Courtesy New Haven Register, Josiah H. Brown

All content is copyrighted and may not be republished or distributed without permission. 


New Haven Register

FORUM: “Support for public schools a priority all can share”

Josiah H. Brown

Published: April 2, 2003


With cities nationwide facing severe fiscal problems and many businesses struggling to endure an economic slowdown, something refreshing happened in New Haven two week ago. Urban school principals and businesspeople came together to reaffirm their common interests, and to harness civic support for the public schools. Local organizations, including the Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute -- which provides free curricular and professional development for city educators through a collegial, school-university partnership -- also were represented at this session the nonprofit Public Education Fund convened. Two topics captured our attention: first, the strained state budget and the implications of cutbacks for urban schools; second, the increasingly stringent demands of the No Child Left Behind Act, the federal law whose good intentions come with absurdly unrealistic targets given the limited resources available. As many as three-quarters of public schools -- rural and suburban as well as urban -- stand to be deemed "failing" within a few years according to its criteria.


Principals are aiming to meet the new law's requirements, which include annual progress in average test scores across all grades and sub-groups, including English language learners and those in special education. But school leaders are concerned that their difficult jobs will become impossible. The convergence of stiff goals and scarce tools is alarming.


What is being eliminated in the budget squeeze? Principals cite not merely "extras" such as field trips, nor the positions of social workers and guidance counselors. Core academic areas are at risk. Class sizes will rise. Students will have less exposure to the arts, and fewer opportunities for academic support in the afternoon and on weekends. Centers that bring parents into school to reinforce kids' learning may be closed.


Businesspeople are eager to help, where possible. There were offers to provide transportation, study space, technological expertise, and career exploration for students. Educators asked businesses to donate employee time to build relationships with young people -- enriching their experiences -- and to offer incentives for students who meet academic goals.


Most important, the president of the regional chamber of commerce expressed his members' determination to defend the state's Education Cost Sharing grants to municipalities. This willingness to make school funding a priority reflects the inescapable reality that any state's economic health, its competitive advantage, is tied to the quality of education. Beyond this practical consideration, there is broad recognition that equality of educational opportunity is a social ideal that we must pursue vigorously.


Citizens, organizations and commercial enterprises can play complementary roles in strengthening public schools. For example, the Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute contributes to the district's effort to have a "highly qualified" teacher in every classroom by 2006, as specified in the No Child Left Behind law.


Yale and other colleges and universities can continue to place students as tutors in schools, and prepare graduates who are committed to teaching in the long run, or to creating businesses that yield local jobs. Corporations can not only champion adequate public school funding - and additional revenues if need be -- but also sponsor field trips and invite students for job-shadowing and internships.


Individual citizens can vote, volunteer as tutors and mentors, and insist to their elected representatives that "accountability" by itself is a hollow promise -- extracurricular activities, preschool, after-school and summer programs, and reasonable class sizes are also essential if all students are to learn.


The good news in New Haven is that test scores are rising, and that many of the public schools are doing remarkably well.


Despite a limited tax base, New Haven is an attractive place to live, eat, and enjoy the arts. As the school system continues to improve, the city is drawing and retaining more parents. This trend is bolstering the local skilled workforce as well as property values. Already, magnets and other "schools of choice" are generating waiting lists for those who want their kids to go to public school in New Haven. Sustaining this momentum, however, will be a challenge.


Successful partnerships depend on shared self-interest, not on altruism alone. Each partner has to take responsibility. Schools are increasingly assuming their responsibility by setting higher standards and pushing teachers, students, and their parents to meet those standards.


But in order to succeed, educators need resources -- moral and political as well as financial. The private sector and the engines of civil society have a stake in the outcome. By engaging in the drive to raise student achievement, these forces can help shape that outcome favorably. Young people, and our communities, will benefit.



Josiah H. Brown is associate director of the Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute, P.O. Box 203563, New Haven 06520. His e-mail address is

Copyright 2003 New Haven Register