Photo by Vivek Suri.
A. Pointing Fingers
“You’re about to get sued,” New Haven Board of Education member Darnell Goldson warned, swiveling his chair to the right and pointing at Ed Joyner, the Board’s President. Joyner stood, microphone in hand, as the crowd of community members packing the auditorium of Beecher School looked on. He turned towards Goldson and leaned forward, his gold tie swinging to and fro, until their faces were a foot apart. “You know what? We can go to Bowen Field,” Joyner bellowed, referring to a local high school’s football field, “and have a duel. Oh, you scared? You scared?” He looked back towards the crowd: “I move to adjourn the meeting.” With that, New Haven’s school system entered a new, uncertain era.
On that evening last November, the Board had convened to appoint the district’s next Superintendent. It was the culmination of a yearlong search process that, at times, threatened to split the city apart. Two candidates remained: Pamela Brown, Chief of Elementary Schools in Fontana, CA, and Carol Birks, the Hartford Public Schools Superintendent’s Chief of Staff. New Haven Mayor Toni Harp, who serves on the Board, supported Birks, as did her three appointees; the other three Board members backed Brown.
A week after the finalists were announced, sixty parents, teachers, and other residents signed a petition urging the Board not to hire Birks. A couple days later, before the meeting at Beecher School, organizers taped sheets of paper around the auditorium, listing a thousand names: an expanded petition against her. During the meeting, parents and students stood in solemn protest at the back of the auditorium, duct tape covering their mouths. At one point, when Goldson, a Birks supporter, began to defend his vote, the crowd broke into a chant: “Shame on you!” Despite the outcry, the vote went as expected: three votes for Brown, four for Birks. With the Board’s decision made, Birks started work this March.
What created such animus towards Birks? The answer, in part, has to do with charter schools. Unlike traditional public schools, which typically operate under the local Board of Education and follow state education laws, charter schools are operated by independent organizations that craft their own “charters,” or sets of standards; the charter must be renewed periodically by the local or state Board. While both traditional public schools and charter schools are publicly funded, charter schools can set their own curricula. Proponents argue that charter schools provide the flexibility to promote much-needed experimentation in the classroom. Skeptics view them as a threat to public school systems, contending that they encroach upon funding streams, weaken teachers’ unions, and elude accountability to local government. Some advocates of traditional public schools fear that charter schools’ end goal is to compete — rather than collaborate — with established school systems.
At a community forum in November, Birks expressed the most openness towards charter schools of the three final candidates. She argued for a collaborative approach, telling the audience, “We shouldn’t fight charter schools; we should learn from them.” A story in the New Haven Independent that highlighted the comment further damaged Birks’ reputation. She had already been scrutinized for her past employment at two for-profit education consulting firms and for serving on a charter school board in Hartford, according to Carlos Torre, who sat on the New Haven Board of Education for more than twenty-two of the past twenty-four years until his term ended this January, and voted against Birks. (Birks could not be reached for comment.)
As the Board’s discussion devolved into jeers and interruptions, Spell and Dawkins stood up from the table and left. They, like the student protesters in the back of the auditorium, had their mouths effectively taped shut.
More broadly, detractors feared that Birks wouldn’t relate well to New Haven’s students. She had only three years of teaching experience, and she stepped down after one year as principal of Harding High School in Bridgeport as the school struggled with poor test scores and high suspension rates, then took a job with Global Partnership Schools, the management firm hired to turn the school around. On that November night at Beecher School, Jacob Spell and Makayla Dawkins, the Board’s two non-voting student representatives, presented a list of eight hundred signatures, collected from students at Hillhouse, Career, and Co-Op high schools, all in opposition to Birks. As the Board’s discussion devolved into jeers and interruptions, Spell and Dawkins stood up from the table and left. They, like the student protesters in the back of the auditorium, had their mouths effectively taped shut. “It seemed so disempowering,” said Sarah Miller, a local education advocate whose two children attend New Haven public schools. “You bring in these candidates, you ask kids what they want, and then you ignore them.”
