Tag Archive: reform

  1. Unsealing the Tombs: Society and Its Discontents

    Leave a Comment

    “The boiler room is the best place to hide,” Jack* says, laughing. He’s talking about the games of hide-and-seek that he and his fellow senior society members play in their three-story tomb — only, that is, after a multicourse meal complete with rounds of liquor, all free of charge.

    For many members of Yale’s landed senior societies, Thursday and Sunday nights unfold in similar fashion. As a member of one of Yale’s oldest and wealthiest societies, Jack enjoys access to a tomb steeped in history. Yale-related paraphernalia — including old books, artifacts and Yale Class Day banners from the 19th century —  give its hallowed halls an air of mystique.

    There are no dues for membership in Jack’s society: It has its own endowment, which is funded and managed by the society’s alumni. According to Jack, these alumni remain an important part of the experience, even after they graduate. They are often invited back for large dinners in the dining room, which has many tables that accommodate guests returning for reunions or events.

    As for the rest of the tomb, Jack describes it as a large, comfortable space with many rooms in which to study, talk and relax. But he also says it is rife with contradiction. “It’s an intimidating space,” he says. “Not everyone feels comfortable in there, even after being there for a year. It’s an incredible and completely undeserved privilege to be there. No one deserves to be in a space with so many nice things, riddled with privileges, and yet we are.”

    Jack’s experience with society is representative of an “old Yale” tradition dating back well into the nineteenth century. But it is also clear that these experiences are far from universal.

    For Alex*, a current senior, Tap Night last year was just like any other Thursday. While many of his friends spent the evening getting drunk with their new society, he was doing homework and trying to distract himself from the disappointment of not being chosen for membership in any society.

    The day before, he had been invited to a last-minute interview. Jumping at the opportunity to make an impression, Alex left his theater rehearsal in the middle to make the meeting. A few hours later, however, he received an email telling him that he would ultimately not be offered a spot.

    Looking back after a year, Alex said not being in a senior society hasn’t dramatically affected his social life. An ostensible difference is when many of his friends are busy on Thursday and Sunday nights with society obligations. Many societies meet for over three hours twice a week, a time commitment that rivals that of serious extracurricular obligations. However, Alex is not overly concerned with this change, but spoke rather of the disconnect between him and those of his friends who are members of societies. He observes this division mostly in casual lunch time conversations.

    “When the topic of societies comes up during lunch, my friends have the same experience and language that I don’t share because I am not a part of it,” he said.

    * * *

    This disparity among Yale seniors is exactly the kind of issue that former Yale College Council president Danny Avraham ’15 is seeking to address. Despite the society system’s reputation as a bastion of exclusivity, Avraham has a more egalitarian vision — he believes that senior societies should be open to anyone.

    Avraham says that senior societies as they stand have a negative impact on Yale’s social scene. He became more acutely aware of this during the few weeks leading up to Tap Night, which took place on April 9 this year.

    It was only when he was approached by somebody from outside that he decided to formulate this initiative to alter the status quo. When a high school junior anxiously asked him about the society tap process while he was giving him a campus tour last week, he realized that he wanted to make a change.

    The way he tells it, soon after that encounter Avraham developed a proposal for an inclusive society environment on paper. In the proposal sent to the entire undergraduate body by email, Avraham emphasized that the initiative was not, in fact, a hoax.

    This is Avraham’s idea: to create as many societies as needed for juniors who want the experience but were not tapped by pre-existing societies. During a recent interview, he spoke of his desire to bring the junior class together.

    “All you need is a Google Doc list and an invisible hand,” he said. Despite the simplicity of the idea and his plans to execute it, Avraham said he has done his research by talking to juniors, seniors and alumni. Through these conversations, he realized that an initiative like this one would address the evolving dynamic of Yale’s social scene.

    The shifting landscape to which Avraham refers has to do with the proliferation of senior societies. In recent years, there has been a steep increase in the number of non-landed societies. Currently, there are at least 40 documented societies, which translates to roughly 600 seniors — slightly less than half of the class. While this democratization has allowed more seniors to take part in society life, it also means that those who are not in societies are more greatly affected by this process, according to Avraham.

    “Back in the day, when there were only 100 seniors involved in society life, it didn’t dominate the social scene like it does now,” he said. “This really creates an unhealthy stratification of the senior class.”

