Making the Grade

Redell Armstrong, working for New Haven's schools. Sara Mich

Redell Armstrong (GRD ’10) wants to talk on a Saturday morning, so we schedule an earlybird meeting: 9:30 a.m.. Any other day of the week, Armstrong would have been awake for three hours already. Today, he comes a few minutes late—on Saturdays, he doesn’t have to answer to thirty impatient middle-schoolers.

Armstrong arrived in New Haven this summer afterfive years spent teaching social studies in Harlem at a school where chalk and paper were in short supply. He has a jolly demeanor, even as he talks about the grievous social and racial inequities that drew him to teaching in the first place. And since beginning the Yale Master’s Program in Education Studies earlier this year, he has become part of a growing cadre of Yale students eager to foster learning and strengthen the partnership between the University and New Haven’s public schools.

But despite the verve and camaraderie of a Yale-based band of educators, New Haven public schools retain their share of persisting problems. Retention rates are low, and racial inequities still exist. Many students who go to school just two blocks away from Yale see the University as aloof or altogether inaccessible. New Haven public schools are home to over 20,000 students, over a quarter of whom live below the poverty threshold, and many of whom never complete high school. Since starting to student teach in September, Armstrong has found that many of the difficulties he encountered in Harlem plague New Haven as well. “The city is still working out how to retain students, and we have far to go in learning to effectively teach youths of color. Smaller issues, like the traditional parent-teacher conferences, are problematic, too; many parents are working two or three jobs and can’t make it over to the school. We need to come up with solutions within that culture, not outside of it.”

Jack Gillette, the director of Yale’s Teacher’s Program, has a waiting room for his office at 35 Broadway Street. It’s a luxurious fixture, even at Yale. The couch outside is just within reach of a coffee table topped with colorful educational books. It looks and feels like a non-menacing doctor’s office, and appropriately so. Gillette, after all, is the doctor of public education at Yale, and involvement in the New Haven public schools is still in clinical trials.

Though today Yale boasts a new Master’s program in education, a revamped undergraduate teacher preparation course, and an expanded office of New Haven and State Affairs, the university’s engagement with its surrounding public school system is in its infancy. The programs that have come to define the university’s partnership with New Haven public education—the Public School Internship program, Community Health Educators, and other Dwight Hall student outreach programs—are all less than two decades old. When Gillette arrived in New Haven thirty years ago for his first teaching job at Hillhouse High School, Yale’s relationship with the New Haven education system was minimal at best. “You wouldn’t have thought Yale was in the same town,” Gillette said. “I never saw a Yale student in my ten years at Hillhouse—volunteering or otherwise.” Nine years ago, Gillette decided to return to Yale and change things from within as Yale’s Director of Teacher Preparation and Education Studies.

Claudia Merson, the Director of Public School Partnerships for Yale, works on similar issues from her office at New Haven and State Affairs. “It takes a village to raise a child, but in urban America it takes a traffic cop to manage the villagers. That’s my job—to take these great gifts and the passion of Yale students and steer them to public schools so that they can do the most good.”

Since President Levin took office, she says, the boundaries between Yale and New Haven have become noticeably blurrier. Thousands of New Haven students visit Yale each year: the athletic teams hold camps for over 350 kids every summer, and the Peabody Museum and the Yale University Art Gallery offer frequent events for class visits.

For Gillette and his teacher training methods, this growing collaboration has required Yale’s education programs to adopt a carefully tailored approach to the particular culture of the New Haven public school system. He wants to ensure that Yale students were ready to face both the difficulties and the excitement of teaching in an urban environment.

“You could probably go out tomorrow and teach at Hopkins,” he told me. “The students there probably learn in very similar ways that you do. You’re smart and you could figure it out. But,” Gillette said, leaning forward as if telling me a secret, “if you go to Career High School, you have a moral and ethical responsibility to generate learning for all kind of folk who might be entirely different in their learning approaches and have entirely different histories of education—and that is a surprisingly difficult thing to do.”

As his students entered classrooms of their own and encountered these difficulties, Gillette wanted to be able to continue working with them, pinpointing problems and making sure that the training program was effective. Yet the undergraduate students he worked with in the Teacher Preparation Program rarely taught in New Haven after commencement. A Master’s Program, he reasoned, would put more talent into the New Haven public schools and provide feedback about the quality of instruction in the Yale education program itself.

