Deniz Saip

The Board of Education swore in Yesenia Rivera, program director of Edgewood PTO Child Care, at its bimonthly meeting on Monday. In addition, parents expressed concerns to the board about forced silences and abrupt cancellations of recess within their children’s classrooms.

Rivera was sworn in after several months of board turmoil and membership turnover. In the past few months, the Board of Alders failed to approve the reappointment of Board of Education Vice President Jamell Cotto and former member Frank Redente resigned his post in December, citing concerns with Carol Birks’ leadership as New Haven Public Schools superintendent and his unease with board politics. In addition, Liam Brennan LAW ’07 — who was tapped by Mayor Toni Harp in February to replace Cotto — withdrew his nomination to pursue a position in the private sector. However, Harp found new nominations in Matthew Wilcox and in Rivera, who was officially initiated into the board’s ranks Monday.

“I’m confident that I can get in there and do the work without getting entangled in the politics,” Rivera said in an interview with the News last month. “[I am] hoping that I can work with each of the members and move forward.”

Community members have frequently raised concerns regarding lack of parent involvement and transparency in Board of Education decisions. In a statement to the Aldermanic Affairs Committee last month, Rivera said that she intends to elevate parent voices during her time on the board, a sentiment much lauded by groups such as the NHPS Advocates, a parent organization that seeks to bring transparency to the policies and processes of the board.

Members of NHPS Advocates spoke at Rivera’s first meeting on Monday, but transparency was not their major concern. Instead, speakers spoke to the board about what they called a lack of socialization in the classroom, especially through the arbitrary cutdown of recess.

New Haven Public Schools parents took the stand, explaining how their children are forbidden from speaking in the hallways and how, sometimes, speaking in too loud a voice at lunch can lead to “lunch detention” the following day. Parents also criticized the rigidity of school rules, stressing that some rules are “coded language for stay in line, do what you’re told.”

“I think that the need for social interaction and its inability to be supported through recess and other measures at our school are concerning,” said New Haven Public Schools parent and professor of molecular, cellular and developmental biology Valerie Horsley about students’ lack of free time at Worthington Hooker School in East Rock. “I am concerned by this lack of ability of my daughter to engage with her peers in a way that she’s going to understand how to engage with her peers in the future.”

On Monday, district parent Dolores Williams spoke about the importance of socialization and playtime for early childhood. Williams cited expert presenters from organizations like the Gesell Institute of Child Development at last week’s Board of Alders early education workshop, mentioning that very young students require ample playtime to facilitate learning. NHPS Advocates member Fatima Rojas added to Williams’ comments, saying that all students, not just the youngest, are in need of substantial playtime.

“Our kids deserve to play, and the most important thing, they deserve to learn while they’re playing,” said Rojas, whose sixth-grade daughter Amber followed her to the podium to give a description of forced silences at lunch and in the hallways.

Tamiko Jackson-McArthur and fellow Board members responded to these claims, calling them “disturbing.”

At the end of the meeting, discussion also shifted toward finances. Cotto made a motion at the meeting to form a new deficit reduction committee to confront the multimillion-dollar deficit the board is facing with the 2019–2020 school year budget. While discussing the motion, board members proposed that several parents be included on that committee. According to a budget presentation given by Birks in February, the board is currently facing a $31 million deficit.

The Board of Education will meet next on April 8.

Valerie Pavilonis | valerie.pavilonis@yale.edu