(Updated) Though he has but one year of classroom experience teaching in a prep school, Garth Harries was welcomed as the man New Haven can count on to turn around public education.
The 36-year-old Wunderkind made his debut performance at Monday night’s full Board of Education meeting. He was roundly welcomed and officially hired as the man who’ll usher in a new era of school reform.
In a two-minute speech, Harries explained why he’s leaving a high-powered post with the NYC school system, where he oversaw an extensive school- building initiative, for New Haven.
“There is a great foundation in this district,” said Harries, “and there is also a leadership that’s setting ambitious goals.” (Click on the play arrow to watch his speech.)
Harries’ official title will be the assistant superintendent for portfolio and performance management. The job was created last month to oversee plans for far-reaching school reform, including closing the achievement gap in five years. Mayor John DeStefano has made school reform a centerpiece of his reelection campaign; the school system recently revealed the broad outline of a three-tiered “Portfolio School Initiative”, which would shift accountability onto individual schools. All the reforms the school system is talking about, including merit-based pay and closing failing schools, are still proposals, and must be agreed to first by a skeptical teacher’s union.
Schools chief Reggie Mayo said now that the “bare bones,” the “broad overview” of reform have been laid out, Harries will flesh out and implement the details.
The board promptly approved Harries’ appointment with a 5-0 vote with little discussion.
“This is the first piece of meat that we’re putting on the bones,” said board member Michael Nast, continuing Mayo’s metaphor.
In his brief speech, Harries quipped that he wouldn’t take offense to being called “meat” on bones.
Harries said he was drawn to New Haven by what he called the district’s strong foundation, built on the city’s “state of the art buildings” and data-driven learning, and by the school system’s vision for reform. He said he was convinced that the New Haven Public Schools are committed to making changes, and that the broad outline of those changes coincides with the work he’s done in New York.
“The structure of that is so consistent with my first idea of what needs to happen in public schools,” he said. “That is, that the school is the unit that matters, for teachers and kids, that’s the place that people learn. What every parent wants is a good school to send their kids. That doesn’t mean every school needs to be the same; it does mean every school needs to be good.”
Harries will begin work on July 6. He’ll make a $140,000 salary; a significant cut from his last pos t, where he acted as a cabinet member to the New York City chancellor of schools. In his six years at the NYC education department, Harries focused on an effort to build small schools in poorer neighborhoods. He said he oversaw the creation of over 330 district public schools and over 60 charter schools.
Harries will be returning to New Haven after getting his undergraduate degree from Yale University. He later earned a law degree from Stanford Law School; worked as a consultant with McKinsey & Company; and directed economic development projects in poor neighborhoods in Philadelphia. He also did a stint in politics, coordinating a Democratic field operation in Pennsylvania during the 1996 presidential campaign.
He has one year of teaching experience, as a high school history and math teacher at the Vail Mountain School in Colorado.
When the New Haven post was created, Mayo elicited some concern by saying he wouldn’t require the new school reform czar to have teaching experience.
“If the reform plan is all about accountability, how can you ask this person to evaluate teachers if he or she hasn’t done any teaching?” asked Dave Cicarella, president of the teacher’ ;s union at that meeting. Board member M. Ann Levett agreed with him that a person would be best qualified if they had walked in a teacher’s “moccasins.”
Harries defended his skill set Monday.
“It’s absolutely right that in doing this work, you have to experience the role of teachers,” he said. He conceded he has little comparable classroom experience — his one-year teaching gig at the elite prep school was a far cry from the New York or New Haven school districts.
“I don’t compare it to the experience that urban teachers have,” he said. However, “what’s important is the degree of empathy and understanding of teachers,” he said. He said his wife is a former schoolteacher, and he’ll be surrounded by top staff on Mayo’s team who have a lot of experience teaching in city schools. The new post, he said, will rely upon an understanding of how school “systems” work, something he’s got six years of experience with.
“Frankly, an external perspective to New Haven and its schools is an opportunity for innovation,” he said.
Harries faced a similar line of questioning when he took over his most recent NYC post, tasked with reforming special education. Special education advocates fought his appointment because he didn’t have experience in special ed.
Reached Tuesday morning, Cicarella still had reservations.
“Basically, he has no teaching experience,” said Cicarella. “This seems to be kind of the trend, that they use more management-type people” in top administrative roles, people who “want to run school systems like a business.” Sometimes those people do a good job; sometimes they don’t, he said.
Cicarella said he understands that Harries won’t directly evaluate the teachers or the principals, but “there’s still some concern” that he’ll oversee those reforms “without having any knowledge of what the teachers do.”
Levett, however, said her concerns were allayed. She said while a candidate with more teaching experience would be “desirable,” “my preference is that he has the kind of experience doing what he will be doing,” which is “moving schools to a new level of accountability.”
“I feel very comfortable with that,” she said.
Harries was also welcomed by the Wilbur Cross PTO and the parent activist group Teach Our Children.
“Mr. Harries has a reputation of building strong partnerships with parents and community organizations,” said Claudia Bosch, a TOC leader, in a statement distributed Monday night. The group asked for input in creating the “map” for reform.
Harries’ first task will be to focus on boosting test scores above state averages, according to schools spokeswoman Michelle Wade. “This will require honest assessment and tough decisions about how to implement a school-based management model, achieve and maintain the highest quality of teachers, and determination how best to address the lowest performing schools, be it closing them and reopening them as local charter schools or implementing other improvements to enhance educational opportunities for its students.”
Harries said he’s up to the task.
“New Haven has a shot at being the first district [in the nation] to close the achievement gap,” he said. He plans to flesh out the details of a school reform plan and have it ready to be implemented in September, 2010.
He said he intends to stick with New Haven for the long haul.
“School reform is a long-term endeavor,” he said. “My intention is to live a career here.”