NEW BRITAIN — Longtime Connecticut educator Tony Gasper said he knew that becoming the superintendent of New Britain Public Schools, a district where English and math test scores have languished for several years, would be a challenge.
But Gasper, who became the city’s top educator in July 2022 after leaving Wolcott Public Schools, said he told school board members he was up for the challenge.
“Yes, we are last in the state,” the 53-year-old East Hampton resident told CT Examiner this week. “Obviously, I came to the district believing that I can help make some progress.”
Gasper said it would take three to five years to dramatically improve those test scores, which are far below the state average. According to state numbers, about 52 percent of students in Connecticut met or exceeded Level 3 or 4 of English language arts in 2022-23 — the average in New Britain was 22.4 percent.
The same comparison for math achievement in 2022-23 showed the state average at 34 percent, while just 8.4 percent in New Britain.
Gasper said he has seen preliminary numbers for this school year which are promising, but that new initiatives, proposals and a better attitude among staff will have long-term benefits for the district.
According to members of the city’s school board, Gasper’s embrace of a state-mandated reading curriculum by the American Reading Company — which other districts fought against — is part of the reason for the success in scores so far this year.
“I thought he did a great job with it. He implemented it right away when others were against it,” school board member Joey Listro said. “It’s been really inclusive and was the right thing to do.”
The school district has placed a strong emphasis on phonics as a teaching tool in the past but, Gasper said, “The new program, ARC, is more balanced so kids are doing more writing and they are actually doing more reading with books in their hands.”
Gasper also touted a new monthly podcast and a newsletter to highlight the successes of students and staff. He also hired Keira Soler, the district’s assistant coordinator for school climate and culture, to help address the district’s higher-than-average rates of student suspension and expulsion.
“We had lots of people doing really good work trying hard, but they hadn’t necessarily been trained in the most modern approaches on how to deescalate student behavior and how to understand where these kids are coming from culturally,” Gasper said. “So far this year, we are seeing a slight reduction in expulsions.”
Gasper said he believes school staff need the proper tools and resources to do their jobs, and should be creative with as little interference from his office as possible. Gasper also launched a “principal’s council,” of the district’s 19 principals to work collaboratively on best practices for their schools.
When he presents the district’s 2024-5 budget to the Board of Education on Jan. 8, Gasper estimates about 200 staff members — from principals and department leaders to those in facilities operations and transportation — will be a part of the process.
“These people weren’t necessarily accustomed to being asked to contribute to the budget process,” Gasper said. “But it’s a process I believe in because it gives me confidence. So when I come before the board with my recommended budget, I can honestly and transparently say to the board that this is what the district needs.”
But Gasper acknowledged that this year’s budget process will be tough, and that as many as 137 school employees hired with federal American Rescue Plan Act funding could be laid off when the money sunsets in September.
The district hired about 300 employees prior to hiring Gasper with the understanding that the jobs could be temporary. He said some jobs have already been cut, but more will need to be eliminated.
“I’m anticipating an incredibly difficult budget year,” he said. “Lots of these people are performing really necessary tasks. We have everything from assistant principals to paraeducators to teacher assistants to facilities managers.”
In addition to having the lowest reading and ELA test scores in the state, the district also finds itself near the bottom and far behind the state average in chronic absenteeism and graduation rates. The state average in 2022-23 for chronic absenteeism] was 20 percent, but it was nearly 38 percent in New Britain.
And the average statewide graduation rate in 2021-22 was nearly 89 percent, but only 76.6 percent in New Britain.
But Gasper claimed that progress was being made in both of those areas, noting the a 3.5 percent improvement so far in chronic absenteeism.
“I don’t want to talk too much about the past, but when I came on, one of the things I noticed was that the district was actually trying to do too much and were involved in too many district initiatives and programs and grants,” he said.
It’s one of the reasons, Gasper said, that he ended the city’s involvement in the Learner Engagement & Attendance Program.
LEAP, he said, was similar to other city education programs and had become a burden to manage.
“The documentation, the management of it, the accountability with the state,” he said. “There are things we can and are doing better.”
According to Gasper, the district’s principals and administrators are also taking a more proactive approach to attendance.
“What more principals are doing now is catching kids who are kind of in the yellow zone before they get to the red zone,” he said.
On other issues, Gasper said equity and diversity are vital to running a strong school district.
Gasper said he works closely with Nicole Sanders, the school district’s senior equity and talent director and recently initiated the Superintendent’s Advisory Council on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion.
Part of the council’s mission, Gasper said, is to engage a variety of stakeholders in the development of new policies and possible curricula.
“We ask these people who represent a variety of [views] within our community [and ask], ‘How does this feel to you?’ That helps me a great deal with ensuring that I’m not accidentally just taking one perspective and bringing it before the board,” he said.
Gasper also has a standing monthly meeting with New Britain Mayor Erin Stewart.
“We have a standing monthly meeting where we talk, just the two of us,” Gasper said. “We talk about any manner of things from her side or my side that we think intersects. If something occurs in one of our schools, and I think it will garner media attention, I will drop her a quick FYI so she is not surprised by it. There is also a lot of collaboration on operational stuff.”
Stewart told CT Examiner in a statement that she shares with Gasper a common vision for the city’s schools.
“Over the past few years, I have been very vocal about the deficiencies within our public school system, and unafraid to call out the elephant in the room.” the statement read. “I am genuinely excited about the current and future tenure of Dr. Gasper, because we share the same philosophy — we are both unwilling to have the adults be responsible [for] failing our students any longer. … I am proud to say the city has a renewed relationship with the Consolidated School District of New Britain and the incessant calls for more communication and accountability, increased academic performance, and a return to the basics are being answered.