Yale Daily News

Mayor Toni Harp is defending the decision of New Haven Public School officials to divide James Hillhouse High School into three separate academies, despite concern from some Board of Education members, district parents and students.

After an internal audit in April 2014, Hillhouse was transformed from a comprehensive high school into three academies — each with a separate focus on law, entrepreneurship and college and career readiness — to which students must apply. The school’s division led to the appointment of three separate principals for each academy, which sparked criticism from Elm City leaders and NHPS administrators who said that divided leadership would be ineffective. Harp visited Hillhouse in early November to hear from school administrators, teachers and students amid criticism of the high school’s division. But despite the opposition, Harp insists the new system at Hillhouse still needs more time to prove itself.

“The three academies operating at Hillhouse remain relatively new and as such warrant more time and continuing support,” Harp said in an email to the News. “I embrace the idea of providing NHPS students and their families educational options to consider and expanded opportunities to specialize while still in secondary school and this model does all that.”

Following her visit, Harp said the old comprehensive model had failed due to high rates of absenteeism and insufficient classroom rigor. She added that students and parents are gradually accepting the new model, which allows students to pursue specialized courses of study.

Poor communication surrounding the implementation of the academy system — especially the introduction of a fourth academy focused on social media and the arts this fall — is partly responsible for students’ initial negative perceptions of the academy system at Hillhouse, Harp said in a radio interview with WNHH. She said some seniors she met with felt the academies were isolated from each other, causing students to feel detached from the rest of the school.

City spokesman Laurence Grotheer said that while the school is divided and students are enrolled in only one academy, they are still able to take courses taught in any of the school’s other academies if a class has empty seats.

“It’s not that there are three silos housed at Hillhouse High School,” Grotheer said. “The three academies will continue with continuing efforts to integrate the students enrolled in the three academies.”

Grotheer said the mayor has acknowledged ways in which the integration of these three academies could be improved to allow students to take advantage of more opportunities offered in each academy. He said the mayor is working with the leaders of all three academies to work toward unity among the academies and their principals.

Yet some New Haven residents, including newly elected BOE member Edward Joyner, have called for an end to Hillhouse’s tripartite leadership. Joyner said Hillhouse’s three-principal system reflects poor leadership and management by the Board of Education and superintendent, adding that any organization should have one leader.

“There has to be autonomy of command in any organization,” Joyner said.

He pointed to Bridgeport Central High School, which manages its large student body of almost 1,600 — nearly 700 more students than Hillhouse — with one principal and three assistants.

Grotheer said Hillhouse’s new structure is gaining popularity among Elm City residents. He said they are adjusting to Hillhouse’s new model and have shown gratitude for the mayor’s dedication to improving the academy system.

“There is a process underway and I think, rather than any pushback, there has been a show of appreciation for the mayor’s personal interest in advancing this process and acknowledgment that any adjustments to what is still a relatively new arrangement might take a little longer,” Grotheer said.

Hillhouse is the oldest public high school in New Haven.