In 2005, Gillette went to Yale’s administration with a plan for a new two-year Master’s program in Education Studies. President Levin backed the proposal and sixty members of the graduate faculty approved it with a standing ovation.

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A complicated equation. Courtesy Yale University

The program admitted its first class that year, a group of five candidates who would be trained in both theory and experiential learning, all within the context of urban education. “We wanted to structure a program where each of those elements complimented the other,” Gillette said. Every week, he and his colleagues observe each candidate in the classroom during the required student teaching component of the program. “We videotape, we audiotape, and we reflect. The analytic theories are there to help us try to unpack what we see.”

According to Gilette, problems in the classroom arise in any number of ways, and each candidate in the program needs to learn to decipher their causes and potential solutions. “A student was reflecting on a situation today and told me: ‘You say it could be racial dynamic, you say it could be instructional dynamic, you say it could be because they’re teenagers—which is it?’ I say, ‘That’s your job to figure out.’”

Armstrong, as a student, has enjoyed the challenge of this approach, particularly in contrast with the direct teaching style that defined his years in Harlem. “There, I was considered the source of information. My students were vessels I filled with that information. But in the Master’s Program, there is constant engagement. The philosophy is that we all—the students, teachers, and our Yale professors—are working together to arrive at the answer.”

But learning how to implement them are two different things, and the pleasant appearance of New Haven Schools can make this implementation seem deceptively easy. To first-year New Haven teachers accustomed, as Yale students, to seeing the shiny exterior and frosted glass windows of places like Cooperative Arts and Humanities High, the existence of real urban problems can sometimes come as a shock.

“The schools don’t look that hard,” Gillette said. “They’re beautiful buildings, and the tone is not a bad tone. It doesn’t feel edgy. If you go to PS302 in the Bronx, there’s a kind of alignment based on the look and the feel. You’re prepared for a certain set of difficulties. In New Haven, though, you have a different set of expectations and new teachers can get lulled into thinking, ‘It can’t be that hard.’ It is.”

Despite Armstrong’s appreciation for the Graduate Program, the hallowed halls of Yale where takes his theory-based classes every week feel very distant from the students he teaches. “Sure, they aspire to leap out of their community and be associated with the University in one way or another, but they can’t picture themselves as students. A lot of them think, ‘If I could just obtain a job at Yale University, then I’d be set just like my parents, or like my uncle or like my aunt.’” The contrast is significant, he said, between the way his students perceive themselves and the image they have of Yale students. “I don’t think they see that people of color do attend Yale, or at least not in large numbers. They see that the majority are white and they start looking in other places.”

For Yale students, too, working in the New Haven public schools means entering a world that is at once familiar and surprising.

Minh Tran, who graduated from Yale last spring spent two summers teaching in New Haven schools before he began working full-time at Elm City College Prep earlier this year. Even during those summers, he said, his relationship with New Haven was always from the perspective of a Yale student. “The interface with the city was always Yale-specific. The U.S. Grant teaching program I did freshman year, for example, was run out of Dwight Hall, and Old Campus was where we discussed everything at the end of the day. Even with all of the opportunities you have as an undergraduate to interact with the public schools, you’re still sheltered from the realities of what it means to be a New Haven resident.”

The apartment Tran moved into after graduation is only a block away from Old Campus, but since starting work this year he has begun to see New Haven—the city— as home. “Before, I carried that Yale-ness with me, and it prevented me from seeing what I would have if I hadn’t automatically been treated as a Yalie. As a New Havenite, though, I’m privy to the realities of students who are struggling or whose families are struggling. The challenges and joys of New Haven smack me in the face every morning, as I walk into a room where home lives are so evident inside the classroom.”

As we wrap up our talk, TFA alum Matt Matera offers a Machiavellian piece of advice. “When you’re a teacher, you have to be willing—actually willing—to not be loved, while still maintaining a fierce desire and a drive for helping students learn.”

However, Matera insists that figuring out how to actually impact students is the most rewarding thing you can do. “There’s nothing like seeing students transform themselves,” he says. Not on Yale’s terms. On their own.

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