    Avraham has formed a coalition of supporters to carry out the plan. Jessica*, a member of a landed senior society, said she supports Avraham’s initiative and that she, along with other seniors, some of whom are in societies, are meeting Friday, April 16, to discuss how to move forward. According to Jessica, “No one really deserves or doesn’t deserve to be a part of a senior society.” She added: “I want to see it implemented in a way that makes juniors feel good, validated, included and wanted.”

    In addition to current seniors, Danny Avraham has gotten alumni on board with his initiative, as well as private donors who are invested in expanding the society experience by funding the creation of new societies. Two Yale graduates, Nicolaus von Baillou ’64 and Terry Holcombe ’64 see the proposal as an opportunity to revive Ring and Candle, a now-defunct senior society that they had been a part of during their time as students.

    Despite the society’s dormancy for over 40 years, the two want to start Ring and Candle back up at Yale. Holcombe said he has reached out to Avraham to discuss the possibility of re-establishing Ring and Candle on campus, and that the two will likely be collaborating to bring the idea to fruition.

    So far, 161 students have shown interest in Avraham’s initiative and will go through several steps before being placed into a new society next week. They have already filled out a preliminary preference form and will hand in a personal information form today, according to a timeline Avraham sent out to interested students. The questions on the forms ask about the number of gatherings the individual is willing to commit to per week, as well as the society activities he or she wants to partake in. Their placement will be largely based on these preferences.


    Since Avraham’s email was sent out to Yale students, his initiative has generated much debate on campus. The plan to reform a system synonymous with Yale elitism has raised up a number of concerns, including the potential artificiality and unknown lifespan of these proposed new societies.

    While some students interviewed believe that Avraham’s plan will alleviate the harmful exclusivity of senior societies, others have said the institutionalization of societies will not be as effective as Avraham believes.

    A senior currently in an all-women’s society explained that, during the tap process, members discussed what kind of “vibe” the society wanted to give off through their recruitment of junior candidates. Given that established societies engage in time-consuming yet personal interviews with each candidate, and often spend hours debating the composition of the upcoming tap class, Avraham’s plan to assign candidates based on such basic preferences seems almost formulaic.

    Avraham is unfazed by these worries about homogenization. “Some [current] societies think that they have their unique culture,” said Avraham. “But I am very skeptical about that.” He said the unpredictable nature of the tap process, which he labeled “an industry,” means societies often end up with an essentially random assortment of members.

    Grace Brody ’16 disagreed with Avraham’s notion that societies at Yale are largely undifferentiated from one another. “The societies that exist started with a specific vision,” she said. She added that the new societies will likely have a generic feel to them, if only because they were created through institutional reforms rather than the more natural process by which most others were formed.

    The stark contrast in method raises an unanswered question: whether artificial placement can replicate the organic nature of interviews and discussions to create a “real” senior society.

    Sarah*, who graduated last year, has doubts about the plan. She believes Avraham’s system intends to institutionalize moments that simply cannot be reproduced from outside of the society system.

    Sarah originally found her society to be alienating, but ultimately it became a source of community and trust. While she felt out of place for the first few meetings with her society — she was abroad when she was tapped and never really cared about the process beforehand — eventually she came around to the idea.

    “I never thought that I would be considered eligible for my society,” she said, “because of my race, class, social status and the things I was interested in, which was nothing super mainstream on campus.”

    Sarah knew her society’s tomb had not been built with her in mind, and she was very frank with her fellow members about feeling uncomfortable. Aside from Sarah, there was only one other student of color in her class, a black male. At first she didn’t want to open up to the largely white and seemingly homogenous group of typical Yale students who were with her in the tomb.

    “I was very on guard during the first meetings — waiting for a moment to be offended, waiting for a moment that would make me feel different.”

    While Sarah felt out of place as a black female pursuing a creative career, her friend and fellow society member Ben* felt out of place being on campus at all, since he had worked off campus for most of his time at Yale.

    The feeling of vulnerability, they say, is what brought the members of the society together. “It was during the bios that I had that turning point when I realized this space was for me,” Sarah said.

    Sarah and Ben said they couldn’t speak about those specific moments of transformation and feelings of togetherness. But Ben emphasized that, without the security of the tomb and the assurance that nothing leaves its walls, this sense of friendship and self-realization would not have been possible.

    “The most meaningful and exciting things are these little interactions, organic moments of friendship that happen within society,” Sarah said. “They can happen outside too, but those can’t be institutionalized. Those things happen in the privacy of personal relationships.”

