Register Profiles New Haven School Change at Davis Street School

Top schools setting the pace in reform of New Haven education system  
Sunday, April 17, 2011
By Abbe Smith, Register Staff

NEW HAVEN — Davis Street Arts and Academics Magnet School Principal Lola Nathan didn’t take the news of being named a “tier-one” top-performing school last year as an excuse to sit back and take a breather.

Instead, she charged full speed into designing reform initiatives for the school.

“I knew that it was time to roll up our sleeves because this was a challenge,” she said. “Nothing is status quo. We must always strive for excellence.”

Davis School and Edgewood Magnet School were named tier-one schools a year ago, the top rung of a three-tier system that categorizes schools by the amount of intervention needed to improve learning. While the district’s low-performing “tier-three” schools have received more attention over the past year as they attempt dramatic transformations aimed at improving student performance, tier-one and two schools have been plugging along with their own intensive reform agendas.

The ranking of schools is a major part of the district’s massive reform initiative, which seeks to raise standardized test scores to the state average, cut the drop-out rate in half and ensure every student can go to college.

At Davis School, Nathan identified four priorities for the first year: increasing “learning time” for students, strengthening the school’s magnet theme, “Literacy through the Arts,” focusing on college readiness, and improving communication with parents. To increase learning time, Davis launched a summer school program last year that registered 104 students. During February break this year, the school got students to come for a Connecticut Master Test prep-camp. Additionally, Davis is using small break-out groups to give kids more individualized attention in subjects such as math and language arts.

To increase literacy, the school is inserting reading exercises into other classes and extra-curricular programs. For example, the school has literacy programs that involve art, drama, dance and multiculturalism. Students in the upper grades undergo college- and career-planning programs.

As teachers and administrators at Davis embraced dozens of new initiatives, they did so in cramped quarters in the temporary site on Orchard Street, while a state-of-the-art facility was constructed at the school’s permanent home, on Davis Street in Westville. That new home is ready to go and the school was in packing mode last week. When students come back from spring vacation April 25, they will be walking through the doors of their new school.

Despite all the packing, Nathan is making sure her team sticks to its reform agenda. So amid ever-growing stacks of cardboard boxes, the school hosted a celebration last week to recognize students for participating in the Ben Carson Book Club. The club, named after the renowned neurosurgeon and Yale University alumnus, is run by parents and rewards students for reading books, performing community service and visiting the public library. The idea is to get kids excited about reading. Students at the school increased their visits to the public library by 30 percent thanks to the program.

Nathan said the Ben Carson Book Club advances two of the schools reform priorities: promoting literacy and getting parents involved.

“Parents need to read, too. If kids see parents reading it encourages them to read,” she said.

Sandra Rodriguez, who has two young children at Davis, got involved with the club after reading Carson’s memoir, “Gifted Hands,” in which Carson recounts his upbringing with a single mom who impressed on her children the importance of reading. Now, Rodriguez limits the amount of television her children watch and encourages them to read, draw and play.

“They are learning to communicate with each other rather than just vegging out,” she said.

Rachael Cooper is the other parent who runs the Ben Carson Book Club. The mother of a sixth grader and preschooler at Davis, Cooper said the club is just one avenue for parents to get involved in their children’s education.

“Since the very first day I walked through this door, they encourage me to be here,” she said.

Nathan said parental involvement is a huge part of Davis’ reform plan. The school already has 200 parent pledges signed and a 98 percent attendance rate at report card conferences.

New Haven Assistant Superintendent for Portfolio and Performance Review Garth Harries said tier one schools play an important, though different role, in the reform process than tier three schools.

“We want our best schools to continue to set the pace for the district and continue pushing ahead,” he said.

Schools tapped as tier one schools are given greater flexibility to experiment with innovative teaching techniques and nontraditional curriculum. The innovation is meant to occur in addition to teaching of the standard curriculum. The hope, Harries said, is that new techniques that prove successful can be adopted by other schools in the district.

Also, tier one schools are supposed to implement plans that will bring high student performance to the next level, exceeding state averages.

Harries said it is too soon to draw conclusions about how much the schools are progressing. When CMT results are released over the summer, the district can compare scores from this year to last year, but even that comparison will be premature to truly gauge success.

“It takes two to three years to see substantial change in performance,” Harries said.