NHPS Convocation Channels Back-To-School Joy

Lucy Gellman | August 28th, 2023

NHPS Convocation Channels Back-To-School Joy

Culture & Community  |  Education & Youth  |  Arts & Culture  |  New Haven Schools  |  Arts & Anti-racism  |  New Haven Board Of Education

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Top: NHPS Superintendant Dr. Madeline Negrón and members of a teacher-formed Latin Dance group. Bottom: NHPS students from across the globe. Lucy Gellman Photos.

It was in the salsa moves that flowed from the stage, Dr. Madeline Negrón in lockstep with every educator-turned-dancer. It was in the thunderous cheer that went up from the crowd when a student shed their deadname like an old skin, and announced their chosen one with a smile. It was in the challenge that speakers issued throughout the morning—to find community in New Haven’s classrooms, because they are the city’s future, and its present too. 

An overwhelming, multilingual and often mellifluous spirit of joy defined New Haven Public Schools’ (NHPS) Convocation Monday morning, as thousands of teachers filled the bleachers at the Floyd Little Athletic Center on the cusp of a new school year. Representing the city’s 44 public schools, teachers came in all manner of school-branded gear, some sporting blue and silver pom-poms as others rolled in with color-coded t-shirts and wide, bright eyes as the final countdown to the school year began. 

This year, there are 19,249 students enrolled in the city’s public schools, according to Schools Superintendent Dr. Madeline Negrón. Together, they represent well over a dozen countries and twice as many languages, lifelong New Haveners and recent immigrants and refugees, and students at every level of their K-12 journey. Throughout, speakers stressed the importance of showing up for all of them—no matter their native language, cultural customs, gender identity or family situation—from day one. 

It’s in that diversity, many said, that they find the joy and the energy to keep coming back to the classroom year after year. Attendees ranged from first-year teachers to those who had been in the district for over four decades. 

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You will meet students who walk through your doors, looking to you for everything that you're going to impart on them," said Negrón, who makes history as the district’s first Latina superintendent of schools. “Looking to you to believe in them. Looking to you to set the expectations high. Because I know I did.”

From the beginning of Monday’s ceremonies to Negrón’s final remarks, speakers, performers and emcee Justis Lopez all worked to capture a back-to-school thrill that has in the past years seemed hard-fought and harder won. From the singsong heartbeat of the barriles to a traditional Afghan Attan, culturally specific performances were often at the center of that focus, using the arts as a bridge into the new school year.    

Energized by a procession of student dancers and musicians, 2023-2024 New Haven Teacher of the Year Marco Cenabre led that charge, bringing attendees back to his childhood in New Haven before jumping back into the present. The child of Filipino immigrants, Cenabre recalled watching his parents struggle as they adjusted to life in New Haven. Then they found the Philippine-American Association of Connecticut. It changed how they were able to build community in the city and across the state. 

“This oversized garage in West Haven was transformed into a little Manila,” he remembered with a smile. “We would do Filipino folk dances, learn Tagalog, and do all other Filipino-ish things. I didn’t have language for this as a kid, but there was a difference in the affect of my parents in this garage, compared to the grocery store before asking a question in English.”

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Top: Student artists, from Hillhouse's dance team to Cooperative Arts & Humanities High School student Alijah Steed leads the National Anthem. 

Cenabre, who for years did not know how to reconcile the worlds in and outside of that garage, started to code switch even as a young kid. When he and his parents were in the West Haven space, surrounded by community, “I danced,” he said. Back in New Haven, he worked to conform, obedient in school. He responded to questions with a regimented “Yes Ma’am” or “Yes Sir,” he remembered, because he thought it was what adults expected him to do. 

Then when Cenabre was seven, he had a teacher—”the incomparable Ms. [Waltrina Kirkland-]Mullins—who launched the inaugural International Day for students at Davis Street School. For the first time, he marched across the stage with a Filipino flag, and could see his parents beaming from the audience. During the same school year, Cenabre watched as his parents came into the school, and spoke about their culture. 

“It taught me in many ways that my culture is something to be proud of, not to hide,” he said. As he spoke, a long white-and-purple poster that read I’m bilingual, what’s your superpower? peeked out from one wall. “And 30 years later, here I am trying to teach the same thing. Here we are trying to teach the same thing.” 

“Looking back at my time as an NHPS student from kindergarten to twelfth grade, I don’t remember not one of the 33,000 worksheets I digested,” he continued. “But I remember each and every one of my 33 teachers. To all of you, as your student, colleague, and friend, I am in awe of you.”  

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Harmony Davis Cruz-Bustamante: "We all appreciate the work that you all put in, even when it is difficult.”  

