Sara Tabin

After indulging in stuffed clams, salmon and salads prepared by Hillhouse High School culinary students Monday afternoon, four New Haven alders met with roughly 30 students, teachers and school board members to informally review the school’s year-and-a-half year old academy program.

The academy program, which places students in specific classes depending on which of three streams they choose to enroll in, began at the start of the 2014–15 academic year in response to concerns about the school’s negative track record, including a 46 percent graduation rate in 2011. Monday’s informal review came in anticipation of a March 16 public hearing at City Hall that will respond to renewed concerns about the school, including questions of whether the school has supported its students during the transition to academy status. Despite these concerns, Baker said the school is faring much better than it did in the past, with a 74 percent graduation rate last year. She attributed these gains to the personalized approach to education the school has implemented.

“We had to try a different approach, a more innovative approach,” Hillhouse Law, Public Safety and Health academy Principal Zakiyyah Baker said.

The academy system allows students to choose one of three specialized academies: the Innovation, Design, Entrepreneurship and Action academy, the Law, Public Safety and Health academy and the Career and College Readiness academy for seniors. A fourth academy, entitled the Social Media and the Arts academy (SMART),  was launched for freshmen at the beginning of this academic year. Baker said the purpose of placing students in specialized programs is to ensure that everyone is given the skills and resources to graduate and succeed in college. She said that while she recognizes Hillhouse has not yet succeeded at this goal, their gradually increasing graduation rates show that they are on the way.

To gather as much constructive feedback as possible, Baker said the tours presented the school in a frank and transparent light.

“The intent is not to camouflage our challenges,” she said. “We want it to be apparent what our challenges are and what our successes are.”

The alders met first with a group of student leaders of differing ages and  academy membership. Although the students were positive about the programs that the school offered, they expressed concern about the lack of communication between academies at the school.

“Everyone always speaks about how Hillhouse is family, but we barely know half of the kids we are going to graduate with,” said SMART academy freshman Tanayja London, noting that there is little interaction between students in different academies.

The students also told the alders that there is insufficient funding for resources including books, uniforms and computers.

Devonte Fletcher, a junior enrolled in the LPSH academy, spoke passionately about his positive experience in the school’s dance and band group, Shades of Blue. He said being part of the group has given him invaluable leadership experience but said few will be able to see their work, which has included performing at some Yale basketball games, unless they get new instruments.

“We have taken New Haven by storm,” Fletcher said.  “People are gonna stop saying I want to get out of New Haven, they will start saying I want to get into New Haven, but we need new instruments. People want to be a part of something. Help us with some money; let us soar and make New Haven an attraction.”

But the teachers interviewed were far less positive about the state of the school and less optimistic about the progress the new academy system has afforded it.

A group of teachers met with the alders after the student discussion to talk about grading, the logistics of teaching in an academy system and their ability as educators to advocate for change.

Several criticized the manner in which academies limit students’ class choices within the school. Some said it is difficult for students to switch tracks or take classes in different academies if they find something that piques their interest.

“I would love to see some way that we can get personalized academies without getting kids locked into a certain track.  They should have some choice to explore,” civics teacher Jack Paulishen said.

As the event drew to a close, Wooster Square Alder Aaron Greenberg GRD ’18 thanked the students and teachers for their honesty, remarked that the session “exceeded expectations,” and suggested future meetings with teachers and school seniors.

Roughly 980 students are enrolled at Hillhouse High School.