Debating Education: New Haven

Last evening I attended the New Haven mayoral candidates debate on education. The event took place at Varick Memorial Zion Church on Dixwell street. Melissa Bailey of the New Haven Independent has noted that this location was no accident: “…Varick has become a cause célèbre for the charter movement, as Pastor Eldren D. Morrison (pictured) moves forward with a proposal to launch a charter school serving Dixwell and Newhallville. Gov. Daniel P. Malloy has scheduled two personal visits to the church this year to support the charter effort,” she writes.

I no longer live in New Haven, and thus cannot cast a vote for any of these candidates. However, I taught for over three years in New Haven schools, and remain interested in the problems facing students and teachers in New Haven and other cities where race and class-based disparities are vast and visible.

I also went because I want to support Gary Holder-Winfield’s campaign (especially since my former student Larry Stovall worked for him in 2008), and because I wanted to hear first-hand what Kermit Carolina, my former colleague at Hillhouse high school, had to say about his school and his goals as a candidate.

The event began with a “meet-and-greet” in the basement of the church. The walls were lined with paintings and photographs of previous church members, many of them women: Lula Jones, Sister Gertrude E. Hood, Mrs. Daisy Rudd — to name a few. Attendees helped themselves to pizza, chicken wings, and salad. I sat at a table with a third grader who said he had had field day at school and had subsequently fallen asleep in class.

The education reform organization CONNCAN had set up a table with pens and index cards for people to submit questions for the debate.

Former Hillhouse High School Librarian, Mr. Gibson, submits a question for the debate.

People were still coming in at 6:30, when the debate was set to begin. It took close to fifteen minutes after this to make sure all of the microphones were working. At last, the debate began with a moderator from Fox CT news. The pastor hosting the event described her as a “beautiful and talented” Princeton graduate.

Candidates gave opening statements, beginning with Kermit Carolina, who claimed that he was the only candidate to have children in New Haven schools, and to have gone through the system himself. The former was later proven false when two other candidates (Fernandez and Keitazulu) shared that they too had children in the schools.


I would like to focus on a few aspects of the debate, but a full transcription can be found in Bailey’s live blog from the evening. A few things of note for me were the candidates’ support for school choice, the widespread praise for Achievement First, and the discussion of how many New Haven workers in fact live outside of the city limits (this point, it seems, was meant to both guilt those who lived outside, and also to emphasize that New Haven schools were not adequately preparing their students for the competition of the workforce).

On the issue of school choice, all candidates were nearly forced, it seemed, to say “yes.” One of them, however, Matthew Nemerson, said that he was in favor of neighborhood schools. Justin Elicker of the Board of Aldermen called for even more schools to be created, and thus an increase in school choice. Holder-Winfield said that he was thankful that his mother found a way around the school system where he grew up (in a housing project in the Bronx) so that he did not have to attend his neighborhood school.

The question that remains, for all of these candidates to address, is what happens to the students whose parents do not make a choice, students with parents who are not engaged in the lives of their children’s schools. What about students who are on the waiting lists? School choice, in my view, is a way out for politicians, a way of saying that a city does not need to ensure that every school is a fine choice. That said, Elicker’s motto is that there should be “no wrong door.” Are more and more charter schools really the only way to achieve this?

Carolina’s school, Hillhouse, represents the antithesis of school choice. As he rightly points out, the majority of students labeled as “transfers” (the children other schools have abandoned and pushed out), are sent to Hillhouse. I used to sign them in to my classroom. I still remember a particular boy with a spectacular smile and a [tracking] bracelet around his ankle. I had another student who left for jail, something that I found out only after trying to visit his house, not far from the school.

Carolina became principal at the school after I left, and a recent survey shows that satisfaction amongst the teachers has only worsened. I have not been back to visit recently, but I can say that despite the allegations against this principal, it is worth considering how the city as a whole allows Hillhouse to remain a sort of “dumping ground” for the students with the most challenges.

The schools of the charter system Achievement First received nothing but praise when mentioned throughout the debate. Because our politicians and school leaders are primarily concerned with data, these schools are deemed a success. Sometimes the only criticism of these schools is that we need more of them. However, I would ask that those in support of such schools attempt to look beyond the test scores and consider the intellectual climate within these classrooms. In these schools there is an abundance of teachers from Teach for America (meaning that they lack training and likely intend to stay for two years only), and there is a great deal of turnaround due to the demands of the job. This turnaround is also due to an evaluation system that treats all teachers equally despite the fact that some subjects are more difficult to teach and to remediate quickly. I was asked to teach English at the high school after another teacher left mid-way through the year. After having been told, having observed, and having seen numerous promotional videos about a school system that had gotten behavior problems down and accountability up, I actually found more of the same challenges I had while teaching at Hillhouse. I also found that the close-reading skills I had to teach, especially the skill of critically interpreting literature, were new to the students and in many ways ran against the rigid system of instruction used throughout the school.