    Ben similarly worries that Avraham’s initiative can’t replicate the atmosphere of existing societies, because it places emphasis in the wrong places. Rather than answering the need for community and friendship, the initiative reinforces the notion that societies are a necessary indicator of a successful and meaningful Yale experience.

    “This push is a sentiment that comes up every single year. What we found most meaningful is hard to institutionalize,” Ben said. “I worry that the initiative panders to the idea that this is a capstone.”

    Sophia Charan ’16, who chose not to join a senior society, believes that by expanding the influence of societies Avraham is actually achieving the opposite of what he set out to do. She said that opening the society system up to everyone sends the message that every junior “should be in a society, when in fact I think lots of people might benefit from not feeling obligated to be in one.”

    Will Adams ’15, a senior not in a society, said he has mixed feelings about Avraham’s proposal. While he might have joined this initiative this time last year when he was not tapped, he believes that he would not make the same decision now. “Being in my place now,” he said, “after a year as a senior not being in society, I’m not entirely comfortable with the implication of Danny’s statement: that being a part of a senior society is integral to your social life.” He added that his social life has not changed too drastically since then.

    Aaron Gertler ’15, another senior not in society, said he was largely indifferent about the tap process, although at one point, he thought he might be tapped. However, he said that having a group of friends in different class years has made social life just as fulfilling for him.

    Others raised concerns about the longevity of these future “artificially created” societies.

    Avraham himself admits some uncertainty: The new societies may not last longer than a year or be involved in next year’s Tap Night. Jessica, who is working with Avraham, said she is unworried about the longevity of the newly formed societies. If the society dissolves, then people will be withdrawing in order to return to their pre-existing friendships, and no harm will have been done.

    The natural formation and attrition of societies has generally not been recorded, meaning that historical data about Yale’s society landscape is incomplete. There are no records of non-landed societies at Sterling Memorial Library, but a copy of Yale’s Extracurricular & Social Organizations 1780–1960 listed senior societies active at the time of its publication in 1961. Of the 14 listed, seven are now apparently defunct.

    Ring and Candle is among the defunct. Von Baillou said he does not know the exact point at which his own society, Ring and Candle, was disbanded. After tapping the subsequent class, he said that he and his fellow society members became largely uninvolved with the organization. “We didn’t keep a close watch on what was going on, and in fact, weren’t invited to do so by the subsequent class,” he said. “We kept our hands off, and regretted it.”

    Despite receiving a basic outline of the programs and traditions, the newly tapped class of Ring and Candle members were left to their own devices. Once they succeeded the outgoing class, they chose what they would do as a group during their weekly meetings.

    Besides the loss of internal structure, Ring and Candle’s landed property was also sold and the alumni do not know what has happened to it.

    According to Michael*, a current senior in a landed society, the loss of a physical space could dilute alumni’s connection to their societies.

    “The physical spaces lend to the longevity of the organization,” he said. “They keep alumni wanting to come back. It’s no longer superficial — the memories, the nostalgia, the friendships. We develop memories around it and attach meaning to it.”

    Of course, none of these new societies will have definite spaces.

    “Unfortunately that is part of the buy-in, those superficial things — the history, tomb and mystery,” Michael said.  “Those are the things that bring people in to make the necessary sacrifices — time and other organizations. Without the status, history and property I think that it becomes more difficult … to make the same kind of commitment.”

    Samantha*, who is a member of a non-landed society, has made some of her closest friends at Yale within her society.  Samantha’s society may not have a physical building in which to meet, but she believes the friendships she shares with fellow members are just as valuable as those developed within the walls of a tomb.

    Karolina Ksiazek ’15, a senior in a non-landed, all-female society, believes that most non-landed societies are able to mold themselves how they like because they are not bound to a particular space and tradition. “Maybe for the ones with a strict tradition of how they’re run and lots of alumni involvement, the culture is more stable. But for most of them, I think it’s mostly a group of friends, and so the people who are in the group create the culture.”

    According to von Baillou, it is imperative that a senior society have its own distinct traditions and culture: “It has to find a purpose, otherwise it will just blow away like dust in the wind.”

    Students in societies generally agreed that some degree of autonomy is necessary for the group to shape an experience tailored to that year’s dynamic. But too much autonomy can cause a society to become too unstructured, and eventually, to collapse.

    * * *

    Regardless of the feasibility of Avraham’s proposal, the fact that more than ten percent of the junior class has responded favorably to the initiative in just a week shows that society culture remains a contentious issue on campus. As Avraham has said, donors have signed on to the plan, not only in a financial capacity but also as mentors. Alumni are willing to commit to a plan that tackles longstanding social issues which have not yet been resolved.