Now, New Haven’s schools are at a crossroads. What role will charter schools will play in the district, and what does their approach mean for students? Along with the sixty public schools run by the district, the city has seven charter schools that enroll 2,500 students — close to 10 percent of the district’s total student population. Three of New Haven’s most innovative schools — two charter schools, Achievement First Amistad High School and Common Ground High School, and one magnet school, Metropolitan Business Academy — are, in essence, playing tug-of-war with the district’s future. If one of the supposed benefits of charter schools is that they enable experimentation, this raises the question: What does educational innovation look like in practice? What are the benefits and pitfalls of granting schools individual autonomy? And is this same kind of innovation possible outside of charter schools? At the heart of these questions lie the district’s students: their future depends on the answers.
B. Climbing the Mountain
Every morning in high school, Arese Uwuoruya and Sebastian Quiñonez got up at 6 a.m. and put on their uniforms: a white or light blue button down, khakis, a tie for Quiñonez. They walked into a building whose exterior — white and light-blue tiles above khaki-colored stones — matched their outfits, topped by a frieze depicting Black luminaries: Marian Wright Edelman, Maya Angelou, Thurgood Marshall. They went to Advisory — similar to homeroom — at the start and end of each day.
At Advisory on Thursday afternoons, Uwuoruya and Quiñonez received “paychecks”: scorecards documenting their behavior for the week. Merits were awarded for positive contributions to class: an insightful comment, a demonstration of creative thinking. Demerits were doled out for distracting or disrespectful behavior. On the paycheck, points were added and subtracted from a base mark of one hundred. A well-behaved student might score close to two hundred, earning the privilege of attending school out of uniform that Friday. A disobedient student might receive a much lower score (say, –4) and would have to come to school in blue and khaki as usual.
Uwuoruya and Quiñonez attended Achievement First Amistad High School, a charter school located on Dixwell Avenue, before graduating in 2016 (now, they are both sophomores at Yale). Achievement First is a “charter management organization,” or CMO: an umbrella nonprofit, operating a network of thirty-four charter schools. It runs five of the seven charter schools in New Haven, enrolling a total of just over 2,000 students. Every five years, the state Board of Education reviews and reauthorizes these schools. At a typical Achievement First school, over 98 percent of students are Black or Latinx, and over three-quarters qualify for free or reduced lunch.
The organization’s name is a proxy for its philosophy. Achievement is the guiding tenet of each school, and data the prism through which accomplishment is assessed and interpreted. “Behind every data point is a student, a family, a teacher,” the organization’s website reads. At Achievement First schools, teachers meet weekly with “coaches,” typically their department’s dean, to review their lessons. These meetings revolve around metrics. “The data is what drives the decisions for kids,” said Fatimah Barker, Achievement First’s Chief External Officer, who has worked with the network as a teacher, principal, and administrator for over a decade. “Seventy to eighty percent of the coaching meeting is about data.” Teachers administer standardized weekly quizzes to students at all thirty-four schools through a system called the Student Work Protocol, and students complete one- or two-question “exit tickets” at the end of each class, providing the scores that fuel this achievement-based approach.
At Achievement First’s high schools, this rigor extends to the college application process. In all four grades, students take a college-prep course — setting long-term goals, learning to write a college essay, and preparing for interviews. Teachers guide students through the Common Application and help low-income students with the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). This support continues beyond each day’s final bell. When Uwuoruya attended Amistad, the school provided brownies and chicken wings at after-school study sessions. She still receives emails from a guidance counselor at Amistad, two years later, about fellowships and job opportunities. Every year, the college acceptance rate for graduating Amistad seniors is 100 percent.
Amistad’s academic approach — the emphasis on data in teacher evaluations, the curricular coordination across dozens of schools, the institutionalized support throughout the college process — is enabled by its status as a charter school. Since teachers at charter schools aren’t union members, Amistad can create its own evaluation system. And Amistad has the autonomy to establish its own curriculum, driven by data and devoted to preparing students for college.
