Has This City Actually Figured Out How To Reform Public Schools?

How to make a huge change, and succeed.
Sept. 27 2012 3:52 AM

Can Public Schools Really Change?

Why New Haven’s ambitious new education strategy might actually succeed.

(Continued from Page 1)

For New Haven, Joseph Lumpkin oversees an unusual new partnership with Achievement First, the very charter school organization that once prompted such a defensive response from the city. Achievement First is now helping New Haven train its teachers and staff in school leadership, a relationship that may be the first of its kind in the country between a district and a charter. Here’s how it works: Last year, New Haven’s Joseph Lumpkin and Matt Taylor, the former principal of Amistad Academy, led a group who chose a handful of people from a pool of teachers and other staffers who wanted to move up the ranks to principal. The select few spent six months in residence at an Achievement First school. In many ways, they operated as administrators: running professional development days and lunch or bus duty, coaching teachers, handling discipline, meeting with parents. But they did this with Taylor’s intensive support. He was their coach and their teacher. They also had mentors in the district: principals at high-performing schools with whom they met weekly. And in a three-hour weekly seminar, they studied with outside experts, learning topics such as data collection and systems management, coming away with the credential they need to become an administrator anywhere in Connecticut.

“We concentrated a lot on school change and how you go about it,” Taylor said. “You don’t go in and start blowing things up. You have to be skilled at building relationships and credibility. You have to know how to build student motivation.”

I live in New Haven, and I know Taylor and several other people who work in education here.. But forget me—listen to Jamie Baker, a 31-year-old who worked for eight years in New Haven as a first-grade teacher and a literacy coach. Baker was part of the first crop of Achievement First “residents,” as they’re called. She told me:

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I went over there, unprepared, as a novice. It was complete culture shock. It was all about systems—they have a systematic approach to everything from the way in which the students enter school, to how they sit at their desks, to turning in homework, to calling parents. And the way they use data is different. For example, I was working closely with the first grade, and we would look at the data, see where our kids were, and use it to determine actual objectives for students, which we’d plan out to the level of putting it in our calendars. We’d collaborate about what we were going to do for the kids struggling the most. At AF, they talk about “whatever it takes” moments: Get the kids during lunch and recess, whatever you have to do to make sure they’re getting it.

I asked Baker what she made of the whole experience, and she said, “It was amazing. I never in my life saw myself make so much progress in a short amount of time—in terms of leading people, understanding the curriculum, everything. It was just extremely rigorous.”

From AF’s perspective, the residency program, which costs about $1 million a year and is partly funded by the Buck Foundation, is a chance to reach outside the charter model and also address a need the network itself had noticed. “Finding principals is a big challenge for us—we don’t get a lot of the candidates we need, in terms of both quality and quantity,” Taylor said.

DeStefano said the same thing at a lunchtime panel during the Democratic National Convention: “The hardest thing” for the New Haven schools is “building leaders.” You can argue that in some of the choices of principals they’ve previously made, the mayor and superintendent created the problem they’re now turning to AF to help solve. And it’s not all transformed: Only three of the five residents from last year have been placed as assistant principals in the New Haven system. The other two are in intermediary positions, which isn’t the best advertisement for new recruits.

DeStefano and Mayo are sticking with the AF residency even though the teacher’s union bristles over it. AF’s teachers aren’t unionized, and Cicarella says comparisons between the charter’s results and the district’s are unfair because the city schools deal with far more student mobility and can’t ask students to leave if they pose a discipline problem. (In fact, AF has a high retention rate.) “They do well on coaching and lesson planning—we shouldn’t shirk from that,” Cicarella told me. “But I don’t like the idea that we validate them by sending our guys to Achievement First, as if they do it better than we do. Our people go there, and then they come back to us and they won’t be prepared to deal with stuff we deal with because they have a select group of students.”

That sounds like the old era of distrust between New Haven and its charter schools—a culture of suspicion that’s common across the country. (If you’ve seen the movie Waiting for Superman, you know what I’m talking about.) What’s striking about New Haven, though, is that the lines between district and charter are blurring. The new relationship with AF “is the district saying: We’re not going to be stuck in old fights,” Harries said. “We’re going to learn and grow from any source we can.” Baker says it feels that way on the ground, too. “The bottom line is that this opportunity shows that New Haven has a huge interest in developing talent,” she said. “They’re really investing in us.” The next step is for the union to recognize the value here, too—that’s when cultural change will have really taken root.

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