03/08/2012 03:06 pm ET Updated May 08, 2012

Parent-Teacher 'School Governance Council' Requirement Divides Connecticut, New Haven

This piece comes to us courtesy of New Haven Independent.

In a dispute that will determine whether New Haven must overhaul the way it engages parents, Superintendent Reggie Mayo said he was "shocked" to find out that the state has rejected the district's attempt to opt out of a new law requiring new parent-teacher school governance groups.

The conflict concerns how to conform to a new state law spearheaded by New Haven state Rep. Gary Holder-Winfield and the legislature's Black and Puerto Rican Caucus.

The state reviewed New Haven 23 parent-teacher groups and concluded in December that none of them satisfy the new law.

The state produced a chart of New Haven's groups and found inadequate participation by parents and teachers. For example, six schools had only one parent participating in their parent-teacher group, while the state model calls for seven. Click here to view the chart and an accompanying letter, released Wednesday through a Freedom of Information request.

The new law requires low-performing schools to create "school governance councils" made up of seven parents, five teachers and two community leaders, all elected to their posts, to advise principals on school policy. It's a lesser-noticed piece of broader education reforms that the Black and Puerto Rican Caucus pushed through the legislature in 2010.

The law included a carve-out for schools that can prove they already have "similar models" in place.


At first, the state gave the city a huge exemption, OKing the use of existing parent-teacher teams instead, according to Holder-Winfield.

Holder-Winfield said authors of the bill never meant to carve out exemptions for entire school districts like New Haven. He said he was "shocked" to find out last fall that state issued an opinion giving New Haven an exemption to the law.

Based on low test scores, four New Haven schools--Hillhouse High School, Wilbur Cross High, and Hill Central Music Academy and Brennan/Rogers--landed on a short list of 14 Connecticut schools required to set up the councils by a Jan. 15 deadline last year. Schools on that list scored in the state's lowest-performing 5 percent and failed to make Average Yearly Progress in math and reading at the whole school level, as defined by the No Child Left Behind Act.

Those four schools put together councils last academic year, to varying degrees of success. A second batch of 23 New Haven schools--those that failed to make AYP in math and reading at the whole school level--were required to put governance councils in place by Nov. 1.

Those 23 never followed suit because New Haven understood that its existing groups, called School Planning and Management Teams (SPMTs), were considered "similar models" by the state, according to schools Chief Operating Officer Will Clark.

Based on that understanding, the school governance council at Wilbur Cross was disbanded after one year, and the school reverted to an SPMT model last fall, according to parents involved in the groups.

The district concluded the SPMT model would be fine with the state--until it got a surprise Dec. 22 letter from Cheryl Resha at the state Department of Education. The letter said New Haven Public Schools do not have a blanket exception to the school governance law--and that no single school has an adequate parent group in place.

To qualify for an exemption under the new bill, schools have to have "a similar school governance council model on or before July 1, 2011, that consists of parents, teachers from each grade level or subject area, administrators and paraprofessionals," her letter stated.

Resha went through 23 schools for which New Haven had sought an exemption.

All but three--Hill Central, Brennan/Rogers, and East Rock Magnet--failed the test for inadequate teacher participation. None had one teacher from each grade or one teacher from each subject level involved. All except two schools--High School in the Community and Benjamin Jepson Magnet School--had fewer than the requisite seven parents in the group.

Those criteria alone were enough to flunk the whole batch: Resha concluded no school qualified as having a "similar model" to the one outlined in the state law.

The list includes only 23 New Haven schools, while 27 were required to set up the governance councils. State spokesman Mark Linabury said New Haven sought an exemption for only those 23 schools. For example, it did not seek an exemption for Hillhouse High School, which has an active school governance council in place.

"Therefore, the schools will be expected to implement the state required School Governance Council model," Resha wrote. She gave the district until Jan. 13 to reply with "your plans and timeframe for each school to have a School Governance Council in place as required."


The state's rejection was met with alarm by the New Haven Public Schools central office, according to correspondence uncovered in a Freedom of Information Request.

It began with this message:

From: Canelli, Imma []
Sent: Tuesday, January 03, 2012 6:17 PM
To: Carson, Judy
Subject: School Governance Council

Can you call me ASAP about the School Governance Council?
This is urgent. Who is Cheryl Resha?

Sent from my iPad

Canelli, the district's assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction, found out that Cheryl Resha was a relatively new employee at the state Department of Education. (Resha's full title: education manager at the Bureau of Health/Nutrition, Family Services and Adult Education.)

On Jan. 13, the day the district was directed to respond with its plans to create school governance councils, Superintendent Mayo wrote a letter to Resha appealing the state's decision.

"We were shocked to receive your letter dated December 22, 2011 informing us that no New Haven Public Schools qualified for the 'similar school governance council' model pursuant to your interpretation of P.A. 11-135," his letter begins.

(Click here to read Mayo's letter.)