The New York Times recently published a long-needed report on how reform efforts have focused too much on the types of improvement that math teachers can easily make, while teachers of English have a much harder time. In last night’s discussion, and as is often the case, the discussion of the quality of education was largely missing. The closest we came to a discussion of what to do about reading levels was Holder-Winfield’s statement that the foundations of reading must be a top priority for teachers in training and for schools in general. This is still to focus on skills, however, and what it means to think critically, to enjoy learning, to read closely, still seems a discussion that will not come for a long time. Pastor Eldren D. Morrison, who introduced the event, made this even clearer when he said that the reason school was important was because it provided an alternative to gun violence: He shared an anecdote of speaking at the Hillhouse graduation and at the same time receiving a text message about a nearby shooting. He claimed that education was the top civil rights issue and that it was “life or death.”

This is certainly not enough, though. If schools are only an escape from crisis, they become nothing more than drop-in-shelters. The content of the students’ education becomes a non-issue, and the mere presence of the students is lauded. This is no recipe for intellect and subjectivity. “Education” remains an abstraction in conversations like the ones I witnessed last night. What kind of education are we discussing, and for whom? Why did I hear, twice during the debate, that not all New Haven kids will go to college? Why can’t we raise our standards rather than starting off with a focus on what we think kids can’t do?

The last question of the evening was one I submitted before the event. It read, “Often, schools in low-income neighborhoods are pushed to their very limits. What will you do to facilitate increased parental involvement so that parents and teachers can work in concert?” Carolina was the first to answer, and he referred to a Chicagoconsortium study that named parent-teacher collaboration as one of five central factors of a school’s success. He then asked that the question be repeated so that he could lay blame on teachers who don’t live in New Haven. The Q bridge and those who cross it daily, he suggested, were the real problems. My response to this is admittedly selfish in part: I enjoy living in the small seacoast town I’ve moved to since I left New Haven in 2008. I find it hard to think that where a teacher resides is the main problem, however. New Haven is a big city, so that a teacher who lives in the city limits could live far from her school. I think back to my lonely nights during teacher-parent conferences in New Haven, to the teachers who said that having 8 parents show wasn’t too bad after all. I had over 100 students at the time. I was in my classroom ready to talk to parents. I had called many of them and personally invited them to come in. I had a log that I kept for parent calls. This would have been the case whether I lived in New Haven (which I did at that time), or not. In short, Carolina did not answer my question. He did not take the opportunity to use his own school as a case in point, because that simply would not have worked.

Carolina’s dig at commuters makes sense, however, in a context that allows personal experience to reign over intentional action and policy decisions. In order to avoid the scrutiny he might otherwise face over grade changing and poor results on a school climate survey, the principal focused on those undeniable and easy facts: I’m from New Haven; I went to school here; I’m staying here. None of these help voters, teachers, students, or residents determine what he can or will do for them. Carolina is not the only person guilty of this. Other candidates rely upon their own experiences a great deal, too. However, others are more willing to discuss what they have already done, as a way to suggest that they will continue to do work that aims to raise the quality of life for New Haven residents. Henry Fernandez talked about founding youth agency LEAP. Elicker discussed his focus on early childhood education. Holder-Winfield referred to his rather unique effort to raise awareness about PTSD in impoverished and violent neighborhoods, referring again and again to the issues that students bring to school, which need to be addressed before anything else can happen for them. (This was in response to Elicker’s call for “character education”; Holder-Winfield discussed this work recently with a group of Yale students.)

A final problem that ought to be discussed in the context of any issue, especially education, did not come up last night: the status of women and girls in New Haven. (See links below about the clear ties between a mother’s education level and that of her children, and about the disparities in Connecticut with regard to teen pregnancy.) Henry Fernandez has made this issue a central part of his campaign, and I wonder if any others will do the same.

If the quality of education throughout this country is “the civil rights issue” of our time, as some have claimed, and if the state of New Haven’s schools is as dire as we see and say it is, we might have to ask why the aisles of Varick church were not packed last night, where the superintendent was, where the teachers were, when the voices of the students will be heard. If I had to choose two lines that got the biggest response from the crowd, they would be the following: First was Henry Fernandez’s statement that the schools were not a place where you take care of your friends. Secondly, people applauded when Keitazulu referred to children he saw riding bikes in the middle of the day. He said, (as Bailey transcribes): ‘“Where is your parents? Where is the truancy officer? Where is somebody?”’ These simple statements seemed to move the audience a good deal. Perhaps this response is a reminder that before we can talk about changing what is happening in the schools, there is much to do about the culture of the city as a whole. Perhaps then we can have the necessary discussion about the teaching of reading and writing and a movement toward an education that fosters creativity, exploration and critical thinking rather than perfunctory skills that might allow someone to pursue an alternative to crime and violence.

Stacie N. Vos


Notes and Links

Status of Women and Girls 2012

Women for Fernandez

Holder-Winfield with Yale Students

Debate Transcription

Teen pregnancy in New Haven is double the statewide rate and 1.8 times the national rate, according to a recent report.

Yale Medicine Field Action Report


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