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Not kidding around

Jin Ai Yap/YH Staff

Jin Ai Yap/YH Staff

After several hours at the Board of Education meeting on Mon., Feb. 10, President Carlos Antonio Torre emerged from a back room and stood among the city’s most high-profile educational leaders. In a serious tone, he called for a motion to extend New Haven Public School Superintendent Garth Harries’s, PC ’95, contract by three years. When several other board members seconded the motion, the crowd of parents, children, and administrators that remained scattered around the library of Hill Regional Career High School whooped and clapped. The man they had both doubted and welcomed was here to say.

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Harries came to New Haven as an assistant superintendent in 2009 to be the architect of the city’s new School Change Initiative. The reform program focused on closing the achievement gap, improving graduation rates, and ensuring that students were academically and financially prepared for college. At the time, people hoped it would catapult New Haven Public Schools (NHPS) to the top of the nation’s list of urban school districts.

Five years later, change has been slow but visible. The new teacher evaluation system, which took into account teachers’ classroom performance and students’ improvement, has helped New Haven get millions in national funding. Though the city’s students still drastically underperform on statewide exams, the scores have gradually crept up since 2009. Meanwhile, the four-year graduation rate surpassed 70 percent in 2013, marking a more than ten percent increase. And the Yale-funded New Haven Promise scholarship program has made higher education a tangible possibility for high the city’s highest-achieving students. Yet, as a whole, the district is still struggling—less than half of its high school graduates make it to the second year of college, and its multi-million-dollar deficit may hinder further progress.

It’s only been five years, too soon to discern the potential for the initiative.  Despite Harries’s strong guiding hand in bringing the project to fruition, some individuals hesitate to give him too much credit. In the earliest days of his term as superintendent, many have yet to form a clear opinion on the Yale graduate. Nevertheless, the uncertain future of this school district is now inextricably tied to him.

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“New Haven’s a kind of community you can get your arms around,” Harries said while we chatted at a table, awaiting the Board of Education’s contract decision. Minutes before, he had sat at the same table, with Mayor Toni Harp on his right and Torre on his left. But now, he was the only suited figure left at the front of the room. As he leaned back in his chair, Harries told me how he briefly dabbled in volunteering in the public school system while he was a Yale undergraduate, though it was not his focus. After graduating from Stanford Law School in 2000, he worked for the managerial consulting firm McKinsey & Company.

He eventually abandoned the private sector and moved to the New York City school administration, where he quickly rose, becoming Chief of Portfolio Development and the Senior Coordinator for Special Education. “Some people would have considered it a step backwards to come to a small city as a number two,” Harries said, in reference to leaving his post in New York for the New Haven Assistant Superintendent position. But the Elm City offered much that New York did not—the chance to work directly with students, rather than overseeing the overwhelming million-plus students enrolled in New York City’s public school system. “New Haven was an opportunity to do the work at a deeper and more sustainable level,” Harries said.

When Harries arrived, he worked under the wing of then-superintendent Dr. Reggie Mayo, who had held the office for 17 years. Mayo still had a few more years left until retirement; his 21-year tenure is a rare occurrence in urban districts, according to Director of Education Studies Elizabeth Carroll. Until then, the two educational leaders worked together closely, despite being incredibly different people, according to Harries. In retrospect, the reviews of Mayo are mixed—some New Haven residents I spoke with remembered him as an effective leader, while others question whether he overstayed his welcome. At the very least, decades in the public school system allowed him a long-established community presence.

Despite his time at Yale, Harries was distinctly an outsider when he returned to the Elm City, without any visible ties to the New Haven Public School system. He had attended elite private schools, and he had more experience advising Fortune 500 companies than teaching kids; he worked at at the Vail Mountain School in Colorado for a year, and then as an adjunct professor at the Yale School of Management. By the time he became one of three candidates in the superintendent pool, people were asking questions about where he had come from, and how, or if, it had prepared him to run a blighted public school district.

But despite his limited experience, in some eyes Harries still had the upper hand—he had launched an initiative that, in theory, was going to revolutionize New Haven schools. Furthermore, after a few years as the assistant, he had done his fair share to become a more familiar face: “He did build a rapport with the parents that normally attend PTO meetings and citywide meetings,” said Garrett Munroe, a parent leader for the advocacy group Teach Our Children. “Most of the local parents were asking for him.”

