boost! staffers to seek out such programs and plug the gap.

Boost!’s tentacles are now felt throughout New Haven public schools. At Columbus Family Academy, while teachers were having a routine meeting about their projects, one teacher brought up a student who she described as sometimes behaving like a “goofball.” She explained that to try to jump-start his performance, she emailed representatives of Squash Haven, a Boost!-sponsored activity that teaches kids to play squash and also takes an interest in players’ academics.

Her “goofball” student “brought his grade up 30 points in, like, two weeks.”

Were students are not engaged in such alternatives to the common path of getting into trouble out of peer pressure, college would be a lost cause regardless of scholarships or academic improvements. “You have to look beyond just a cognitive academic curriculum and instruction,” says Brantley, who implements the Yale Child Study Center’s Comer School Development program for the improvement of students in nonacademic ways. “These students come into the classroom with a whole life experience that’s not even touched.”

Brantley’s view isn’t just a matter of opinion. Test results confirm that wraparound services are critical. All five of the schools in which Boost! launched in the 2010–’11 school year saw Connecticut state test improvement at a rate higher than the district average. Three of the Boost! schools were in the top 10 most improved schools in the district on the CMTs, Connecticut’s state test for elementary and middle school students. The three schools — Wexler-Grant, August Lewis Troup and Barnard Environmental Studies School — improved test scores by 7.4, 7.2 and 3.5 percent respectively. These figures compare to a district average improvement rate of approximately 2 percent. One of the remaining schools, Clinton, improved test scores by more than 2.5 percent. And Metropolitan Business Academy, a high school which does not administer the CMTs and was the only high school Boost! worked on in its first year, saw 42 percent of students participating in a Boost! activity improve their attendance.


The school change crusade

Administrators in offices are not the only ones campaigning for school reform. Acknowledging that the larger culture of their city has to change, New Haven residents took to the streets earlier this year to spread the word about the new approach to schooling.

Hill Career Regional High School’s cafeteria buzzed with school reform energy on Oct. 13, as dozens of volunteers, from infants carrying dinosaur lunch-boxes to company CEOs, grabbed brochures and Dunkin’ Donuts coffee before heading into neighborhoods to tell people about the new school reform initiatives.

This door-to-door canvass was the last of three that the School Change Initiative put together. Each informed New Haven residents about different aspects of education, from entering kindergarten to New Haven Promise. Locals showed up in droves for the kindergarten canvass in particular. Over 200 volunteers knocked on nearly 1,500 doors and talked to about half of the families sending a child to kindergarten in New Haven.

The effort to get parents involved in schools needs to feel like a “political campaign,” according to Assistant Superintendent Harries, the school district’s New York-imported education reform specialist. He believes the school district must go after parents with “the intensity and penetration that swing states have just been through in regards to the election.”

And Jack Healy, the CEO of United Way of Greater New Haven, sympathizes. Healy was invited to the White House this past October along with about a half dozen other school reform representatives to discuss school change. The main agreement that came out of the meeting, he says, was that community involvement is crucial for successful school reform.

“Schools cannot reform themselves without it being a communitywide effort that mobilizes the resources of the public, private and nonprofit sectors,” Healy concludes.

Yet while the canvasses are a step in Healy’s desired direction, it is still unclear whether the entire New Haven community understands or even backs school reform. In the classroom next to Ms. Rosarbo’s, where she was speaking with students about noise in their lives, fellow Brennan Rogers teacher Bryan Merritt also discussed obstacles to college with his students. In addition to peer pressure, the streets, drugs and violence, Merritt says, money came up, “obviously.” When asked why money was still a concern since these children have access to the New Haven Promise, Merritt explains, “We’ve talked about it ad nauseum, but it’s so far away it doesn’t resonate.”

The public school system’s 2009–’10 climate survey also showed mixed results about the community’s attitude toward school reform.

In the parental survey, the schools did indeed poll well in most categories such as “the school environment is conducive to learning” and “the school has high academic expectations for my child.”

Then again, only 23.1 percent of parents in the district took the survey.


New Haven as a model

According to Community Foundation CEO Ginsberg, the board of New Haven Promise has been charged with evaluating the city’s entire School Change Initiative. The team, which includes Levin, Ginsberg and DeStefano, is almost finished with the evaluation design. Ginsberg says he hopes the evaluation will take place in 2013.

But so far, there seems to be incremental improvement. When asked if he is pleased with the progress of school reform, Harries tells me he thinks there is “potential,” but then adds that the city is “not there yet.”

The high school graduation rate, one of the most important indicators for education reform, has increased by 2 percent in the last year, up to 64.3 percent in 2011 from 62.5 percent in 2010. The percentage of students on track to graduate, which is a measure of whether students have adequate credit accumulated for their grade level, has increased by about 9 percent. And the dropout rate has recently decreased, falling from 27.1 percent in 2010 to 25.1 percent in 2011.

Meanwhile, 21 more students qualified for Promise in its second year than in its first, and in 2012, elementary schools came one point closer to closing the achievement gap with the state as a whole.

High schools, however, slipped backward from gains made in 2011. The district qualified for a $53 million dollar grant to train and develop educators, but did not qualify for the federal Race to the Top grant, which awards exemplary education reform plans.

The results may be mixed, but one thing is certain. In New Haven, there is hope. If New Haven is going to succeed, it will not be because the public was dazzled with scholarships or because educators concentrated all of their energy on one aspect of school change. If New Haven succeeds, it will be because a new team of reformers took an entire city’s educational culture and flipped it upside down.

At the end of the dedication ceremony at Hill Central, Sheena Steed turned to her son Devon and said, “Don’t you love school, Devon?”

“Yes,” said Devon, who continued eating his Ben & Jerry’s ice cream and dancing to the Spanish music playing in the background. There are thousands of Devons in the United States, in cities like New Haven, craving the kind of real change that lessens the achievement gap and helps them enter college. It is not clear whether New Haven has discovered the solution to Devon’s educational future, but whoever does will not only shape Devon’s future — they will shape the next generation of Americans.