New Haven High Schools Outline Improvement Plans

2 under performing New Haven high schools outline goals to improve​
By Abbe Smith, Register Staff
Courtesy of the New Haven Register
NEW HAVEN — The Board of Education on Monday got its first look at how the city’s two biggest high schools — and lowest performing — plan to get on track with district reform guidelines.

Principals for Hillhouse and Wilbur Cross high schools presented ambitious improvement plans, which included implementing small learning communities and a Freshman Academy. They also laid out goals for improving test scores and strengthening school climate.

“You don’t start off saying you want to win the playoffs, you say you want to win the championship,” said Hillhouse Principal Kermit Carolina.

The board also heard presentations from top-tiered Sound School and middle-tiered Metropolitan Business Academy.

All four high schools were part of the latest wave of schools to be tiered, or ranked, by the district based on such factors as student test performance, annual student growth and school learning climate surveys. The tier system is part of the district’s massive school reform effort.

Hillhouse and Cross already have intensive improvement plans in place so principals for those schools gave updates and presented goals for next year.

Cross Principal Peggy Moore talked about reforms, such as leadership teams, improved professional development, and intensive use of data. She said improving school climate was imperative to success.

Moore said Cross is showing progress on a number of fronts. In the area of discipline, there has been a 61 percent decrease in the number of in-school suspensions.

Other initiatives at Cross focus on literacy, creating a college-going culture and providing academic interventions.

For Hillhouse, Carolina talked about how small learning communities foster student engagement and teacher collaboration. This past year, Hillhouse saw an increase in attendance and decreases in failing grades and out-of-school suspensions. Goals for next year include elimination of the achievement gap and increasing college-going.

Sound School Principal Steven Pynn talked about “capturing student energy and excitement.” His goals include increased focus on literacy and more rigorous learning culminating in a project.

Metro Principal Judy Puglisi talked about engaging students through rigorous instruction, increasing CAPT scores by 10 percent, improving school culture and encouraging students to be more active in after-school activities.
Goodbye Letter Grades, Hello College Semesters
by Melissa Bailey | Jun 28, 2011 7:46 am
Courtesy of the New Haven Independent
One principal is revamping report cards, and another is chopping the school year into two, as four high schools prepare for a “transformation” in the fall.
Principals Steven Pynn (at right in photo) and Kermit Carolina (at left) revealed those details at a meeting of the Board of Education Monday evening at 54 Meadow St. Their schools are among 11 tapped to undergo “transformations” next year as part of a citywide reform effort that aims to manage schools differently according to their performance.
Principals from four high schools gave presentations Monday on their plans for the year ahead.
Pynn leads the Sound School Regional Vocational Aquaculture Center, the only city high school to earn the top mark, Tier I, in the city’s rankings. In the new “portfolio management” way of running schools, Tier I principals get more autonomy in running their schools.
As a result, Pynn revealed he will do away with the standard A-F report card, which Pynn has said is not very helpful. A faculty working group will develop a new “standards/performance-based report card.” Typically, that type of report card focuses on whether the student is competent in performing grade-level work. For example, kids may be graded on a scale of 5 to 1, with 5 for “advanced,” 4 “proficient” at grade level, and 1 for kids who are two or more years below grade level. The numbers are not correlated to A-F letter grades.
Sound School staff will hold workshops on the new grading system, then come up with a rubric that fits the school, according to a plan Pynn and his staff presented Monday. The school also aims to step up peer-to-peer observations of teachers, focus more on literacy, and boost the school’s “information literacy” curriculum. Teachers will use 20 percent more technology in their classrooms, and each student will build an “electronic portfolio” based on that work.
Mid-Year, A Fresh Start
At Hillhouse High School, Principal Carolina unveiled a new class schedule called “4 x 4,” which will break the school year into two semesters. Currently, students take year-long classes, earning seven credits per year. Under the new setup kids will take four classes in the first semester, running from September to February. From February to June, they’ll take four different classes, most likely with new teachers. In total, they’ll have the chance to get eight credits per year.
The idea is to give kids a “fresh start” in the second half of the year, Carolina said. He said when staff looked at data, they noticed kids often start skipping days during the middle of the year when they’ve fallen behind in coursework, and are getting discouraged. That snowballs into failed classes and more kids dropping out. Carolina said the new schedule will give kids smaller classes with more frequent face time with their teachers throughout the week. If they struggle, they’ll get a chance in February to start anew.
Carolina said the 4 x 4 schedule (which one parent Monday referred to as “four-play”) is another strategy aimed at tackling the school’s dropout rate, which is particularly grave for boys. Of the 185 male students who joined the school as freshmen in 2007, 63 percent failed to graduate in four years, according to the principal.
Carolina, who took over the school in the fall after coaching basketball for six years, has gotten a head start on the “transformation” at Hillhouse. He introduced a series of changes this year as part of a federally sanctioned “turnaround,” when the school was tapped for a $2.1 million federal School Improvement Grant (SIG) designed to restructure the country’s lowest-performing schools.
Hillhouse snagged the grant because it ranked in the bottom 5 percent of high schools in the state. Carolina held his outstretched hand high Monday, showing five fingers, “the bat signal,” a gesture he’d flash around the school to remind his staff how much work they have to do.    
As part of the SIG plan, Carolina broke Hillhouse into four “houses,” or small learning communities, including a Freshmen Academy. He brought in a new team of deans who diffused behavioral problems, mentored kids, and ushered them out of the hallways back into class.
Carolina Monday reported back on the results of those changes. He said the new deans helped clear administrators’ plates to focus on the rigor of classroom teaching: The number of classroom visits by administrators rose by 50 percent this year. Classroom observers found too much “low-level questioning” in some classrooms, Carolina said. Now he’s arranging professional development for teachers on how to introduce more “high-level questioning” and more rigor in their classrooms.
With an eye on “eliminating the dropout rate,” Carolina said Hillhouse has concentrated on keeping freshmen on track. All 9th graders were placed in the Freshmen Academy, where they wore uniforms and took classes with a small group of teachers in one area of the school. As a result, freshman attendance rose from 83 to 89 percent, Carolina said. The number of freshmen receiving one F dropped from 47 to 25 percent. And the number of freshmen receiving an out-of-school suspension dropped from 33 to 21 percent.
Carolina said he intends to try a similar method with the sophomores next year. Among the four “small learning communities,” the school has one Freshman Academy and three academic-themed houses. Carolina has proposed creating a Sophomore Academy to continue enforcing the culture established with the 9th graders this school year.
Overall, Carolina reported progress in his priority, which was to “get the school under control.” The number of expulsions fell from 36 to 17, out-of-school suspensions dropped from 305 to 170, while in-school suspensions rose from 34 to 75 percent. Carolina said the latter uptick came from a large number of kids who joined Hillhouse after October, some from jail or after failing out of other districts. Those new arrivals had trouble adjusting to the new culture of Hillhouse, he said. Finding a way to integrate late-joining students remains a challenge for next year, he said.
Looking ahead to 2011-12, Carolina laid out several ambitious goals: Sophomores’ scores on the Connecticut Achievement and Performance Test (CAPT) will rise by 20 percent. The dropout rate will fall by 20 percent. And the number of students who receive college credit will go up by 400 percent, he pledged.
When you set goals for your team, he explained, “you don’t aim to make the playoffs”—you shoot for the championship.
Cross Kids Get Advisors, Freshmen Academy
Like Carolina, Wilbur Cross Principal Peggy Moore is also closing out the first year of a federally sanctioned “turnaround” under the SIG program.
Using SIG money, the school rolled out a credit retrieval program for kids who had fallen behind. As a result of the program, 32 more kids made it to graduation last week, reported Assistant Principal Grace Nathman.