    Despite these efforts, some of the people we interviewed suggested that this initiative is doomed to fail because of the inherent nature of society experience. One senior who is not in a society said exclusivity is one of the big attractions of society. People feel special because they are vetted, chosen and tapped by seniors.

    But a senior member of a landed society was cautiously optimistic.

    “I’m acutely aware that the tap process can be difficult,” he said. “It was for me. If I had found the experience was just about elevating some and diminishing others, I wouldn’t support [societies]. I’m open to a new way.”

  2. Keeping Promises

    Leave a Comment

    College banners hung from the gym ceiling: Yale alongside Rutgers. Michigan State vying with Princeton. Northwestern. Temple. Duke. Syracuse. Penn State. Seated below them were students who attend Hill Central School, a New Haven pre-K through eighth-grade institution. Each Hill Central student held a smaller flag, celebrating a different college.

    Looking out from the stage, Connecticut Commissioner of Education Stefan Pryor called what he saw “a storm of miracles and magic.”

    “It is truly remarkable what has happened in the vast majority of schools in New Haven,” he continued.

    Hundreds of people, ranging from toddlers to long-serving Mayor John DeStefano Jr., had thronged into Hill Central’s gymnasium on Oct. 21, 2012, for a dedication ceremony commemorating recent renovations at the school. The press scrambled to take pictures of the brand-new gymnasium, the spacious, well-lit hallway and the colorful mural adorning the wall of the cafeteria. The school marching band played exuberantly. Excitement was the order of the day.

    “Why do these people build these buildings?” New Haven Public Schools Superintendent Reginald Mayo asked the students. “They build them because they believe in you, believe that you’re going to continue to take your education seriously, that you’re going to prepare yourselves for high school and for college and for the world of work.”

    Mayo the bureaucrat became Mayo the mascot for a moment: “Raise those banners and wave them!” he declared. The kids waved their flags; the crowd cheered.

    Students at the revamped Hill Central School will embark on a journey through the New Haven public school system unlike the one experienced by generations of alums before them. Their journey is, to a large degree, a product of a very young program: New Haven’s School Change Initiative, a set of plans the city prioritized in 2009 and has trumpeted at a moment when the nation is enamored with education reform. The initiative, which includes a teacher evaluation system, a school tiering system, new extracurricular programs, efforts towards parental engagement and extensive scholarships, is expanding at a brisk pace. This past Monday, the school board accept a grant of over $100,000 from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which approached the city with an offer for funding to help with improve teacher training. Over winter break, College Summit, one Initiative-linked setup that seeks to foster a college-going culture throughout New Haven public schools, was introduced into three more schools in the district. Those three join the two schools that introduced College Summit in 2011–’12 and its first school partnership, established at the Cooperative Arts & Humanities High School in 2009.

    Although it is part of the New Haven Promise, College Summit has not been the center of attention the way Promise’s scholarship has, in the news, in rhetoric or in the public eye. In this sense, it crystallizes the nature of the Initiative: Many of the new moves towards educational success are cultural, subtle and focused on mindsets rather than money.

    This struggle is not confined to our one small city tucked away in the Northeast. Education reform is increasingly looking like a national imperative for the United States. As cities like New Haven illustrate all too painfully, manufacturing jobs are increasingly scarce in the postindustrial economy and service sector positions, which generally require higher education, form a growing proportion of the jobs available.

    Meanwhile, though Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development statistics show that the United States spends more than any other OECD member country on each student each year, the organization has also shown that the United States ranks 14th in the world in the percentage of 25–34 year olds with a higher education. It looks like increased education spending does not necessarily translate to effective education spending. New Haven is a test case for what the latter should look like.

    Six-year-old Devon Steed sat through that dedication ceremony at Hill Central with his mother and sister. Like most 6-year-olds, Devon was more concerned about dancing to the marching band’s music than listening to some superintendent discuss education reform. But the speakers at the front of the room, the Smart Boards that will be in his classroom as a part of the school renovation and other products of New Haven’s School Change Initiative may well determine if, in 16 years, Devon will graduate with a degree from one of the colleges whose names were, for that moment, just words on banners above his head.


