Hamden’s new superintendent and deputy superintendents appeared in schools across the city on the first day of classes with a promise to keep showing up in person – and help the district pivot to a “new normal” touting both community and curriculum consistency after years of pandemic-affected education.
At 8:15 a.m. Tuesday, Highsmith could be found saying his second set of “hello” to elementary school students rushing to Ridge Hill School on Carew Road, after an hour of “hello was said to tired teenagers heading to Hamden High School.
Next would be Hamden Middle School, then neighborhood elementary schools on Church Street or Helen Street in South Hamden, and finally a 20 minute trip. “north” to some of the more rural schools in the city.
“I will have to fill up to do the whole course,” he joked.
At Ridge Hill, Highsmith found something to talk about with every child climbing the stairs to their first day of class.
As two young girls wearing long pigtails approached him, Highsmith asked: “Do you think I could have hair that long? »
“Your hair is short,” one shot back. Flipping their hair, they continued towards the school gates.
“Kids tell the truth,” Highsmith said with a shrug.
Between the first impressions, there were long-standing reunions. Partners Tyrell Ford and Sabrina Grant, who were dropping off their 6-year-old daughter Kacey, on her first day of first grade, got a special surprise when they saw their former headmaster from Hamden High waiting at the entrance to the primary school .
Parents said they were delighted to see a favorite school presence promoted to superintendent – and Highsmith was touched to see two familiar all-adult faces.
The exchange was made possible by the low number of Covid-19 cases and the cancellation last spring of the school mask mandate.
“It’s the new normal,” Grant said. “I’m glad we don’t have to wear masks anymore. She and Highsmith could recognize each other’s faces, she said, and her daughter can begin to excel at learning social skills and “politeness”, extending the basic work laid last year in kindergarten.
Just as both parents loved watching their daughter blossom through her schooling, they shared similar feelings about Highsmith’s promotion.
“It’s a blessing to watch him grow,” Ford said of his former manager. “Sky is the limit.”
Highsmith, in turn, said the same of his former students, who first met in a trigonometry class at Hamden High before eventually starting a family together.
Highsmith remembers having conversations with students like Ford and Grant about “girlfriend or boyfriend drama, not getting along with their parents, or looking for a part-time job.
After more than 20 years in the neighborhood, he regularly meets former students around Hamden’s shops, parks and even schools, where they drop off their own children: “Now we have adult conversations. You need to help them understand what their future may hold and what their responsibility will be over time.
Catalyzing community conversations, Highsmith said, is how he plans to settle into the new role. He has pledged to set up a station outside the Hamden stop & Shop Dixwell in September to meet families where they are and get feedback on how the school district can improve.
And instead of monthly virtual leadership development meetings, Highsmith said, he plans to bring all district superintendents together in one building each month to ensure that school leaders observe and watch each other’s classrooms and regularly develop consistent teaching practices.
“We are going to focus again on teaching and learning,” he promised. After years “grace period” throughout the pandemic, Highsmith said, he seeks to boost the academic expectations of all students.
The first move Highsmith made to achieve this goal was to reorganize administrative responsibilities, hiring two new assistant superintendents to jointly focus on program development and evaluation in schools in the district. (Previously, Highsmith was assistant superintendent of human resources for the district, while Chris Melillo, who recently left Hamden to become Newtown’s next superintendent, was solely responsible for overseeing the program.)
As Highsmith moved from school to school on Tuesday, there were his two new super assistants: Erin Bailey and Linda Tran Morbidelli.
Bailey previously served as Principal of Dunbar Hill and Bear Path Elementary Schools as well as District English Director. Tran Morbidelli served as the districts’ last math director.
“We are a team of three,” said Tran Morbidelli. “Our main goal is to be visible… We go into buildings to make sure people have a chance to talk to us.
In addition to strengthening program and instructional cohesion through maximized staff supervision, teacher feedback and cross-departmental communication, Highsmith said he is always looking to expand mental health support as the district attempts to bring students back to a set of pre-pandemic academic standards.
Thanks to an evolved contract with local community care center Clifford Beers, students struggling with mental health and emotional regulation issues will now have the option of free access “Care Coordinators” who will provide mental health support directly to young people in their families’ homes outside of school hours.
Although students no longer have to wear masks at school or physically distance themselves from each other, Highsmith said the arrival of a new normal does not mean that students are not yet “suffering the residual impact ‘of a global pandemic, the loss of learning and family conflict.
“Raising expectations doesn’t mean you give up grace,” he said.
As Highsmith seeks to facilitate a district-wide recovery after a difficult few years, it’s not just students who are suffering the fallout from the pandemic.
Some of the biggest challenges the district will face, Highsmith said, will be staffing shortages and bus driver delays.
Highsmith said the district is currently down about seven certified employees following a series of late resignations. Part of that, Highsmith said, is staff advocating for “better quality of life” following work-from-home experiences during Covid-19 – he said several teachers told him they were leaving the district to pursue jobs that did not require a daily commute.
Fortunately, these current staffing shortfalls pale in comparison to last year’s shortages, during which schools had to constantly close due to a lack of qualified teachers and available replacements to maintain classrooms. open and in good working order.
Issues like dwindling numbers of bus drivers, Highsmith said, are also exacerbated by the Board of Education’s shrinking budget. Highsmith said another of his goals for the coming year is to ensure the school district isn’t funded flat for the third time in recent memory by the city’s Legislative Council.
How does he plan to do it? Like all of its other goals, through proactive conversation.
“We will invite board members into the classroom… in the hope that our next budget will reflect people’s understanding of the work we do,” he said.
Reporting by Nora Grace-Flood is supported in part by a grant from Report for America.