Superintendent Releases Listening Tour Report

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Dear New Haven Board of Education, Parents and Students, Educators, and the wider New Haven Community:

Since I was appointed Superintendentof New Haven Public Schools roughly seven months ago, I have been gathering thoughts and input from the New Haven community on the state of the school district and the path of our School Change Initiative.  I write now to share my reflections, both on what I have heard, and on what I think it means for the path we are following to educate our City’s children.  And I write to ask you all to maintain your commitment to our students as we proceed together – to maintain our collective responsibility to ensure that students are not simply passing through our education system, but that they are truly preparing for success in college, career, and life.

The sources of my inspiration have been broad.  Throughout the fall, I conducted a Listening Tour that included meetings with parents, teachers, school leaders, support staff and residents from across the city, through Superintendent’s Nights Out and a range of other forums. Also in the fall, I conducted a series of intensive discussions with school teams, focused on what was going well in schools, what needed to be improved, and what support the schools needed to do better.  Recently, Mayor Harp’s transition report on education established a useful framework and several additional themes.  Not only has the input been powerful, but the mere act of listening and engaging has been empowering and energizing, so I assure you I will continue to engage the school district community as we move forward.

As you can imagine, I have heard a wide range of ideas and concerns.  But as I write today, two core principles reverberate through my mind and push me to new thinking as we go forward.  The first principle is responsibility, and the acute sense that many different people must and do take responsibility for student learning.  Accountability is a word used by many in education reform, but for me, responsibility is a more powerful idea.  Responsibility is neither exclusive, nor blame-oriented, and I think of it as a bottom-up concept, rather than something imposed from the outside.  Students must be responsible for their own learning.  Parents must be responsible for supporting their children.  Educators must be responsible for creating good learning experiences; leaders must be responsible for organizing and mobilizing educators; and the district must be responsible for organizing and supporting schools.  Responsibility means we are taking accountability for and are committed to our students’ success, not having that imposed on us. Responsibility also depends on teamwork and support.  

The second principle is preparation –  the idea that education is a process to prepare students for what comes next in life.  Education must be about more than proficiency. Education is mastery in preparation to take on greater challenges at the next level. I believe we must focus on preparing our students for the future, recognizing that the journey of education is on-going, and the ultimate measure of good education is many years down the road when students are successful and productive citizens. 
The data underscores these principles – data that reflects an underlying challenge for our students.  On last year’s school climate survey, 88% percent of our 6th, 7th, and 8th grade students told us that they expect to go to either a 2 or 4 year college.  However, only 71.4% of our class of 2013 actually graduated high school in four years.  Only 70% of the class of 2011 enrolled in college in the first two years after high school – and only 23% of the class of 2007 completed a degree, including a technical degree, preparing them for the world of work.  What does this mean?  It means for every 10 middle school students, 9 say they want to go to college, but only 5 of those students actually go, and only 2 get a degree.

These are stark numbers.  They should shock us.  But they shouldn’t surprise us.  Of our 7th and 8th grade students, 44% have a D or F on their transcript at the end of the 2nd quarter – a clear sign of that they are not prepared for high school. Most importantly, these kinds of numbers should spur us to action – action because this year’s 8th graders have four more years before they finish high school, and this year’s kindergarteners have eight years before they enter high school. Our actions can have impact.  If we take responsibility as a city for preparing our students for success at the next level, we can effect change.
For the last four years, we have pursued our School Change Initiative with four primary pillars of action.  After listening to so many voices over recent months, I remain convinced that School Change is the right approach – but I am also convinced that we must refine our strategies to reflect the principles of responsibility and preparation.  What follows are my thoughts about how to evolve our School Change policy agenda to ensure we meet the challenge of preparing our students for the future.  With each organizing idea, I also suggest an action to move our district forward.

1.       Real Student Success: Our work is entirely student driven.  If we love our students – which based on my conversations I know we all do – we have to be real about what it takes to prepare them for success in life. While every student needs to be progressing each and every year, in all subjects, I’d like to suggest some steps that all of our students need to take on the way to college, career and life readiness.  I think the following objectives speak to key transitions that students make in their time with us, and steps we can take together as a community. 

-          Every student establishing functional reading skills by the end of first grade.  Basic reading is a foundational skill for everything that happens throughout a student’s education.  While students will continue to develop their reading skills through college and graduate school, and while basic math is also an important skill for young students, functional reading is a foundation that must be set early.  To do this, we must work not only with the school district’s kindergarten and first-grade program, but even earlier with our Pre-Kindergarten and infant-toddler services.  In addition to a strong early-grade and early childhood reading programs – we need to consider class-size, which is currently largest in our early grades, and the duration of the early grade experience, which currently moves students on a standard path, regardless of their developmental readiness. 

