Isabel Bysiewicz

A crowd of 200 parents, teachers, administrators and community members gathered at the Betsy Ross School on Tuesday night to hear from the three final candidates for the superintendent of New Haven Public Schools, one of whom will assume the position next week.

New Haven Public Schools have been without a permanent superintendent since Garth Harries ’95 left the position last year. Since October 2016, former superintendent Reginald Mayo has held the position in an interim capacity. On Nov. 13, after hours of interviews and deliberations, the New Haven superintendent search committee decided on three candidates from a group of seven to proceed to the final round of the search process. At the forum, the three finalists, educators Carol Birks, Pamela Brown and Gary Highsmith, answered questions compiled by Hazard, Young, Attea and Associates, the national head-hunting firm hired by the district last spring, from a survey sent out to the public in June.

“What I think is important about a community forum like this, is getting more people engaged in selecting a superintendent,” Ward 29 Alder Brian Wingate told the News.

On Wednesday night, the search committee will interview the three finalists. At a special board of education meeting on Nov. 20, the committee will make a final recommendation to the board, which will then vote to authorize contract negotiations and a background check for the selected candidate.

During the forum on Tuesday, the candidates shared their backgrounds, thoughts on parental involvement in the district, opinions on charter schools and priorities for New Haven.

Birks is currently the chief of staff of Hartford Public Schools, but served as the school system’s assistant superintendent from 2013 to this July. A graduate of Hampton University and Columbia University Teacher’s College, Birks was born in a low-income household in Bridgeport and attributed her success to education and perseverance.

Birks said she has a history of moving school districts “in the right direction,” and will meet the objectives of the district by being collaborative and open.

“When you have me as your superintendent, you will have total transparency. You will have someone who is committed to your kids,” she said. “I won’t be on the balcony looking over. I will be down on the dance floor with you helping to effect change and reform.”

Brown, a graduate of Stanford University and Harvard University, is the chief of elementary schools in Fontana, California. Brown has served as superintendent in Buffalo, N.Y. and as the assistant superintendent and chief academic officer of the School District of Philadelphia.

Brown said that with 20 years of leadership experience in diverse districts, she knows how to engage with a community and bring people together to improve education systems.

“I am convinced that I am able to work with you to develop and clarify a vision … to make sure we have a strong, evidence-based plan,” Brown said.

Highsmith, who was born and raised in New Haven and graduated from Southern Connecticut State University, currently directs human resources for the Hamden Board of Education. He is a former principal at the L.W. Beecher Elementary School in New Haven and Hamden High School.

Highsmith attributed his success to difficulties in his youth and positive experiences with teachers who invested time in his education.

“The grit, the desire, the toughness that I had to show just to survive is what keeps me motivated now,” he said. “It’s the same motivation that lets me empathize with students nowadays who are suffering.”

Highsmith assured attendees he was not concerned with being “popular” or a “politician.” He said it is important to have a superintendent who understands the difficulties New Haven youth are facing, such as food insecurity and housing instability. To address inequity within the school system, Highsmith said he would ensure the most qualified teachers are hired, rather than the most “connected.” He said his priorities include focusing on “birth to three” programs, such as home visits and early childhood and elementary education.

All three candidates noted the importance of parent and community involvement in the school district. Highsmith said there is a “collective responsibility” within the entire New Haven community to ensure children receive the best education. Brown said her first priority would be to create a group of teachers, students and community leaders to clarify the objectives of the district and increase communication. Birks said she will focus on parental “empowerment” by increasing feedback about student performances, holding quarterly community meetings with the public to present the school’s data and holding open office hours.

The candidates differed in their views on charter schools. Highsmith said the majority of charter schools are not better than public schools, and criticized charter schools’ lack of transparency because they are not required to report how their spending is allocated.

Both Brown and Birks said charter schools can be assets to a school district. Brown said they were created to be “incubators of innovation.” And Birks said she has “utilized” charter schools in Hartford by implementing programs that worked in charter schools in the rest of the district.

Ballots were distributed at the event, allowing attendees to vote for one of the candidates and leave comments. Darnell Goldson, co-chair of the superintendent search committee, said these votes would not determine the search committee’s recommendation. However, he said, community forums are a great way for candidates “to sell themselves to the public,” and for the search committee to gauge the public’s opinions.

Although Wingate said he was “impressed” by all the candidates, he said he believes the local candidate, Highsmith, has an advantage in the process.

“You have some [candidates] that are connected to the community more so because they grew up here, and you have some that are basically trying to get a job,” he said.

Isabel Bysiewicz | isabel.bysiewicz@yale.edu