NEW HAVEN – With chronic absenteeism rates and child homelessness soaring in New Haven, CT Examiner asked the city’s mayoral candidates for their solutions to the crisis and for ways to make the city’s 44 schools safer and more efficient.
Ideas pitched by the candidates included banning or limiting cellphones in the classrooms, implementing universal pre-K, and hiring dropout prevention specialists to address absenteeism in the city’s neighborhood, charter and magnet schools.
Five of the city’s six mayoral candidates, including current Democratic Mayor Justin Elicker, spoke at length to CT Examiner this past week. Independent mayoral candidate Mayce Torres declined to be interviewed.
The New Haven school system stood alone during the 2020-21 school year as being the last large city in the state to return from remote classes. It was a decision that many believe led to deeper learning losses for those students.
It was a decision even the mayor had concerns about.
“The community was not on the same page as to whether we should go back in person or not, sooner, and we worked very hard to respond to a lot of the community concern,” said Elicker, who is seeking a third term and received his party’s endorsement this past week. “I was supportive of going back in person, but the Board of Education was not on the same page.”
When schools were closed, the district created a team of staff “to inspect every school building,” the Elicker said. “We made sure the HVAC systems were operating with proper filters to monitor all the requirements that we had around COVID to ensure that everyone could go back in person if they chose to do so.”
Most of the candidates who spoke to CT Examiner also disagreed with the Board of Education’s decision to delay in-person learning.
“It was a bad decision. Again, you go back to the failure of leadership,” said Democrat Tom Goldenberg, who was endorsed by the Republican Town Committee and seeks to challenge the mayor in a primary. No Republican candidates are running for mayor this year and the city hasn’t had a Republican mayor since the early 1950s.
Democratic mayoral candidate and Hartford’s inspector general Liam Brennan said, “I saw learning loss with my own kids because of remote learning. They were at home and we don’t really learn off an iPad or computer. It’s not the same as being in a classroom.”
But Democratic mayoral candidate Shafiq Abdussabur, a retired New Haven police sergeant, small business owner and author, supported the city’s delay of in-person learning during the height of COVID-19.
“At the time, New Haven was not getting the COVID vaccine resources,” said Abdussabur, who noted that the COVID epidemic hit the city’s minority communities hard.
According to data from the New Haven Board of Education and the state Department of education, the city is struggling in several categories related to education and the youth.
Data shows that chronic absenteeism — defined as a student missing 10 percent or more of in-class instruction time — has risen in each of the last four years, from 19.3 percent in the 2018-19 school year to 58.1 percent, or 10,464 students, in 2021-22. Meanwhile, the statewide 2021-22 average is 23.7 percent.
In other categories, 1.9 percent, or 745 New Haven students, had experienced homelessness sometime during the 2021-22 school year; the state average is 0.8 percent.
Additionally, 74.7 percent of the city’s students are eligible for free or reduced price meals, compared to 42.4 percent statewide. The four-year high school graduation rate in New Haven stood at 75.8 percent in 2021-22, the lowest in five years.
Candidates said the statistics appear dire, but that there are solutions to improve the numbers.
Abdussabur supports more citywide tutoring and said it’s essential to hire more teachers and paraprofessionals. He noted that New Haven is down dozens of teachers and paraprofessionals, which are already budgeted for.
“We need to hire more teachers and paras and reduce classroom sizes,” he said.
Two candidates – Elicker and Goldenberg – said cellphones in classrooms hinder learning.
Goldenberg, a 41-year-old former management consultant at McKinsey & Co, called for “no kids with cellphones in class, no matter what grade they are in.”
“In my view, we shouldn’t have students having so much access to cellphones,” Elicker said, though admitting schools can’t automatically ban the device. “You have to build coalitions and find people who support it. I think it’s an important issue that principals struggle with because of enforcement and it puts teachers in an awkward spot about taking away phones.”