-          Every student demonstrating maturity of personal development by the end of Middle School.  As I have discussed many times, personal development must be a significant dual focus for our education system with academics, to be sure students are prepared to take responsibility for their own learning and lives.  We need to start this work early, even in the play that students engage in during pre-kindergarten – but it should take particular significance in middle school grades, as students wrestle with their emerging adolescent identities and prepare to transition to high school.  While they are doing their academic work, middle school students should also show us through their work that they are ready for the independence and have the maturity necessary to succeed in high school – and this demonstration should be not only for educators, but also for parents and the community.  Just as with academic learning, we should track this personal development and provide more explicit learning experiences that foster it – and we should find ways to communicate with the many outside organizations that provide developmental experiences to students in this age group. Peers and educators should provide explicit feedback through 360 feedback, just as so many of us do in our work environments. 

-          Every high school student engaged on a positive path that carries them past graduation.  When I speak to high school students, I consistently hear the desire for more relevance and engagement in their learning experiences.  Until we acknowledge this desire, we will never have the level of responsibility for learning that we need from the students themselves.  Part of high school success is academic preparation. We need to own the reality that many of our students enter high school lacking significant skills, and we must act accordingly so that students have a chance to master these foundational skills before they find themselves in college remediation.  Part of high school success means ensuring that students come to school: if our students report to their jobs 9 days out of every 10, as reflected in our 90% average high school attendance, they will not last long in those jobs.  Finally, if we want learning to be relevant for our students, we must make sure they are actively using their minds to consider interesting and important questions, whether in class or on internships or on community capstone projects.  This relevance is particularly important for those who I call the disengaged youth, who are already showing through their attendance and actions that they need more support to stay on track for success in the future. 

2.       Talent: throughout the listening tour, I heard the community celebrate the educators of the New Haven Public Schools system.  This is consistent with the work we have done in recent years, which seeks to ensure that we attract, develop and retain the very best educators.  We must continue to prioritize this work, because nothing is more important than the teacher in the classroom and the leader at the door of the school.  As we continue to do this work, we must ensure that our teachers are supported as they take responsibility for preparing students for success at the next level. That includes understanding students’ academic and personal needs, and their unique, multi-year paths to college, career, and life readiness.  And we must be sure that we attract, develop, and retain the very best -support staff – paraprofessionals, security guards, secretaries, custodians, truancy workers, and many others.

3.       Portfolio of Schools: It remains deeply resonant that the school is the unit that matters in the school system, and that we must continue to organize ourselves to reflect this reality.  This includes continued urgent work to improve the schools where student performance is the lowest.  As we do this, though, we need to recognize the shortcomings of our support and accountability systems. We must create fairer distribution of resources among schools according to their challenges and a more intentional pattern of school choice and student placement to enable schools to be successful.

4.       Communication and Collaboration (aka Wraparound). We have worked to align our work with parents and the community, through significant initiatives like Boost! and Parent University.  This work should and will continue.  However, I am increasingly conscious that it is the little things that can matter in these kinds of partnerships.  I heard many folks talk of the need for better communication and customer service, both schools and central office, as a way to activate a renewed sense of teamwork among parents, students, schools and community.  We need to figure out how to more effectively share real-time information between organizations that work with kids.  And we need to pursue stronger mechanisms of parental responsibility.

We must continue our commitment to fiscal responsibility.  We must be open to input and ideas from the community.  We must have the courage to aggressively pursue specific steps – even unpopular ones – if we have confidence they will lead to better outcomes for students.  We have the immense responsibility of working with the community’s most precious resource, its children, and with that responsibility comes the reality that we must make difficult decisions. 

The New Haven Public Schools are making great progress toward our goals, yet we have a long road ahead to achieve real and true success for our children.  I look forward to continuing our discussions, both at the board, in schools and in the community.  Ultimately, my goal is everyone – the Board, Parents and Students, Educators, and the wider community, to ensure that our students achieve success in college, career and life. As I take stock, I both celebrate what we already do for kids in New Haven Public Schools and our community, and I seek to push us to further our responsibility to our youth.  I invite you all to continue the conversation and join me in helping all New Haven kids rise to a bright future.

Very truly yours,

Garth Harries, Superintendent of Schools