Mayo argued that the district had already satisfied the requirement by implementing a School Development Program school governance model designed by Dr. James Comer at the Yale Child Study Center. The district has been using the method citywide since 1976, Mayo told the state, and therefore should gain a district-wide exemption.

The Comer model is "completely integrated into the operation of most New Haven Public Schools, including schools that have been designated as 'in need of improvement,' Mayo wrote.

"Please also note that the use of the Comer model--particularly the School Planning and Management Teams (SPMTS) is specifically enumerated in New Haven's teacher's contract, and has been in place in every school in the district for decades (including at such time that any New Haven School was identified as low performing or in need of improvement)," he continued.

An SPMT is a school-based group that includes administrators, teachers, support staff, and parents, according to a definition Mayo included in his letter. The group "develops a Comprehensive School Plan, sets academic, social and community relations goals, and coordinates all school activities, including staff development programs." The team holds "critical dialogue around teaching and learning and monitors progress" to see if the plan is being followed and/ or needs to be adjusted.

Mayo conceded that "the Comer model in general, and SPMTs specifically are implemented with different degrees of integrity across the district."

However "we believe would also be the case should SGCs be put in place," Mayo wrote.

Mayo further argued that schools shouldn't be judged on a case-by-case basis; instead, the whole district should be exempt.

He argued that if individual schools failed to meet the state's requirements for SPMTs, that's a signal that the district needs to improve its current model--"not that the model employed does not meet the criteria."

For example, the state disqualified several schools because one or more members required by the school governance law were not participating in the SPMT.

Mayo said "with additional training and technical assistance," the district could solve that problem--and "improve the implementation of the Comer model across the district."

The letter was cc-ed to Stefan Pryor, Mayo's "old friend" from New Haven who now heads the state's education department.

Reached Tuesday, Judy Carson, director of school-family community partnerships for the state Department of Education, said there has been no update since Mayo's appeal.

"We are reviewing their request," she said.


State Rep. Holder-Winfield, who authored the law, said it aimed to set up a new pathway for parents to take a serious role in the schools.

"What needs to happen is parents need to be involved in schools"--not just by "baking cookies," but through a role that's "integral to what's going on in this school."

"When we imagined school governance councils, we imagined creating a new relationship between parents, teachers and administrators--to look at everything that's going on in a school"--and have the power to initiate a turnaround.

Under the law, if parents and teachers on the council believe the school is failing during the council's third year, they can call for the school to be reconstituted. The decision is only a recommendation to the school board, but it would trigger a public hearing within 10 days of the vote--a measure intended to give weight to the group's input.

Holder-Winfield said in authoring the law, he specifically asked if the carve-out would allow an exemption for any entire district such as Bridgeport, Hartford or New Haven. He said he understood it would not.

"I was actually shocked to find out that there had been an opinion" by the state in the fall that New Haven could have a blanket OK to use the SPMT instead of the governance council.

"If New Haven was intending to be carved out," he said, "that should have been more transparent."

Holder-Winfield said "I'm not fighting against New Haven" at this point. He did say that if New Haven now has to start from scratch creating school governance councils, it has lost precious time in doing so. However, he said he wouldn't interfere with the decision--"it's in the state's hands now."

In a statement Wednesday afternoon, state Department of Education spokesman Mark Linabury said the state has approved waivers for only two schools statewide--Catherine C. Kolnaski Magnet School in Groton and the CREC Montessori Magnet School in Hartford.

Linabury acknowledged the city has been using Comer's School Development Program since 1976. He called it "a strong model of school governance which the State Department of Education (SDE) respects."

"However, based on the technical requirements required under current state law, we are looking into in this matter in greater detail," Linabury said. "This process is ongoing."

Linabury downplayed the dispute: "We're working with the district and researching this further."


The state's decision might create more disruptions for one parent group in New Haven that has already been disbanded, reconstituted, disbanded and reconstituted again. Wilbur Cross High School did away with its SPMT in order to create a school governance council last year. Then this fall, it did away with the school governance council and revived the SPMT.

Wilbur Cross mom Kelly Barrick, who sits on the school's SPMT, said the newly revived group is "making more progress" than the short-lived governance council. Teachers are more familiar with the SPMT, she said, "so there's more involvement from the teachers."

Hillhouse High appears to be the only school going full-steam with the new model. Parent and former Alderwoman Michelle Edmonds-Sepulveda said the school governance council, which was created last year, continues to meet monthly.

In an interview Tuesday, New Haven Board of Ed COO Clark said he didn't know the present state of the other two councils that were set up at Brennan/Rogers and Hill Central.

Clark said instead of taking a "broad stroke approach," the state should consider whether alternative models might work best in a given district. He said New Haven has a long-running commitment to the SPMT groups, which have been included in the teachers' contract for "well over a decade."

If there are flaws with individual SPMTs, he said, "That's not a reason to scrap them. It may be a reason to reinvigorate them."