Amistad’s charter school status provides other advantages that may artificially bolster the school’s stellar scores. Although students are admitted through a blind lottery, Amistad doesn’t accept transfer students after October 1 — so, for instance, when the district admitted 250 Puerto Rican students displaced by Hurricane Maria last fall, most of whom required additional language support, they all entered non-charter public schools, according to Jason Bartlett, Mayor Harp’s Liaison to the Board of Education.
The hallways at Amistad are lined with banners emblazoned with inspirational slogans: “We have the hardest working students in Connecticut” and “We need to climb the mountain to college.” That second banner, to Quiñonez, was symbolic of a lifelong journey. His family immigrated to the United States from Ecuador when he was five years old; to support his parents, he often works at their restaurant, New Haven Salad Shop.
Quiñonez felt he benefited from his time at Amistad. But to him, the merit system was oppressive; time and time again, he got demerits for dropping his pencil in class. “The merit system can easily be distorted or hybridized into a paternal disciplinary action,” he said. “Everybody hates the culture it creates. That’s why people are like, you’re going back to hell, you’re going back to jail.” Quiñonez said that although he was a straight-A student, he got two weeks of detention within the first month nearly every year at Amistad, forcing him to miss soccer practices and games. He was often pulled out of his classes for disciplinary proceedings.
The system permeated the school’s atmosphere. “It created this weird culture of silence where we wouldn’t say anything in class to avoid getting demerits at the end of the week, rather than speaking up and becoming one of the kids the teachers had their eye on,” Uwuoruya said. “It felt ridiculous the way some kids were policed.” In May 2016, during Uwuoruya and Quiñonez’s last semester, frustration with the system bubbled over as hundreds of Amistad students staged a schoolwide walkout to protest what they deemed a culture of racial insensitivity and a lack of faculty diversity.
Amistad responded by increasing recruitment of faculty of color and using internal surveys to ensure that faculty of color felt happy and supported. Asked whether the walkout led to changes in the merit system, administrators demurred. “The way we handle school culture, it’s not discipline on an island, it’s all the stuff that goes into making a school strong,” said Amanda Pinto, Achievement First’s Director of Communications. “That’s something that’s always evolving and changing.”
Like its curriculum, Amistad’s discipline system might only be possible to enact in a charter school. In the school year that followed the walkout, 25.5 percent of students at the three Amistad Academy schools received at least one in-school or out-of-school suspension, compared to 6.9 percent of students in New Haven’s traditional public schools. The merit system is shifting. Thirty-eight percent of the faculty at Achievement First’s five New Haven schools are Black, Latinx, or multi-racial, and suspension rates have declined more than 50 percent in the last two years. Still, without intervention by the district, it took student outcry to change this culture.
Many of Connecticut’s charter schools are standalone institutions. But Amistad, as one member of a larger, CMO-operated network, exerts a different kind of influence on New Haven’s public school system. Since the network’s first school was founded in 1999, Achievement First has expanded rapidly. To Mark Waxenberg, a former President of the Connecticut Educators’ Association, the state’s largest teacher’s union, who helped write Connectictut’s charter school law in 1996, this expansion of charter school networks poses a threat to traditional public schools. Charter management organizations are “trying to create a private system,” he alleged, “but have the public pay for it.”
At the heart of these questions lie the district’s students: their future depends on the answers.
In December 2014, six thousand people clad in neon shirts that read “For Every Child” flooded the New Haven Green. The rally, emceed by Ben Cruse, the principal of a Hartford Achievement First school, was organized by ConnCAN, a pro-charter lobbying organization. Speakers urged the state to help the forty thousand students “trapped” in its “failing schools.” The rally kicked off an ad campaign by Families for Excellent Schools (FES), a New York-based pro-charter lobbying organization that shut down in February. In one commercial, a series of students stare into the camera, praising their schools, before the screen cuts to black. “Forty thousand Connecticut students would answer very differently,” the narrator reads, “trapped in schools where they don’t learn to read, write, or do math at grade level.” The ad cuts to a shot of a girl holding her mother’s hand, staring nervously up at the camera behind a set of iron bars.
