In 2009, New Haven’s public schools were in crisis. Though an ambitious school renovation project over the past decade and a half meant that students sat in gleaming new buildings, fewer than six in 10 students graduated high school. Test scores lingered well below the state average.
In response, former Mayor John DeStefano and Superintendent Reginald Mayo launched “New Haven School Change,” an effort to review and reform New Haven’s schools. They brought in Garth Harries ’95, a senior official in New York City’s public schools, to lead the process as assistant superintendent. In 2013, he became the superintendent. But last Monday, after prolonged political haranguing by the New Haven Board of Education, he resigned.
The Board of Education has been a confusing piece of political theater for many observers in New Haven over the last year, since the addition of two elected positions. Board members have shouted at one another, retreated into closed sessions, squabbled over parliamentary procedure, held up staff appointments — even when no objections were raised — and almost forfeited external grants. Most often, the target of the board’s ire was Harries.
Why the vitriol? Why the rush to oust Harries? Were schools still struggling at 2009 levels? Hardly.
Under Harries, the graduation rate increased. So did the numbers of students starting college and staying enrolled. Student engagement programs led to a six-percent drop in truancy. The district took steps to address the glaring lack of teachers of color: Forty percent of newly hired teachers have been nonwhite.
Harries didn’t just improve numbers. He made the school system more humane, just and accessible. He worked with parent activists to replace rigid school-discipline systems with fairer, less punitive and more impactful restorative-justice practices. He worked with Mayor Harp’s administration on the revolutionary Youth Stat program, which connected struggling, at-risk students and their families with needed services and support.
He created and steered a school accountability and reform process that treated teachers as partners, not enemies. Some teachers were initially skeptical of him — in the words of their union president, Dave Cicarella, “How can you ask this person to evaluate teachers if he hasn’t done any teaching?” But he collaborated with the union on an evaluation process that was lauded nationwide. When members of the Board of Education attempted to force Harries out, Cicarella publicly defended him.
Harries wasn’t a perfect superintendent. His initiative to divide Hillhouse High School into three separate “academies” — one of the only specific failings his detractors cite — was poorly organized and communicated, and was implemented without substantial buy-in from the community. The appearance of “meddling” at Hillhouse, the city’s second-largest high school and a cultural icon for the community, painted Harries as aloof and put him on shaky political ground.
Despite some missteps, New Haven’s public schools are on the right track. They show improvement by every metric. Many disadvantaged districts across the country would trade their situation for New Haven’s in a moment.
Yet over the past year, the Board of Education didn’t celebrate the school district’s gains — it undermined them. Over the protests of Mayor Harp — who continues to maintain that Harries was effective — and the board’s student members — who publicly took adults on the board to task for their juvenile behavior — tensions flared. Board members labeled basic hiring decisions as “conspiracies” and refused to approve them, causing some promising hires to withdraw altogether from the process. Ironically, a Board of Education retreat in June, which was supposed to focus on collaboration, began with a shouting match over the agenda, leaving a student member in tears.
Mayor Harp tried to bring order to the chaos. The Board of Alders largely ignored the situation, except to hire a lawyer to sue the Board of Education for being “in violation” of a contradictory clause in the city charter. Problems went unaddressed, the Board made a spectacle of itself, and the principal architect of New Haven schools’ promising upward turn was forced out.
For all of its many strengths, New Haven is a city where politics is too often shaped by egos, vendettas and private priorities out of step with the public good, despite the work of a few strong leaders. Only here would years of improvement result in calls for the superintendent’s resignation.
New Haven can’t afford to let political showmanship stand in the way of change. Elm City leaders should make decisions based on the needs of working families — not ancient grudges or personal agendas — and we as citizens and voters should hold them accountable.
Our next superintendent will have the privilege of working with bright, motivated kids, and leading an innovative district which has vastly improved since 2009. Let’s hope she will also have the privilege of working with political leaders who are ready to put kids first.
Fish Stark is a senior in Jonathan Edwards College. Contact him at email@example.com .