Still glowing from the call-and-response of Movimiento Cultural Afro-Continental and the NHPS staff choir, Board of Education Student Representative Harmony Davis Cruz-Bustamante also dipped into memory, remembering the teachers who have influenced and inspired them during their years in the city’s public schools. 

There was the sixth grade teacher who could make them laugh without fail, always ready with a joke or gentle response. There was the second grade teacher who encouraged them to try new things. There are the high school teachers at Wilbur Cross, where they are a rising senior, who make it their business to know what’s happening at home, and have become a safe haven at school. 

And there were the teachers Monday—thousands of them—who cheered Cruz-Bustamante on when they introduced themselves as Harmony, a chosen name that describes the sweet, euphonic magic that sounds can make when they come together and choose to live side by side. Now a senior at Wilbur Cross High School, Cruz-Bustamante thanked teachers for the deep care that they have shown them and to fellow students, which makes their last first day of school in New Haven a bittersweet one. 

“For you all in this room, and those walking into school on the 31st who are committed to creating containers of love, safety and knowledge, even when the roofs are caving down, it doesn’t go unseen,” they said, rattling off a list of teachers that could have gone on for half an hour. “Almost all students feel the exact same way. We all appreciate the work that you all put in, even when it is difficult.”  

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Top: A detail from the NHPS Staff Choir. Bottom: An NHPS student and staff band.

Others, including Negrón, U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona and New Haven Federation of Teachers President Leslie Blatteau, worked to balance the infectious, palpable joy of a new school year with the very real challenges that teachers are facing in New Haven and across the country. When school starts this Thursday, NHPS teachers will still be feeling the aftershocks of Covid-19, including significant learning loss, social and emotional disruptions, and chronic absenteeism. 

And yet, Blatteau noted, they also know exactly what they and their students need. To applause and cheers, she pointed to a five-point plan, including working to make students better readers, creating more opportunities for hands-on learning, building more intentional bridges between the schools and surrounding New Haven community, a focus on student health and wellbeing, and ensuring that schools are “safe, welcoming and well-maintained.”

Throughout her remarks, Blatteau added that self-care is not at odds with one’s work as a teacher—in fact, it’s in line with it. “There are limits to what we can do each day,” she said. “Our wellbeing matters. It’s directly connected with the wellbeing of our students.”  

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U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona. 

Others built on that message, injecting it with both humor and resolve. Decades before he was the U.S. Secretary of Education, Cardona was a teacher getting ready for his first day of fourth grade in the Meriden public schools. His story is the story of so many teachers, he said: he'd purchased crayons, notebooks, and pencil cases out of pocket. He had butterflies. His excitement was matched only by his nerves. 

"That was a long time ago, like the 1900s," he said to laughs. Two decades later, many of his students have schoolchildren of their own. He didn’t know it then, but it was the beginning of a career dedicated to advocating for students and teachers. 

"I can tell you, the butterflies of a new school year, seeing new students and their families on the first day—a day full of hope,” he said. “A day where all students start with a clean slate and an advocate in the front of the classroom. Man, that feeling never gets old, knowing that you have the potential to shape lives. And we know these last few years, you've saved lives." 

As teachers head back into their classrooms, he continued, he has an assignment for each of them: to create a playlist for the school year, studded with songs to keep them going when the going gets tough. From Bon Jovi’s “Living On A Prayer” to Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” to Journey’s upbeat “Don’t Stop Believing,” his suggestions ranged from sweet to serious, highlighting the importance of diversity, history, and truth-telling in the classroom.

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“Maybe if you feel like politics is trying to creep its way into the classroom—people telling you what books you can read or accuse you or indoctrinating because you welcome all kids?” he said. “Because you welcome all kids?! For those moments, I want you to have Aretha Franklin’s “R.E.S.P.E.C.T.” on repeat.”

To a roar of appreciation, he went on to suggest Kendrick Lemar’s “Sit Down and Be Humble,” a song that can feel tailor-made for parents’ rights groups and those trying to privatize education. Then he switched gears—and languages—and made room for Nuyorican phenom Marc Anthony, whose 2013 “Vivir Mi Vida” and 2004 “Valió la Pena” still often seem made for teachers.

“Some days, you're gonna look in the mirror, and you're gonna say, 'Voy a reír.’ And some days, you're gonna look in the mirror and you're gonna say, '’Voy a llorar,'" he said, continuing on to “Valió la Pena.” “Because as hard as it is, and as much as it is physically and emotionally draining, this profession is worth it. Valé la pena.”

