Welcomed on stage by a full jazz band, Carol Birks, the new superintendent of New Haven Public Schools, publicly kicked off her tenure before a crowd of more than 100 people at Gateway Community College community members on Tuesday evening, introducing members of her transition team and outlining a plan for her first five months in office.
The roughly 70-person transition team — chaired by Yale psychiatry professor Nadia Ward, Temple University professor Edward Fergus and state education resource center consultant Nitza Diaz-Candelo — will include committees focused on five key areas: learning and teaching, talent management and development, equity and access, organizational efficiencies and effectiveness, and family and community engagement. The transition team is composed of New Haven students, attorneys, alders and educators.
“I will work to build on the collective strengths of all stakeholders to make our district a high-performing system that promotes equality and access, creates conditions that students are reading at or above grade level by third grade, and designs and builds a high school program aligned with rigorous standards with multiple pathways to ensure that students are ready for college, career and life beyond high school,” Birks said at the event. “Everyone has a voice; everyone has a value.”
Facing a projected $6.7 million deficit for the 2018 fiscal year, Birks said the transition team will work to make improvements in the district and scrutinize inequalities and discrepancies among district schools. The team will focus on specific issues such as transportation, school safety and infrastructure improvements, she said.
Ward, who has known Birks for 18 years and joined the transition team last Thursday, said she hopes it will be an “exploratory” process. She said the committees will meet regularly, and the leaders of the transition will circulate information among committees and communicate findings and suggestions to Birks.
“It will be nice to explore with [transition team members’] unique perspectives, their ideas and ways in which they feel they can be impactful in this process, and come August, have something to share with the community,” Ward said.
Birks said the transition team will develop a comprehensive summary of the transition based on observations and findings gathered during the listening tours; analyze district policies, practices and data on student performance; host stakeholder forums to share findings and begin the process of developing a three-year plan, which she said will include “measurable and defined strategies to form a change vision to put students at the center of their learning.”
Because the transition team members are volunteers, the district is working with PDK International, a professional association for educators, to facilitate the process and finalize the transition report. New Haven Community Foundation, private funding firms and the city will pay PDK for its services, according to Birks.
Birks said she has been impressed by the level of community engagement in the district, explaining she has heard from dozens of community members who are hoping to get involved in her transition team. In an effort to be more transparent, Birks said, she is joining Twitter to update the community on her activities.
At Wednesday’s meeting, Birks also presented her three-part transition plan. During her first “listening and learning” phase, Birks plans to visit all New Haven public schools by the beginning of June, and conduct community forums, coffee conversations and town hall meetings throughout the city. Birks then plans to conduct an evaluation of qualitative and quantitative district data — such as curricula, collective bargaining agreements and board policies — to learn about education practices in the district — part of her “focus and frame” phase. During her final phase — “empower and accelerate” — Birks said she hopes to improve the district using the strengths of the schools to inspire innovation.
Speakers at the event complimented Birks’ drive and her vision for the future of the school system.
“I’ve never seen a more clearly laid out transition plan,” said President of Gateway Community College Paul Broadie. “As a unified community, we’re going to do great things.”
Members of the Board of Education praised Birks’ first few weeks, and Mayor Toni Harp said she is “excited” about the steps Birks is planning to take as superintendent, and noted the qualifications of the people on Birks’ transition team.
“New Haven has set a goal for itself to not only be the best urban district in the United States, but to take care of a very diverse population.” Harp said. “I am so excited about this time and where we’re going to go for our young people.”
To take her new position, Birks left Hartford, where she served as chief of staff to the superintendent of Hartford Public Schools. Previously, Birks served as both a principal and assistant principal at her alma mater, Harding High School in Bridgeport, as well as an assistant principal in Hamden.
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