Superintendent Address on Martin Luther King Jr. Day

All –
I was energized to join the Greater New Haven community yesterday in honoring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at the annual MLK Conference at Wexler Grant School.  Our community paused to reflect on the life, courage, and determination which continues to change our nation.  I thank the educators and the community members who work so hard to make this event happen every year.
In both the civil rights movement and education in New Haven, we have made significant and historic progress.  As a nation, among many other markers, we have elected our first black president - President Barack Obama.  As a city, we have elected our first female mayor -  Mayor Toni Harp.  As a district, we have provided more opportunity for students to achieve success and reach their fullest potential.  The NHPS graduation rate has increased 17 percentage points in the last 5 years, which translates to approximately 200 additional students graduating from our schools every year.  You have all worked extremely hard to make these significant gains a reality for our country and our students.  But our dreams of success for our country and our district are still bigger.  We want to be sure that our young people can reach their full potential, that our judicial and educational and other systems respect and support the success of all young men and women, so that each student has real opportunities for success in and out of the classroom.  We want high school graduation to reach the one in four students who don’t make it now, and for more of our students to leave NHPS on a path for success in college, career, and life.
As we do this work, Dr. King’s words in his speeches and writing are a call to action – a call to action even when it is uncomfortable and disruptive; a call to action that inspires creative tension and leads to growth.  The work that is behind us and the work that is ahead of us as we address School Change is full of this kind of creative tension.  There is creative tension as we balance the power of play and the importance of reading by the end of first grade; as we support the on-going development of school principals and assistant principals, and simultaneously grow the influence of teacher leaders; as we develop a restorative justice program that seeks both to protect the community and engage students who misbehave; and yes, as we consider expanded work with Achievement First to innovate on the model of school and simultaneously address the flow of students between schools and their underlying needs.  To succeed, we cannot run away from creative tension – we must embrace it in its complexity, make ourselves vulnerable, peel back its layers, and continue to march forward as we find ways to make this tension productive for students.  We must clearly demonstrate a collective will and action that speaks to the urgency of action. 
Just as Dr. King lived, we too must we be fierce advocates and risk takers – what Dr. King called extremists – for peace, justice, love, and particularly the love of children.  “Kids First” has been and remains a mantra of primacy for the support of children.  It is a commitment to the central ideal that we will always put our children’s interests first; that we will not let adult interests and concerns get in the way of what is right for our students.  To do this, we must continue to reach across conventional boundaries and distinctions - whether educator or community, management or administrator or teacher or staff, district or charter - to engage the mutuality of our passion for children.  We must celebrate our successes and continue to act in a way that guarantees success for all our students.
As you reflect today and over the coming weeks, I ask that you consult two documents.  The first is Dr. King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail (available at this link  I know of no more powerful framing of the need for action in pursuit of our moral cause, whether in civil rights or in education.  The second is the discussion document on School Change priorities that I shared with the board.  It builds from the work we have done so far and seeks to extend our success with a wide range of initiatives aligned to our vision and priorities – and it embraces creative tensions and challenges in pursuit of success for every child.
It is an honor to do this work with each of you as we keep on pushing forward.  Through our work in education, we honor Dr. King’s legacy and pursue the brighter future that he envisioned - a future of justice and equality in which the lives of all people, and especially children, testify to the fullness of their individual gifts.