The rally and ensuing campaign stoked fears among traditional public school advocates that charter school networks like Achievement First, with the backing of groups like ConnCAN, sought to create an alternative school system that would drive public schools out of existence. Today, Achievement First administrators deny this intent. “In my ideal world, we would be hand-in-hand with traditional public schools,” said Barker, the Chief External Officer, noting Achievement First’s open source curriculum and its incubator program for aspiring public school administrators as two efforts to collaborate outside of the organization’s network. “There’s a ton of myths getting in the way of our partnership, thinking that we are here as a threat when we’re just here to serve communities that have been historically underserved.”
But to Waxenberg, charter school networks like Achievement First, with dozens of schools across the Northeast, have fundamentally deviated from the intent of the original Connecticut charter school law he helped write. “We wanted to create what we called ‘incubators of innovation,’” he said. “It was really to create a laboratory … within the public school structure to use to help reform public education across the state.” He feels that charter management organizations like Achievement First compete with traditional public schools in Connecticut, and have shared their ideas only after forceful prodding.
After Connecticut’s charter law was established in 1997, a dozen charter schools opened their doors across the state. One of those, Common Ground High School, still runs in New Haven today. Unlike Amistad, which is part of the Achievement First network, it’s an independent, standalone school. And while it, too, challenges established models of learning, it’s pushing students in a very different direction: outdoors, and into their community.
C. An Uncommon Curriculum
Akieli Zidbeck and Brian Chantre are designing a skyscraper. They envision a towering white structure with countless Chlorophytum comosa, or spider plants, hanging off, their long, thin leaves sticking out every which way. Passersby will be able to pluck a plant right off and take it with them. “Then,” Zidbeck explains, “the whole world will know the benefit of spider plants.”
Right now, all Zidbeck and Chantre have is a tiny C. comosum in a white Chobani cup, but it’s the germ of a much larger idea. The pair are students in a course at Common Ground High School called the Senior Social Justice Experience. Zidbeck, who wears silver, undulating snake earrings and a wide smile, became interested in architecture after she took a course in sustainable design. The spider plants address an issue that has affected her own life. “I grew up in a low-income community,” she explained. “A lot of kids had respiratory issues. These plants absorb particulates like xylene formaldehyde” — a toxin linked to upper respiratory tract infections. Zidbeck and Chantre have been spending hours in the school’s woodshop, finishing up a planter with three wooden bins for the C. comosa, to be placed in the hallway of one of Common Ground’s school buildings. The bins are tiered like a staircase, gesturing up towards something bigger.
Founded in 1997 by the New Haven Ecology Project as a place to promote environmental education, Common Ground and its two hundred students are bounded by a small farm at the base of the property and by enclosures for chickens and goats just up the hill. The school emphasizes community engagement through programs like Environmental Ventures, in which students develop entrepreneurial projects and pocket the profits, and Green Jobs Corps, which offers low-income students jobs at the school’s farm and other community organizations.
Common Ground’s courses are often unconventional. One former course, “Egg and Seed,” examined the beginnings of life cycles in both literature and science. As with Achievement First, the autonomy Common Ground has as a charter school allows for an outside-the-box curriculum. And its interdisciplinary focus on the outdoors is possible only because the school was founded by an environmental nonprofit with both a radical vision for education and twenty acres abutting a state park.
Maintaining this curricular creativity without compromising students’ test scores presented the school with a challenge. Back in 2007, just 30 percent of the school’s students earned proficient scores in English on CAPT, the state’s benchmark test at the time. The school responded by implementing a variety of metrics, such as Common Core standards, monthly checks on class performance, and an in-house reading, language, and math assessment called MAP. By 2014, 90 percent of students met CAPT proficiency levels.
But this shift in focus towards college achievement compromised the school’s founding principles of interdisciplinary coursework and outdoor programming. “It’s always been a tension for any school that’s small and independent,” said Liz Cox, Common Ground’s School Director. “You’re translating your transcript for a college, they see a class called ‘Egg and Seed’ and go, ‘What the heck is that?’ But we were losing a sense of our site-based classes, which were what this place really was about … We wanted to make sure kids felt connected to the place and to the city and saw themselves as leaders capable of change.” Administrators introduced a set of environmental leadership standards called POWER to form a new foundation for classes. Now, Common Ground students follow a carefully curated four-year progression. Ninth graders focus on the school’s site, tenth grade courses emphasize community engagement, and eleventh and twelfth graders follow a more individualized path. The Senior Social Justice Experience course is the culmination: students complete a project — like Zidbeck and Chantre’s planter — and compile a portfolio of their time at Common Ground.
