Carol Birks made history on Monday, becoming the first female superintendent of New Haven Public Schools.

In her first day on the job, Birks kicked off her term with a full day of staff meetings, discussions with school administrators and visits to classrooms at Fair Haven School and Wilbur Cross High School. During the search process, she faced opposition from some community members. But as she takes the helm of a school system that serves over 20,000 students, she hopes to engage the community and remedy some of the district’s problems.

“I believe that it is going to take all of us,” Birks told a press pool on Monday.  “We need to draw upon the collective geniuses of everyone to ensure that we create a system that is focused on high-quality teaching and learning for all of our students and that we create conditions in this district that we can maximize the intellectual capital of all adults.”  

Birks steps into her role as superintendent as issues of funding and school safety loom over the Elm City. Last month, the Board of Education approved a $10 million increase in funding from the city, but Mayor Toni Harp honored only half of that in her recommended budget proposal. Even in the face of fiscal constraints at both the state and local levels, Birks said, she is focused on prioritizing the classroom and considering “students first” before making any decisions.

In the wake of last month’s deadly shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, she said, another priority is ensuring students feel physically and emotionally safe. To that end, the district is taking a look at technical improvements, such as ensuring schools are locked and providing training to teachers, she said.

After meeting with administrators and touring Wilbur Cross, Birks took questions and comments from students in a journalism class. She stressed that discrepancies in the quality of education between Connecticut’s urban and suburban districts have instilled in her a commitment to serving inner-city districts.

Valencia Harris, a senior at Wilbur Cross, told Birks that she wants to see student voices better represented in administrative decisions and on the school board.

“If I was to be in your position as superintendent, I would … give [student representatives on the Board of Education] the opportunity to vote on pertinent issues — issues that we are knowledgeable on and we can add our input on,” Harris said.    

A graduate of Columbia University Teaching College, Birks comes to New Haven from Hartford, where she served as chief of staff to the superintendent of Hartford Public Schools, a position in which she advised the superintendent and served as the key contact to school staff and community members. Previously, Birks served as both a principal and assistant principal at Harding High School in Bridgeport — her alma mater — as well as an assistant principal at Hamden Public Schools.

After the resignation of Garth Harris ’95, the Board of Education began looking for a replacement in October 2016. After a prolonged search process, the school board last year appointed Birks to the position in a 4–3 vote, despite community organizing against her, including protests and petitions. At the November 2017 meeting, all but a few of the more than 20 community members who spoke raised concerns about Birks’ qualifications and voiced support for the two other finalists — Gary Highsmith and Pamela Brown. Speakers also questioned Birks’ support for charter schools and her having only three years of teaching experience.

Five months after Birks’ election, community members still need convincing that she is the best fit from the job. Liam Brennan, a father of two future NHPS children, wrote in an op-ed published in the New Haven Independent on Thursday that Birks faces an uphill climb, both to gain the trust of residents and to put the district back on track amid difficult financial times.

City and state officials have bequeathed to her a system afflicted with deep challenges and left parents wondering whether she is a remedy to — or just a product of — a negligent government,” Brennan wrote.

On Monday, Birks said that a primary component of her 90-day transition plan is “listening and learning.” She will continue to meet with students, teachers and administrators, and will look at the organizational efficiency of the district, she said.