In a meeting with parents earlier this year, Moore said some of the changes called for in Cross’s SIG plan didn’t come together as quickly as they should have, because Moore was chosen as principal at short notice at the end of the summer.
For example, the SIG plan called for a student advisory, which won’t be fully implemented until next year. Beginning in the fall, adults in the school will be assigned 10-12 student advisees each. Advisors will meet with students twice a week, monitor their attendance and discipline, and serve as an adult in the school who kids can trust.
“We’re trying to eliminate kids falling through the cracks,” said Assistant Principal Eric Barbarito.
Like Hillhouse, Cross began the year by splitting up into four “small learning communities.” Hillhouse broke up its school into a freshmen academy and three academic-themed houses; Cross used colors instead of academic themes to denote its four communities.
Next year, Cross plans to follow Hillhouse’s lead and roll out a freshmen academy in an effort to increase the number of freshmen who are “on track” to graduate.
Moore said the school will expand enrollment in its well-reputed Advanced Placement program, through which kids can earn college credit. This year, 183 out of 345 kids who took AP classes earned qualifying scores, Moore reported. She said she expects AP enrollment to rise next year. Her goal is to have 60 percent of students enrolled in college-level courses, including AP classes and online learning.
Another goal for next year is to “promote feelings of connectedness in the school environment,” especially for students who don’t participate in sports teams or after-school activities.
In addition to being tapped for restructuring through the federal grant, Cross and Hillhouse were both graded in Tier III, the lowest mark, as part of the city’s latest rankings. They aren’t “turnaround schools” in the eyes of New Haven’s school change drive, so the principals won’t have free range to hire or fire the staff. Instead, they’ll get extra support as they continue the “transformations” they’ve already begun.
Teach and Re-Teach
Like Cross and Hillhouse, Metropolitan Business Academy has a new principal this year who was brought in to shake up the school. Principal Judy Puglisi joined Metro last summer, bringing a host of students and staff with her from the Cross Scholars program.
Some red flags went up at Metro in last year’s school climate survey taken by students, teachers and staff. For example, only 42 percent of teachers reported feeling safe in school, the fourth-lowest figure in the district. Only 32 percent of teachers said they’d recommend the school to their peers. And 40 percent of students said order and discipline is not “consistently maintained.”
The school was ranked in Tier II, meaning Puglisi will get “mid-level autonomy” in running the school next year.
Puglisi already has brought in a host of changes, including advisory periods, a partnership with a post-traumatic stress center and student-led parent teacher conferences. Along with other principals, she began using a new computer system to monitor when kids were falling off the track to graduation.
On Monday she announced a goal to improve school survey results, which principals have been reviewing but have not yet been made public.
Next year she aims to expand advisory periods and have teachers to run “re-teaching cycles” for subsets of kids who are having trouble with a specific topic in class. There will be mandatory after-school tutoring. Teachers will start using a standardized lesson-planning template. Students will take part in College Summit, a program that encourages college-going.
Puglisi said she hopes these strategies, along with others, will help the school reduce course failures to 5 percent or less; decrease chronic absences by 10 percent; and maintain 90 percent parent involvement in parent report card night.