“We wanted to create what we called ‘incubators of innovation.’”
Being a charter school facilitated Common Ground’s transformation, Cox said. “This year, to move this new curriculum out, to offer these kinds of choice-rich offerings, we completely changed our schedule, our school day, the bell schedule, everything, and we did that with all of our teachers over the course of three months,” Cox said. “I think in a traditional school system, that never would have happened.” At charters like Common Ground and Achievement First, this kind of experimentation can be enacted and implemented immediately.
Unlike Achievement First, Common Ground has a peaceful relationship with the local school district, according to Torre, the former Board of Education member. This is partly because, as an independent school, Common Ground is not seen as a threat to non-charters. But it’s also because it opens its resources to traditional public schools, hosting five thousand students for field trips every year. Still, Cox is skeptical that Common Ground’s approach to education could be replicated outside of a charter school setting. “All charters here are mission-driven,” she said. “Magnet schools, I look at them more as themed schools. Our mission is in our bones. It’s infiltrating everything that we do.” As Cox alludes to, the assumption has long held that for traditional public schools, experimentation is much more difficult. But one public school in New Haven has broken from conventional pedagogy, challenging the notion that a school without a charter is a school without a mission.
D. Working From Within
Leslie Blatteau’s senior seminar was abuzz one morning this April. Students sat clustered around six rectangular tables, chatting as they waited for the lesson to begin. Blatteau strode to the front of the room, all business in a white polka-dot button-down and black high-top sneakers. “Welcome. We’re going to get started.”
Two students in the front row sat on their phones, texting. “Folks, I need your focus this morning,” she said, addressing the room at large. At another point, two students in the back chatted away. “Zach and Victoria, one mic, please,” she said firmly. After running through a rubric on introductory paragraphs, she passed a sticky note to each student. “Tell me what you need,” she said, “and tell me what you’re straight with.” Then, the students fanned out to the Dell computers lining the periphery of the room and sprang into action. Each was working on a six- to eight-page research paper on an international human rights issue.
Blatteau teaches a senior seminar on law and political science at Metropolitan Business Academy (MBA), a magnet school located just south of Wooster Square. While traditional public schools in New Haven only admit students from the immediate city, magnet schools also admit students from surrounding suburban districts via lottery. With twenty such schools, New Haven has the largest magnet system in the state. But unlike charter schools, magnet schools are governed by state education standards and held accountable to New Haven’s Board of Education, meaning that they face the same curricular restraints as traditional public schools.
MBA, though, is different. Classes here, in contrast to the vast majority of New Haven’s schools, are not sorted by academic ability. Judy Puglisi, the school’s principal, said she views the practice of tracking based on perceived ability level as the product of bias. “Often, children who are viewed to have negative character traits don’t get tracked appropriately due to adult biases,” she wrote in an email. “If a kid has to babysit and doesn’t have time for homework after school, this child may be assigned to a lower track. The positive aspects of a non-tracked room include bringing diversity of thought into the room, challenging stereotypes and biases, and improving instructional pedagogy.” One student in Blatteau’s course had transferred from New Horizons School, a transition school for at-risk students, at the start of that year, and was writing his first-ever research paper for the course. He had chosen to research child exploitation at United States-operated factories in Sierra Leone.
When New Haven’s twenty-five thousand students sit down at their desks, the education they get in each of the city’s sixty-seven schools is a product of both policies and priorities.
At MBA, students receive traditional grades, but most of the emphasis is on process; teachers provide extensive feedback emphasizing revision and long-term improvement. The research paper Blatteau’s students are working on will culminate in a social justice symposium in May, where they will present their findings to an audience of parents and community members. “Even if the outcome isn’t an exemplary paper, the student’s identity changes as a result of going through this process of researching and writing,” Blatteau said. “The student has internalized what it takes to write a research paper; they see themselves as a social scientist.”
