05/04/2012 12:33 pm ET

School Hallway Hangouts Target Of New Haven Future Principal's Reform

This piece comes to us courtesy of New Haven Independent.

The problem: middle-schoolers are hanging out in the halls, coming late to class. The solution: "empowering from the sidelines."

Jenny Clarino worked on that solution Tuesday as she proceed with the second half-year of training in a first-of-its-kind program for aspiring principals run jointly by the district and Achievement First charter schools. The program addresses one goal of New Haven"s school reform drive: Develop a bench of strong principals from within the public schools.

Clarino tackled two challenges Tuesday on the training path to become a principal one day: The hallway problem. And a teacher who was still struggling in the classroom months after beginning to receive intensive help.

After spending the first half of the school year at Amistad Academy, Clarino was dispatched on Jan. 30 to the top-performing Davis Street Arts and Academics Magnet School in upper Westville.

The 94-year-old school, which moved into a sparkling renovated building at 25 Davis St. last year, is treading into new territory. It has expanded beyond K-5 to serve the 6th, 7th and 8th grades. This year"s 8th graders will be the first to graduate from the school.

When Clarino arrived at the school to hone her leadership skills, Principal Lola Nathan gave her a mission: Improve the "culture and engagement" among the students in the 7th and 8th grades.

Clarino sat down with the six teachers in those grades, all but one of whom are new to the school. Marcus Walton, a Davis Street dad and math teacher, serves as team leader of that group. After Principal Nathan urged him to change careers from investment banking to teaching, he has now been working at the school for three years.

Clarino recalled getting a similar culture-improving mission while working at the Amistad Academy. She took a more top-down method, working with deans to come up with a plan, then presenting it to the top administrators.

At Davis Street, she tried a different approach, one she called "empowering from the sidelines." That meant enlisting teachers to study the problem with her, then come up with solutions.

The group identified three key problem behaviors. The first was tardiness. About 10 to 15 of the 77 kids in 7th and 8th grades were coming late to class each day. They would chat in the hallways instead of moving into homeroom when the second bell rang at 9:15 a.m.

"It wasn"t an urgent matter to go to class," Clarino said.

The second was unpreparedness—kids showing up to class without pencils, without homework completed.

The third was a lack of respect towards one another.

Clarino said she urged the group of teachers to think about why kids weren"t following the rules. She said the answer is two-fold: Teachers need to model the attributes they want to see in the kids, and kids need to be held accountable for their own behavior.

She urged teachers to reflect on how they were running class: Were they showing up on time? Did they start off with an engaging "do-now" activity to send the message that kids had to be on time? And how did they deal with kids who disobeyed?

Teachers were complimenting good behavior, but there was a lack of consistent consequences when kids didn"t obey, the group determined. They set to work coming up with a new system of consequences.

Clarino said she urged the group not just to come up with penalties, but to explain the reasoning behind the rules. Teachers would have to explain why the rules are important beyond the 3rd floor of Davis, in high school, college, and beyond.

As the group tackled these questions, Clarino let Walton direct the problem-solving. She met with him before the meetings, going over the agenda. Then, against her natural inclination, she "took a back seat" and let the teachers figure it out.

Why is being on time important? One longtime sub offered an explanation kids could understand: if you show up to the airport late, the plane won"t wait for you. The group compiled a set of such explanations, along with a set of proposed consequences for low-level offenses.

Those explanations will be important in selling the plan, Clarino said.

"I"m sure we"re going to get pushback from students."

The group held a pre-release planning session Tuesday. They discussed introducing teacher-led lunch detention for kids who show up late to class or don"t turn in homework.

Clarino sat at the table, but stayed quiet. She said the goal is to launch the new discipline system as a pilot for the final six weeks of school, then implement it from Day One next fall.

By that time, Clarino will likely be gone—her residency will be over and she has applied to become an assistant principal at another school.


Later Tuesday, Clarino spent time learning how to be a better coach for a struggling teacher who came to Davis from a turnaround school. Clarino and the teacher have been focusing on behavioral management.

A visit to the classroom indicated the teacher-trainer pair still have a lot of work to do. Director of Instruction Damaris Rau, who supervises all principals in the district and also manages 15 schools, accompanied Clarino on a morning visit to a 25-student middle school class. Rau was there to help Clarino develop as a coach and a leader.

When the teacher announced a shared-reading session, four kids immediately asked to go to the nurse.

"I"m not sure why four people need to go to the nurse during shared reading," the teacher remarked.

"They were trying to escape," Rau later observed.

After reading a text aloud, the teacher told kids to begin reading alone. Clarino stepped in.

"Could someone restate what you want them to do during individual reading?" Clarino asked. She said she has been working with the teacher on using a "strong voice" and a few, clear words of instruction instead of many words.

Rau later observed that the lesson was too often interrupted by distractions, as the teacher reminded kids to "clean off you desk," or sit up straight. The pace of the lesson was slow.

"Her issue is clarity," Rau said.

Rau suggested Clarino set deadlines for improvement. "My concern is it"s May and the teacher is still having these problems."

She asked what Clarino planned to do next. Clarino said she has modeled lessons for the teacher, enforcing how kids should sit in a morning meeting, and how to ask kids to be quiet with a hand gesture instead of trying to talk over them.

They agreed on a next step: Have the teacher visit the classroom of teacher Erin King.

King"s class sat around a rug Tuesday morning discussing a story about a scary window-cleaning accident, and how to relate a story to kids" own lives. Kids read aloud in chorus, shared personal anecdotes, and raised their hands before speaking.

The kids were "truly engaged, as opposed to compliant-engaged," Rau remarked.

In King"s classroom, Rau noted, the routines were clear. Transition time between the rug and a read-alone session at the desks was short.

Rau and Clarino talked about what language Clarino should use as she gave feedback to both teachers on their lessons. Don"t say "I liked when ...," Rau advised; say "it"s effective when ..."

Rau is one of several people helping Clarino grow as a leader and coach. Rau oversees some of the other four residents, too, who are assigned to work with other strong principals at Metropolitan Business Academy, Ross/Woodward, Truman and Sound School. After Clarino hears feedback from Rau and Principal Nathan, she"ll take her lessons back to Achievement First"s Matt Taylor, who provides one-on-one coaching to all the residents.

Clarino will round up all the advice, and the year"s experience, into a notebook describing a vision of a school she"d like to lead. She"ll take that notebook to an interview for promotion to assistant principal—and one day, she hopes, to promotion to principal, the goal of her training program.

For the rest of the year, Clarino will continue to learn from the community at Davis Street, where she runs the before-school and after-school programs, staying at school until 6 p.m.

In a morning visit, some middle-school kids already showed they had mastered Goal 3 of Clarino"s team"s project: show respect for each other in the classroom. In a student-led morning meeting in Walton"s class, students shared recent news from their lives. One student recounted locking her sister in the basement as part of a birthday surprise. Another said she learned a front-handspring on a trampoline, then earned $5 for helping her grandma walk up the stairs.

Another student reported watching bull-riding at Mohegan Sun.

"I killed two spiders," boasted another.

Kids listened quietly, eyes tracking the speaker.

Clarino stepped forward and issued the class a compliment: "That was very impressive," she said. The exercise "demonstrated a lot of mutual respect."