He assured teachers that as they return to their classrooms this week, he’ll be advocating for them in Washington, D.C., employing what he called the “ABCs of teaching” along the way. For him, those include not just advocating for loan forgiveness and easier pathways to certification for teachers, but trusting teachers' agency in their own classrooms, building "better working conditions and pathways for career growth and opportunities," and instituting more competitive wages for teachers. 

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Afghan student leading an Attan, or traditional Afghan dance. 

He added a "D" for diversity among both students and educators, the first of which is already true of the city’s schools. He praised Negrón for making that part of her platform as superintendent, a job that she began with a multilingual listening tour, and is continuing Tuesday evening with a canvass geared toward quashing chronic absenteeism in the 2023-2024 school year. 

“New Haven has the chance to be the shining model for how you raise the bar,” he said, addressing both Negrón and all the educators gathered. "In three days, thousands of students will enter your classrooms and enter your hallways. Teachers and educators, teach like you're changing the trajectory of their lives with your presence—because you are! Leaders, lead like your decisions are protecting public education in this country, because it is!”

“Palante, Siempre Palante!” he added to cheers. In the section where John C. Daniels Interdistrict School of International Communications teachers sat, someone waved a Puerto Rican flag in celebration.  

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Top: Alisa Bowens and Dr. Madeline Negrón. Bottom: State Rep. Toni Walker with a student from Edgewood School.

Nowhere, perhaps, was the morning’s joy more palpable than when Negrón took the stage, putting her best foot literally forward before she spoke. As teachers transformed into a Latin dance team (a nod to Alisa’s House of Salsa, which put a routine together in three days), Negron first watched from a chair in the audience, and then took her place on the stage to join in. 

At first, she seemed unsure and methodical, looking down at her feet as she moved. But it was a fake out: she burst into a smile, looked into the audience, and began to salsa with dazzling precision. The room exploded in sound, teachers rooting her on. Around her, a dozen educators had transformed into dazzling salseras and saleros, with flowing white skirts and bright flowers that pulsed red from the stage. 

Catching her breath, Negrón wound back the clock to her first day as a world languages teacher at Windham Middle School in Willimantic. For years, the city had been her landing pad and her doorway to education: it was where her family moved when they left San Lorenzo, Puerto Rico for the mainland. It was where she learned to trust her own love for education. And it was where she learned to fight a culture of racism and low expectations—first for herself and her siblings, then for her students. 

"That joy that I had then, I have it today,” she said. “First day on the job. Getting ready to open the doors to our kids that are going to be ready to be joining us on Thursday. I hope you're feeling as excited as I am today."

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Emcee Justis Lopez. 

Part of that is implementing a vision for the New Haven Public Schools that includes listening to students, staff and families, raising expectations among both students and teachers, addressing a district-wide literacy crisis with urgency and immediacy, and treating staff “like the professionals that you are.” She explained that she operates from a relational leadership model, rooted in trust, responsiveness, and mutual respect. 

She also urged teachers not to operate from a place of low expectations, which she once faced as a young Puerto Rican girl for whom English was a second language, and poverty was not a foreign experience. “"Adults only saw the fact that they had a Brown girl in front of them, who could not speak English, and that translated to this pattern of low expectations,” she said. 

On Thursday, she continued, students from all corners of the city will walk back into school. It’s on teachers, NHPS staff, and administrators not to discriminate against a single one of them—whatever language they may speak or cultural background they come from.     

“I know that we know better,” she said, reflecting on the discrimination she herself faced as a young girl. “We know better because we know that every family is sending us their precious best. They're entrusting us to do right by them. They're entrusting us to prepare them for the future.”

That is why I am counting on every single one of you,” she continued. “And I wanted you here this morning to celebrate, to celebrate the fact that we know what excellence looks like in New Haven Public Schools. I know what excellence looks like.”

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Co-Op teachers Henry Lugo and Matt Chasen. 

The message resonated with teachers like Henry Lugo, who is entering his second year teaching strings at Cooperative Arts & Humanities High School, and his sixth in the district (for four years, he taught at Betsy Ross Arts Magnet School, where he built and introduced culturally relevant pedagogy for his students). 

“It wasn’t part of the long term plan,” he said with a gentle smile—and yet he can’t imagine where else he’d want to be. This year, he said that his goal is to reach more students, and to show them how string music can teach them both in and outside of the classroom. 

Monday, attendees could see that in real time, as he arranged members of a staff and student band, then got the whole athletic center dancing from the bleachers. It felt like the year had started already, and he had a whole 72 hours to go.  

“I love it,” he said. “I really feel that I found a home at Co-Op.”