    ‘Noise’ in New Haven

    Parents who attended Parent University, a series of workshops for New Haven parents held at Gateway Community College on Nov. 3, made it clear that they see school reform as a complicated and potentially fraught endeavor, one whose success hinges on a broad cultural shift. So when Brett Rayford, the director of adolescent and juvenile services for the Connecticut Department of Children and Families, argued in a discussion entitled “Addressing the Needs of Urban Boys” that education is a beacon of hope for their children, they reminded him that these boys are, in different ways, socially conditioned to dismiss educational success.

    One of the mothers raised her hand and said academic achievers in local schools are accused of “talking white” and “acting white.”

    “The boys don’t want to go there,” she explained, “because they want to fit in.” Straight A’s aren’t helpful when it comes to popularity, so achieving them may simply undermine a student’s social standing.

    The crowd issued murmurs of agreement. Another mother, Carla Chappel, the parent of an eighth-grader, raised her hand and shared an example from her own experience: When her son was younger, he was reading a book with his father when another young boy walked over and told him he was “corny” for reading with his dad.

    Instead of “corny” activities, students often succumb to the temptations lurking in the streets of New Haven. In the school system’s climate survey from 2009–’10, which is provided among informative materials on the School Change Initiative’s Web page and which asked questions of parents, students and teachers, 30.2 percent of student respondents reported that gang activity occurs at least some of the time at their school.

    Such ubiquity means that crime can be discussed as an inevitable future on an everyday basis.

    At Brennan Rogers, another city pre-K through eighth-grade school, every student participates in crew meetings in the morning, discussing the path to college on a weekly basis. This past Nov. 9. crew leader and teacher Florence Rosarbo decided to talk to her students about addressing “noise” — personal problems they face.

    She told students to identify their goals and chart two paths, one that described a life with noise and one without noise. “Remember in the beginning of the year when we read the poem ‘The Road Less Traveled’ by Robert Frost?” Ms. Rosarbo asked the class. “Right now, we need to start thinking about taking the road less traveled by some of your peers.”

    As the students began to think about their two paths, another teacher jumped in to help: “It’s easy to look at your life with noise: Look at the people you know who aren’t doing anything.”

    Two of the boys in the room started laughing.

    The teacher guessed the person they were laughing about, a former student. “He’s walking around with a bracelet (the tracking instrument that inmates wear in jail or on house arrest),” the teacher said, in response to the student’s repeated giggles.

    “You’re laughing, but it was one real bad decision that he made.”

    One of the boys who had been laughing looked up and said: “My father said all his friends are either dead or in jail.”

    At the end of the class, when students were asked to put the noise in their life on the board, one of the first things written was “the hood.”


    Solutions that dominate headlines

    In 2009, city administrators decided that “the timing was really right” for education reform, says Laoise King, who was working as deputy chief of staff to Mayor DeStefano at the time and is now the vice president of education initiatives for the United Way of Greater New Haven. The school district was winding down a comprehensive construction program that renovated almost every educational institution in the area. President Barack Obama had just been elected and had appointed Arne Duncan, a key proponent of school reform in his former role as the Chicago Public Schools superintendent, as the Secretary of Education. Meanwhile, New Haven Public Schools also had a new hire: Garth Harries ’95, who helped design school reform in New York City, and would now serve as one of New Haven’s assistant superintendents. Taken together, these developments produced an impetus for progress — and the School Change Initiative was born.

    The New Haven Promise would be the diva, the glamorous star, of any film about the Initiative. Much-discussed in the media and seen by some as the key fix built into the Initiative, Promise provides a full-tuition scholarship to any public college in Connecticut (or a partial one to a private institution).

    “When Promise was announced two years ago, it generated a reaction of excitement and hope that I had never seen in my years in New Haven,” recalls William Ginsberg, the CEO of the Community Foundation for Greater New Haven, a philanthropic organization that administers Promise.

    The scholarships are funded by Yale, one of the key accomplishments of DeStefano’s close ties with University President Richard Levin, and can be obtained by any student who lives in the city, attends New Haven public schools, has a positive disciplinary record, completes 40 hours of community service, has a 90 percent attendance record and receives a cumulative GPA of 3.0 or higher.

    If there is one thing that on its face looks like a silver bullet in terms of students attending college, it’s Promise. It seems like dreamland, a middle-class fantasy. But in a school district like New Haven, a scholarship does not get to the core of the problem, to the issues addressed at venues like Parent University.

    In 2011, 151 students qualified for Promise and 110 accepted it — i.e., only 10 percent of graduates in the school district actually qualified for the scholarship. In 2012, 172 students qualified, but even that 15 percent increase covers only a fraction of the district’s high school grads.