Brennan, alone among the candidates, suggested implementing universal pre-K for 3- and 4-year-olds.
“We don’t have that now in New Haven, although automatic pre-K happens in other towns in Connecticut,” said 44-year-old Brennan, who lives in the city’s Westville neighborhood.
“Universal pre-K cuts down on the achievement gap,” said Brennan, noting some of the costs could be paid for via grants. If elected, he said he’d work with principals and the teachers union toward that goal.
The city has 44 schools, of which most are magnet or charter schools. Six are neighborhood or traditional public schools.
Abdussabur said though the city has dozens of magnet schools, there aren’t enough magnet schools serving special needs students.
“We need to have one centralized place for students who are disadvantaged or who have special needs. There needs to be more school options,” he said.
Elicker said parents should be able to send their children to a school near their homes, but in New Haven that’s not always an option. Parents often find there are no slots open at neighborhood schools, and their children are then bused to a magnet or charter school.
“While I think people should be able to attend school near where they live, I also don’t think that we should just transition on impulse to some neighborhood school,” Elicker said. “Our city, frankly, is pretty segregated and has been for decades. We just don’t have the diversity in our schools that we should have, and that creates challenges when our kids don’t necessarily have the opportunity to learn with kids from different backgrounds.”
Independent candidate Wendy Hamilton said, if elected, she’d “fire the Board of Education, along with Zoning and City Plan [departments]. I will do that on my first day. The Board of Education is useless and an unnecessary entity at this time.”
Hamilton also said she would pay all New Haven teachers $100,000 annually by filing Chapter 9 bankruptcy, which provides a financially-distressed municipality protection from its creditors while it develops and negotiates a plan for adjusting.
“By declaring Chapter 9, it will immediately kick the state into action [to help fund the city],” she said.
Elicker said the city is on the right track with education on several fronts, including bringing dropout prevention specialists to address the growing chronic absenteeism rates.
“We have hired a lot of staff that are solely focused on making sure kids get into school. Each staff person is responsible for a small number of schools and they will visit homes and get to know the families and understand the issues [at play], and work hard to problem solve and bring the kids back to school,” he said.
Elicker also touted Youth Continuum, a program focused on helping homeless youth.
“There are a lot of students that are homeless, a pretty high percentage, that are LGBTQ,” Elicker said. “They have been ostracized by their families and do not feel welcome; we are working with those students. We are also providing mental health support for kids.”
Brennan said many parents he’s spoken to are concerned with crime and safety in schools. He strongly supports “local gun regulations” and getting illegal weapons out of the community.
Hamilton, a retired 74-year-old nurse, said reasons for crime in schools range from food insecurity to poverty. If students had more access to mental health counselors, advisors and psychotherapists, she said, those crime numbers could drop.
“A lot of children, because of poverty and abuse put upon them, are damaged,” Hamilton said. “These children need humane support.”
On other issues, Abdussabur said students in underserved communities need outlets, like a summer job, to help with self-esteem and food insecurity issues.
“About 800 city students don’t have summer jobs,” Abdussabur said, citing a figure he received from the Parks & Recreation Department. “We need to give more youth summer jobs, and more money needs to be put in the disenfranchised communities.”
Elicker said he’d continue to tout New Haven Promise, a program that partners with families, colleges, community-based organizations and businesses to strengthen academic skills and career preparedness. The organization promotes paid internships and professional development as well.
“It’s a really significant program for kids that are going to college,” Elicker said. “We also, however, need to make a promise to kids that may choose not to go to college, and so we are working to create a school that focuses on career pathways.”
Goldenberg said he’s a big proponent of having students intern with businesses, and connecting them with apprenticeships, certifications and dual enrollments.
“We want them to stay in school, and when they graduate from high school they are ready for a quality job,” Goldenberg said. “The workforce, from my work in workforce development, is moving away from college degrees and toward basic entry-level jobs. It’s moving toward those with a skillset.”