Part of what has helped Harries make a name for himself in New Haven is his ability to both charm and reassure the people who come to him. When I approached him at the Feb. 10 board meeting, he asked if I could wait two minutes: “There’s a parent I haven’t met,” he said, before striding over to a woman in the front of the room and sitting down next to her. In the early months of his term, these conversations seemed to have done the most to make people trust him. He started a Listening Tour so that he can hear from people at different schools each Wednesday, and he holds question-and-answer sessions at the citywide parent-teacher organization meetings. Once Claudia Merson, Yale’s director of public school partnerships, met Harries, her initial reservations about his brief teaching career “melted away, because he really seemed to have an incredibly good grasp on what mattered to every different constituency,” she said.

Some people are not so convinced, and some still worry that Harries is the wrong man for the job. The Board of Education administered a last-minute evaluation form last week, giving parents and faculty less than a day to fill it out. The 128 respondents gave mixed reviews. “Garth Harries is a breath of fresh air. He is highly visible. He listens to parents.  He brings a systems approach to administering, rather than dealing with one fire after another,” one of the more positive responses reads. Meanwhile, a contradictory opinion lambasts him for the aggressive practices of the School Change Initiative: “We seem to be moving closer and closer to merit pay, privatization, and charter schools. Closing our schools isn’t the answer. Corporate take over isn’t the answer. Yes, Harries has brought money to the district; however, he isn’t using that money appropriately.”

With such varied responses online, it seemed strange to me that every person who came to the podium on Monday’s meeting wholeheartedly supported Harries’s reappointment. Each mentioned a time when they had spoken face-to-face, as it was in those moments that they had come to believe in what they saw as his passion for his work. While some critics might call Harries’s conversation with the mother in the front row a political move from a man who has learned how to play his cards, many of the people who interact with him often have grown to trust him. Munroe, the TOC parent, mentioned that the same parents usually show up to meetings, and it is these individuals who Harries has swept up in his vision of a revitalized school system. For the thousands of others not in attendance, however, these short first seven months of Harries’s tenure are not enough to make a coherent judgment of him. They will decide how effective he is once they see whether he brings the change he has promised.

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Looking through the board’s evaluation, it is clear why the members chose to renew Harries’s contract. They praise Harries for improving teacher and administrator evaluation systems, turning around problematic schools, and adopting the nearly national Common Core curriculum. They also commend him for facilitating communication with the constituency he represents, be it students in a newly-formed student cabinet, or school district employees, through the numerous labor contracts he has signed, including one with the New Haven Federation of Teachers. The criticism in his evaluation is tempered, but includes the fact that Harries has not adequately responded to all communities’ concerns, and the “equity challenges… in New Haven’s hybrid system of school choice and zoned neighborhood schools presents an ongoing priority.” But much of the criticism rings with a phrase understandable to those who are most familiar with New Haven: “There are no easy answers here.”

Underwriting the discussion surrounding Harries’s reappointment is a question of how money will be procured to fund his new ideas. Since taking office, Harries has reduced the school district’s budget deficit from 9.5 to 2.4 million dollars. As a self-proclaimed data geek, the new superintendent has a critical eye not only for School Change Initiative results, but also for lengthy financial reports. However, to expand programs, he will need millions more, and it’s unclear where the approximately 5.3 million dollars he wants will come from. At one point during the meeting, he turned to Harp and said with a smile, “Frankly, one option is from the city,” which led to audience laughter. But Harp maintained a hardline attitude about determining where to make cuts, and exploring other financial options.

Harries is responsible for guiding a district that has been in the limelight for many years. He may not be an experienced teacher, but, as Public School Partnership Director Merson said,“In Garthes, we have a guy who listens, who looks, who is smart.” His experience may be unorthodox, but he comes prepared with a distinct skillset that could make him an effective reformer. People are still hesitant because he is not a long-standing member of the community, but, at the very least, he hopes to become one. As we sat in the high school library, he said, “For me, tonight is not so much just about a three-year contract. It’s about the next three years of what I hope is a very long career creating that existing proof of a district that can succeed.”