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New Haven School Parents To Help Select New Principals

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PARENTS PICK PRINCIPALS
Edgewood Magnet School parents Cyra Levenson and Mark Oppenheimer. | Melissa Bailey/New Haven Independent

This piece comes to us courtesy of New Haven Independent.

In what may become a universal practice, parents from Edgewood Magnet School will have a seat at the interview table as the school district looks for a replacement for a longtime principal.

Cyra Levenson is one of three parents chosen to interview potential replacements at the popular K-8 magnet school, where Bonnie Pachesa is retiring after 10 years as principal.

Pachesa is one of two star principals leaving the district this year; Gina Wells, in her 16th year as principal of John C. Daniels School, also plans to retire. The district will have at least four vacancies for principals next fall, including at East Rock Community Magnet School and Hill Regional Career High School. Mayo said there may be one or two more; he didn't offer names.

At all of those schools—and any future school looking for a new leader—parents will have the chance to interview new candidates for the job, Superintendent of Schools Reginald Mayo promised Monday night.

The teachers contract for years has stipulated that teachers and parents on the School Planning Management Team (SPMT) must get a chance to meet new principals before they're hired, according to teachers union President Dave Cicarella. However, some schools don't have a functional SPMT, so the district is "all over the map" when it comes to parents' and teachers' involvement in the process.

Over the years, the role of parents in picking principals has varied, Mayo acknowledged.

Did they participate in interviews?

"Sometimes yes, sometimes no," he replied.

Now parents' role is spelled out on a new document outlining a more rigorous process of selecting school leaders along a more aggressive timeline.

Click here to read the document outlining the selection process.

Parents at the half-dozen schools in transition are anxiously awaiting word about their potential new school leaders.

Britt Anderson, who's on a campaign to revive neighborhood interest in the East Rock Global Magnet School, said she has joined a panel of parents and teachers who plan to interview replacements for outgoing Principal Michael Conte.

She called the opportunity "invaluable."

The change of leadership comes at a key moment, when the school is moving back from a swing space to a new building on Nash Street. Anderson has been rallying East Rock parents to enroll in the school instead of focusing on the much more popular Worthington Hooker School; she's now conducting a parent survey that she hopes will inform how the school's new pre-K program takes shape.

"From my perspective, it's important for the new principal to understand that there's going to be increased participation of parents and community members in the school that hasn't been there in previous years," she said.

Others were more skeptical of how heavily the district would weigh parental input.

Anna Festa was among the parents at the Hooker School who met with school officials about picking a replacement for outgoing Principal Bob Rifenburg in 2010. She said parents were promised a role in picking a new leader, but in the end they only met one candidate.

"By the time parents met with the principal," she said, "it was like a done deal"

Parents at Edgewood hope to take a greater role.

Levenson said parents have drafted a half-dozen questions they plan to ask candidates. She called Edgewood a special place where "parents have helped shape what the school is." Parents run an annual school play, work in the school garden, and coordinate after-school programs.

"This is a group of parents who have dedicated a lot of time and resources to the school."

Levenson said parents feel a lot is at stake because they've seen how much progress the school has made. At a low point in the 1990s, parents left the school in droves.

Parents, Pachesa and other staff banded together as the school became a magnet and a "Higher Order Thinking" school. That meant teachers got free professional development in how to integrate the arts into the classroom.

Today families scramble to get their kids into Edgewood's kindergarten class; kids stay there for years and enjoy a strong sense of community.

"Parents helped lead the revival," Levenson said, and they want to ensure they can work with a new principal to continue on that path.

Levenson, a New Haven Public Schools grad who now works at Yale's Center for British Art, helped deepen the school's arts emphasis as Edgewood became a top-ranked Tier I school under the city's reform drive two years ago. The school expanded its visual literacy program, which is run by the art center (at no cost to the school). The program teaches kids how to draw meaning from visual images and put it into words. She said she wants to make sure the new head of Edgewood values that type of literacy.

"Will they support what we have in place?" she asked.

Levenson hopes to ask that question, and several more, as part of the interview panel. She said she was told that a panel of three parents, three teachers and Pachesa would get the chance to interview three final candidates. She said the panel was set up in response to a request from parents; the district did not first approach parents with the offer.

Mark Oppenheimer, who has one kid in the school and another two on the way, called the parental input crucial.

"It's a check against the principal just being a political appointment," he said. "We want it to be the right educator," not a "political favor."

Administrators union President Peggy Moore said the district has a tradition of letting parents meet principal candidates, and the union has no problem with that.

Superintendent Mayo said in cases where he has let parents screen multiple candidates for principal jobs, he and parents have been able to come to a consensus.

When parents help screen the candidates, he said, "usually the stronger candidate comes to the top."

FINAL DECISION MAYO'S

According to the new plan, parents will "review top candidates" for principals at their schools between May 7 and May 11.

Mayo Monday added a caveat: Parents may not always be able to screen multiple candidates.

In some cases, such as when Edgewood needed a new principal 10 years ago, he settles one one obvious choice. (It was Bonnie Pachesa, a "no-brainer" for the job.) In those cases, parents would get to meet with the final pick before the person is hired, Mayo said.

In other cases, three strong candidates might make a good fit for the school, Mayo said. In those cases, parents can participate in screening the candidates, as they have at times over the years, he said.

Parental input is advisory, he noted: "The superintendent does make the final decision."

In all cases, the principal will be introduced to the school-based parent group before getting the job, he said.

Parental input comes as the second-to-last step in the newly drafted selection process, behind approval by the school board.

Interviews begin this week for new candidates. Staff have already screened candidates through online applications, which included a 1,000-word "vision statement" on school leadership.

Those who emerged from that initial screening will be interviewed over the next two weeks. District staff conduct the first round of interviews, grade the candidates based on the interview, and conducts reference checks. Those who don't make the cut get feedback on why.

From May 3 to 30, the superintendent interviews final candidates, checks references, and decides who fits in which school, according to the timeline.

After seeking parent input, the district aims to place almost all new administrators by May 31 so they can get a jump start on their new jobs. Internal candidates will be freed up from their current duties to begin planning for their new jobs in June, while school is still in session. They'll undergo a summer bootcamp and, ideally, be ready to start work in the fall.

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