    If they don’t turn to the gang culture some students speak of, New Haven’s youth may simply choose to not go the college route. As one parent said at Parent University, to the approval of her peers, not all students in the district may be “suited” for college. The Sound School, a vocational agricultural high school which draws students from the city of New Haven as well as its suburbs, is home to a student population which U.S. News & World Report statistics show is 81 percent proficient in reading and 78 percent proficient in math, far above the district average percentages of 59 percent and 52 percent proficiency. When asked if most of the seniors in their class at the Sound School were planning to attend college, two seniors, Frannie Villano and Dionna Shipman, looked at each other and responded with a resounding “No.”

    They said that most seniors there plan to attend vocational schools, join the army or enter the workforce. When asked about the New Haven Promise, Villano says, “Most kids nowadays don’t take advantage of it. A lot of kids are lazy and don’t want to do the paperwork.”

    Villano herself will apply for the scholarship. But she adds that, in doing so, she is one of the few in her graduating class who is considering the Promise option.

    Students at another city high school, the High School in the Community, also say Promise is not the ultimate factor in their decision about where they will be after high school. For those like Chastity Berrios, a senior from a single-parent household who is on track to receive a scholarship, Promise may be a relief, but it is not a driving force. “It has been a motivator, but I wouldn’t say it’s been my motivation,” Berrios says. “I’ve kind of always been motivated for college anyway.” And some of her peers, on the other hand, have not been.

    New Haven is not the first city to offer a Promise-type initiative and find that a scholarship does not overcome students’ attitudes towards college and how they approach educational achievement. In Kalamazoo, Mich., the Kalamazoo Promise — a full-tuition scholarship for students who attend public tertiary institutions in the state — has ensured that, now, 95 percent of high school graduates in the city of Kalamazoo attend college, says the program’s executive director, Bob Jorth. He estimates that prior to the introduction of the Kalamazoo Promise, only 75 percent of high school grads went on to college.

    Still, the actual proportion of students who do graduate from Kalamazoo high schools has remained fairly static.

    “It’s the last number that we expect to change,” Jorth said. “There has been an incremental increase, but not a huge increase.”

    Students who can make it through high school, then, do receive new opportunities. But the scholarship has not proven to incentivize more students in such schools to push up their grades and graduate, much less attain a B average.

    Implementing nonscholarship changes worked in another instance, the Academy @ Shawnee, a high school in Louisville, Ky. The Academy @ Shawnee became a federal turnaround model and was thus required to replace at least 50 percent of its staff with new hires. Soon after, the school posted gains of more than 20 percent in math and reading proficiency levels, and even made it to Education Week magazine. All this occurred without a Promise-like scholarship program.

    “I’m not going to turn it down,” says Principal Keith Look, when asked about scholarship options for students. “But in and of itself it is not going to be enough. … [It’s] not changing any of the systems that take place in the school. It’s just changing the incentive.”

    Without a cultural shift, money serves as a flashy, simple-to-explain fix, but not a far-reaching one.

    Sheila Brantley, who helps facilitate Yale Child Study Center psychiatrist James Comer’s school development program in New Haven public schools, sums up what’s needed with a story about the New Haven Promise. She remembers telling a group of high school students about the Promise when it was first announced.

    As Brantley excitedly told students they would no longer have to pay for their college tuition, one girl raised her hand and asked, “What’s tuition?”


    A different kind of promise

    While Promise may not be the key to reshaping the attitudes of students already in school and on paths to academic or nonacademic futures, administrators say they hope that it will incentivize the parents of students currently in lower grades to make their children start thinking about college — and the educational success it will take to get there — early on. United Way of Greater New Haven education official King, for instance, calls the city’s school reform effort “a baby” and notes that the program may well have its greatest impact on students who are only in elementary school right now, by influencing their parents’ views of their educational futures.

    “One of the ways Promise fits in is it’s a quite bold experiment in parent engagement,” says Ginsberg, the CEO of the Promise-administering Community Foundation. “Can we use a significant financial incentive to get parental engagement?”

    Right now, says Lisa Pressey, the mother of an eighth-grader at Worthington Hooker School, New Haven parents often tell their kids they cannot afford college. That kind of “diminishes your dreams,” she explains.

    Promise, Pressey says, is “empowering.”