Eighty-five percent of MBA’s students are of color and its faculty is almost all white, making the racial dynamics of the classroom a focus for teachers. “Teenagers naturally question authority figures because their sense of justice and their sense of right and wrong is on overdrive,” Blatteau said. “We try as majority-white teachers in this school to not see outspoken black and brown teenagers as a threat to us, but as people who are trying to make the world a better place.”
MBA is a “trauma-informed school,” providing intensive clinical support and counseling for students based on their individual needs. Puglisi, noting that students who exhibited behavioral issues were often dealing with outside stressors, started a weekly after-school drama club for students with high rates of absence. She then helped develop a course called “Alive,” taught by a history teacher and a trauma clinician, that engages with social justice issues, much like Common Ground’s senior seminar. Now, a team comprised of a social worker, six social work interns, and two trauma specialists hold weekly case management meetings and develop plans to help individual students.
MBA’s approach — project-based, non-tracked, trauma-informed — is the product of over a decade’s work. Blatteau and Puglisi met at Connecticut Scholars, a now-defunct New Haven school for ninth and tenth graders, in 2007, where they began to develop the approaches that now inform MBA’s core philosophy. “This common vision has been systematized and integrated into all aspects of the school community,” Puglisi wrote, including scheduling, allocating funding, supporting students, tracking academic progress, promoting student leadership, and hiring staff. There’s a reason few public schools look like this: it’s extremely difficult to do. But Blatteau and Puglisi’s work demonstrates that while innovation may be more difficult to implement at a school like MBA than at a charter school like Amistad or Common Ground, it’s abundantly possible.
E. Unanswered Questions
When New Haven’s twenty-five thousand students sit down at their desks, the education they get in each of the city’s sixty-seven schools is a product of both policies and priorities. The former component, policies, raises concrete questions (“close-ended,” a teacher might say). Would a charter school be able to keep up its test scores if it had to accept transfer students midyear? Doubtful. Could a traditional public school overhaul its curriculum at the drop of a hat? Probably not. Can a magnet school eliminate tracked courses and ignore standardized testing, throwing conventional pedagogy to the winds? Yes, but it’s hard to pull off.
The problem of priorities forces teachers and administrators to ask more abstract questions, about ideals and values. Given a school’s limited funding, will it invest in computers or art classes? When a student speaks out of turn in class, will the teacher scold or engage? Faced with a critique of her pedagogy, will a principal look to another school for advice or turn the other way? These questions define the kind of community a school creates and inform the way its students grow and learn to see the world.
This April, two students in Blatteau’s law and political science seminar at MBA, Damyia Jackson and Nyshiah Simon, described a project they had recently completed. Last fall, Blatteau’s students curated exhibits on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and installed a museum in the school. On December 10, Human Rights Day, the museum was opened to the public. Jackson and Simon are best friends, practically inseparable, and they kept jumping in over each other as they talked about the project. Jackson’s was on women’s rights, a topic she’d wanted to study since the start of the year. “We got to say how we felt,” she said, “using facts.” To Simon, that’s true of Blatteau’s class as a whole. “We get to speak our word,” she said.
Now that her tenure has begun, the way Carol Birks chooses to lead will have profound implications for the district. Will she be a tacit supporter of charter schools, or an outspoken advocate? Will she engage with traditional public schools, or will she retreat into boardrooms? These things matter, but one concern overshadows all others. In the search for New Haven’s Superintendent last fall, students felt disregarded and disempowered. But in the classroom, teachers and administrators have the opportunity to change that going forward — to create a place for students to speak their word. There are many means to this end, in charter, magnet, and traditional public schools alike. As New Haven’s schools turn to the future, with Birks at the helm, the fundamental question facing the district is whether its students will be silenced — or whether they’ll be able to speak.
— Mark Rosenberg is a sophomore in Pierson College. He is an editor-in-chief of The New Journal.