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District Dialogue

Superintendent leads urban renewal in New Haven

Superintendent Garth Harries continues transformation in Connecticut
Learning to use the mind: New Haven Superintendent Garth Harries enjoys inspiring students, interacting with them, and giving them knowledge outside the classroom.
Learning to use the mind: New Haven Superintendent Garth Harries enjoys inspiring students, interacting with them, and giving them knowledge outside the classroom.

Within a few months of becoming superintendent of New Haven Public Schools a couple of years ago, Garth Harries had already attended too many teenagers’ funerals.

After Harries left these grim ceremonies—and in other occasions when students were shot but survived—his office went back over the victims’ academic records for signs of trouble.

“There were warning signs—chronic absenteeism in early grades, kids moving between different schools and moving out of district and back in, and transcripts just got progressively worse,” he recalls. “They were starting to fall off a cliff.”

In April 2014, shortly after two teenagers were fatally shot, Harries, Mayor Toni Harp and other civic organizations banded together to figure out how to improve the prospects for at-risk youth.

Harp and Harries started a YouthStat program to look for warning signs in attendance, grades, discipline and other data—to catch students before they turn to violence or criminal activity.

About 400 students from middle and high school are overseen under YouthStat. Teachers, police, security officers, after-school program providers and urban outreach workers meet to discuss each student’s challenges and to make a plan for improvement.

YouthStat connected one student—who was struggling in an alternative school—with a mentor who had served in the Afghanistan War after 9/11.

The mentor helped the student learn to deal with crises and convinced him to stay in school. The student graduated last year and is now an apprentice in a trade program.

“More importantly, he’s not on the street and not engaged in violence,” Harries says.

Who is Harries?

Harries is entering his third year leading the city’s schools. He works in an office five stories above the city, not far from New Haven Harbor on Long Island Sound, and near the busy I-95 corridor.

The walls of the board of education room, which adjoins his office, are peppered with students’ colorful drawings and paintings as well as lists of action plans: school visits, surveys for feedback and team building.

Harries comes from more a business background than education. A 1995 Yale University graduate, he admits he felt his way around jobs for a few years.

He taught in a private school, worked in homeless services, and managed special projects for the Philadelphia Empowerment Zone. He also worked as an engagement manager at McKinsey and Company, a Fortune 500 company.

He also went to Stanford Law School in California, and worked for the East Palo Alto Law Clinic, a nonprofit that offers traditional legal services to low-income families.

New Haven Public Schools

  • Superintendent Garth Harries
  • Students: 21,500
  • Schools: 47
  • Teachers: 1,800
  • Demographics: 42% black, 41% Hispanic, 14% white, 2% Asian, 1% other
  • 2016-17 budget: $431 million

Then he discovered his true love—public education. He had some connections in the New York City mayor’s office. In 2000, he was offered the job of project manager for then-New York City Chancellor Joel Klein’s Children First Reform movement.

Taking the job was “one of the best decisions of my life.”

“Along the way, I found this passion and calling for work in public education—to try to bring a set of skills and energy for system change and strategic change to provide high quality education in urban environments,” Harries says. “If you want to help others and support the world there is nothing more powerful than education.”

Realize systemwide potential

In New York, he spearheaded the New School Initiative, creating 500 small high schools and charter schools. The charters and schools he helped create were effective, according to various research studies. More students were going into college, he adds. He later became New York’s senior coordinator for special education.

When longtime New Haven Superintendent Reginald Mayo and former Mayor Joe DeStefano Jr. launched the “School Change 1.0” initiative in 2009, Harries took the chance to work on a deeper level in a smaller urban district.

He started as assistant superintendent for portfolio and performance management. “I learned it was possible to change the world and I could do it,” he says.

Reform was, in part, about closing the achievement gap, halving the dropout rate and preparing students for college and careers. At the same time, Harries’ wife had started a community-supported agriculture farm about an hour away in Connecticut, which made moving easy. “She grows fruits, vegetables and animals,” he says. “I try to grow people.”

He also knew that he could connect more personally with students in the smaller New Haven district.

“In New Haven, you’re a lot closer to the impact of the work you are doing, and able to put together more pieces of the work,” he says. “We have examples of school success, but not a whole system. New Haven has the potential to be that.”

The reform program received a major boost from a teacher’s union contract that makes it easier for the district to fire poor educators. It also allows the city to replace underperforming schools and their employees with charter schools and charter employees, Harries says.

The initiative also includes social and emotional programs to help children improve their soft skills.

Creating space for success

Harries has kept reform alive with his own School Change 2.0 initiative, which grew out of School Change 1.0. New Haven employs teacher coaches who guide their peers in personalizing instruction and integrating other innovations. And Harries has tried to implement play-based learning in early grades and expand social-emotional learning.

The district has also partnered with Achievement First, a nonprofit network of high-performing, college-preparatory charter schools in Connecticut, New York and Rhode Island. Harries has turned seven of New Haven’s 47 schools into charters, impacting less than 10 percent of the student population.

“I think the expansion of charters has forced different behaviors among districts,” Harries says, meaning districts see potential in the flexibility.

Under a decade of reform, the high school graduation rate has increased by 17 percentage points. And more New Haven graduates stay in college for their sophomore year.

Brennan-Rogers Magnet School, for example, was a success when some work rules were readjusted so the staff could spend more time with students and with each other to plan higher-quality lessons.

He also brought to the district Enterprise Learning Education, funded under a federal SIG grant.

Inspired by the adventurous spirit of the Outward Bound program of wilderness expeditions, it teaches students about perseverance, grit, imagination, being curious about the world, protecting the earth and its resources, and having empathy for others.

When the district first implemented School Change, many of the best teachers decided to leave. “At first I thought it was a disaster. But in the end, they were not willing to operate in a team. And that is what it takes­—to work together more effectively,” Harries says.

Dive deeper into history

While Harries has achieved much in his three years, he still has more to do to ensure students gain deeper understanding of the subjects they study.

Unlike the typical U.S. education system, Harries thinks focusing for several weeks on one pivotal subject—such as the Civil War—would be a more effective way to teach U.S. history, for example.

Although the school day is packed with testing and other requirements, students could be more engaged in deep thinking about the whos and whys and hows of any war.

“We have such a narrow perspective about what deep learning is,” he says. “Let those kids have a deep course about the Civil War and I will still have them sit down at the end-of-year. U.S. history exam and I think they’ll do OK because they learned the skills of inquiry—the skills of documented analysis.” DA

Angela Pascopella is managing editor.