    That’s because it changes families’ thinking at its roots. Pressey, a single mother, says the financial support Promise offers may be vital to her son’s college career. And that’s a security she now has much earlier, so she’s not scrambling to look for funding options his senior year. Oma Amrit-Singh, the mother of a kindergartner, heard about Promise and the opportunity it could her provide her kindergarten-age daughter and had goosebumps, she says. At least one question about the young girl’s future may be partly solved. Her performance at school now looks that much more likely to result in her attaining higher education — one stumbling block is out of the way.

    Promise thus tackles New Haven residents’ mindsets, parenting techniques and broader cultural perceptions, which its leaders, like Ginsberg, feel are the reason for students’ currently problematic performance.

    “The culture of New Haven, with the manufacturing past, was not an economy that required high education credentials. Generations ago, young people could graduate from high school and get jobs in manufacturing, own a home and raise a family and live a life that was economically and socially acceptable,” Ginsberg suggests. “That is just not true anymore.”

    Promise’s second component focuses explicitly on building a new pro-college culture within schools. The program has cultivated a far-reaching partnership for a number of New Haven schools with College Summit, an organization that promotes college enrollment among students at every level from kindergarten to high school.

    Promise Director Patricia Melton ’82 explains that College Summit starts early. She recalls personally going into schools to ask kindergartners what they want to be when they grow up. Then, for kids at higher levels, College Summit’s message is communicated by specially trained educators in the schools themselves, with teachers and peer leaders helping high school students through the college application process.

    Meanwhile, the non-Promise programs under the umbrella of the School Change Initiative are attempting to develop cultural change using out-of-the-classroom experiences unique to each student. Dr. Rayford for one, the state official leading the Parent University discussion on the troubles faced by urban boys, told the assembled New Haven parents he met that November afternoon that he believes each student has a “hook” that will help her become engaged and invested in education.

    For some students, he suggested, that “hook” may be connecting chemistry to hip-hop. For others, it is learning about their ancestry, be it Puerto Rican, Cuban or African-American, or being exposed to areas outside their own neighborhoods.

    At that workshop, a teenage boy raised his hand and told attendees the story of one of his friends. One day, the boy said, his friend’s father left home — and suddenly the friend became a “terror.”

    Now, that “terror” is a talented basketball player at Wilbur Cross High School, a high school in the New Haven Public Schools system, and just “has this energy,” the teenager went on.

    Dr. Rayford told him the basketball served a crucial purpose: “They found this kid’s hook.”

    Boost!, a School Change Initiative program sponsored by the United Way of Greater New Haven, looks for those hooks. It puts together a range of programs that help students succeed outside of the classroom. After an initial test year for their plans, Boost! representatives constructed a needs assessment of which wraparound services certain New Haven schools needed and matched the educational institutions with nonprofits in the community that can provide these services. So, for instance, the school identified as having no after-school programs for sixth and seventh grade girls inspired Boost! staffers to seek out such programs and plug the gap.

    Boost!’s tentacles are now felt throughout New Haven public schools. At Columbus Family Academy, while teachers were having a routine meeting about their projects, one teacher brought up a student who she described as sometimes behaving like a “goofball.” She explained that to try to jump-start his performance, she emailed representatives of Squash Haven, a Boost!-sponsored activity that teaches kids to play squash and also takes an interest in players’ academics.

    Her “goofball” student “brought his grade up 30 points in, like, two weeks.”

    Were students are not engaged in such alternatives to the common path of getting into trouble out of peer pressure, college would be a lost cause regardless of scholarships or academic improvements. “You have to look beyond just a cognitive academic curriculum and instruction,” says Brantley, who implements the Yale Child Study Center’s Comer School Development program for the improvement of students in nonacademic ways. “These students come into the classroom with a whole life experience that’s not even touched.”

    Brantley’s view isn’t just a matter of opinion. Test results confirm that wraparound services are critical. All five of the schools in which Boost! launched in the 2010–’11 school year saw Connecticut state test improvement at a rate higher than the district average. Three of the Boost! schools were in the top 10 most improved schools in the district on the CMTs, Connecticut’s state test for elementary and middle school students. The three schools — Wexler-Grant, August Lewis Troup and Barnard Environmental Studies School — improved test scores by 7.4, 7.2 and 3.5 percent respectively. These figures compare to a district average improvement rate of approximately 2 percent. One of the remaining schools, Clinton, improved test scores by more than 2.5 percent. And Metropolitan Business Academy, a high school which does not administer the CMTs and was the only high school Boost! worked on in its first year, saw 42 percent of students participating in a Boost! activity improve their attendance.


    The school change crusade

    Administrators in offices are not the only ones campaigning for school reform. Acknowledging that the larger culture of their city has to change, New Haven residents took to the streets earlier this year to spread the word about the new approach to schooling.

    Hill Career Regional High School’s cafeteria buzzed with school reform energy on Oct. 13, as dozens of volunteers, from infants carrying dinosaur lunch-boxes to company CEOs, grabbed brochures and Dunkin’ Donuts coffee before heading into neighborhoods to tell people about the new school reform initiatives.

    This door-to-door canvass was the last of three that the School Change Initiative put together. Each informed New Haven residents about different aspects of education, from entering kindergarten to New Haven Promise. Locals showed up in droves for the kindergarten canvass in particular. Over 200 volunteers knocked on nearly 1,500 doors and talked to about half of the families sending a child to kindergarten in New Haven.

    The effort to get parents involved in schools needs to feel like a “political campaign,” according to Assistant Superintendent Harries, the school district’s New York-imported education reform specialist. He believes the school district must go after parents with “the intensity and penetration that swing states have just been through in regards to the election.”

    And Jack Healy, the CEO of United Way of Greater New Haven, sympathizes. Healy was invited to the White House this past October along with about a half dozen other school reform representatives to discuss school change. The main agreement that came out of the meeting, he says, was that community involvement is crucial for successful school reform.

    “Schools cannot reform themselves without it being a communitywide effort that mobilizes the resources of the public, private and nonprofit sectors,” Healy concludes.

    Yet while the canvasses are a step in Healy’s desired direction, it is still unclear whether the entire New Haven community understands or even backs school reform. In the classroom next to Ms. Rosarbo’s, where she was speaking with students about noise in their lives, fellow Brennan Rogers teacher Bryan Merritt also discussed obstacles to college with his students. In addition to peer pressure, the streets, drugs and violence, Merritt says, money came up, “obviously.” When asked why money was still a concern since these children have access to the New Haven Promise, Merritt explains, “We’ve talked about it ad nauseum, but it’s so far away it doesn’t resonate.”

    The public school system’s 2009–’10 climate survey also showed mixed results about the community’s attitude toward school reform.

    In the parental survey, the schools did indeed poll well in most categories such as “the school environment is conducive to learning” and “the school has high academic expectations for my child.”

    Then again, only 23.1 percent of parents in the district took the survey.


    New Haven as a model

    According to Community Foundation CEO Ginsberg, the board of New Haven Promise has been charged with evaluating the city’s entire School Change Initiative. The team, which includes Levin, Ginsberg and DeStefano, is almost finished with the evaluation design. Ginsberg says he hopes the evaluation will take place in 2013.

    But so far, there seems to be incremental improvement. When asked if he is pleased with the progress of school reform, Harries tells me he thinks there is “potential,” but then adds that the city is “not there yet.”

    The high school graduation rate, one of the most important indicators for education reform, has increased by 2 percent in the last year, up to 64.3 percent in 2011 from 62.5 percent in 2010. The percentage of students on track to graduate, which is a measure of whether students have adequate credit accumulated for their grade level, has increased by about 9 percent. And the dropout rate has recently decreased, falling from 27.1 percent in 2010 to 25.1 percent in 2011.

    Meanwhile, 21 more students qualified for Promise in its second year than in its first, and in 2012, elementary schools came one point closer to closing the achievement gap with the state as a whole.

    High schools, however, slipped backward from gains made in 2011. The district qualified for a $53 million dollar grant to train and develop educators, but did not qualify for the federal Race to the Top grant, which awards exemplary education reform plans.

    The results may be mixed, but one thing is certain. In New Haven, there is hope. If New Haven is going to succeed, it will not be because the public was dazzled with scholarships or because educators concentrated all of their energy on one aspect of school change. If New Haven succeeds, it will be because a new team of reformers took an entire city’s educational culture and flipped it upside down.

    At the end of the dedication ceremony at Hill Central, Sheena Steed turned to her son Devon and said, “Don’t you love school, Devon?”

    “Yes,” said Devon, who continued eating his Ben & Jerry’s ice cream and dancing to the Spanish music playing in the background. There are thousands of Devons in the United States, in cities like New Haven, craving the kind of real change that lessens the achievement gap and helps them enter college. It is not clear whether New Haven has discovered the solution to Devon’s educational future, but whoever does will not only shape Devon’s future — they will shape the next generation of Americans.