Fischer upset some, but schools improved

Outgoing New London Superintendent Dr. Nicholas Fischer apparently missed the memo that the key to a long and pleasant tenure as the top administrator of a school system is to keep the Board of Education happy.

In a recent interview, Dr. Fischer said he did what was right for the students, even if it meant alienating board members. That goes a long way in explaining why last year the school board voted not to renew his contract when it expires a week from today, despite the fact student performance improved during his tenure.

"I think the board was angry with me," said Dr. Fischer, 68. "They've been angry with me at several levels."

He regrets not being able to continue as superintendent and missing the transition that will convert New London into the state's only all-magnet-schools system, in the process attracting greater state aid and diversifying student enrollment racially, ethnically and economically.

Dr. Fischer, however, said he has no regrets about the stances he has taken.

"I'm very proud of what we've accomplished. I feel terrific about it and I would do it again," he said.

Three years ago, Dr. Fischer pushed aggressively for state intervention in New London schools. That led to the appointment of a special master and the magnet-schools plan. In making his case for state involvement, he argued a dysfunctional board was getting in his administration's way.

"My concern was that the actions that the board was taking were interfering with what we had been asked to do as an alliance school district, namely to improve student achievement," Dr. Fischer said.

When both the City Council and school board agreed to consolidate the municipal and school finance departments, Dr. Fischer essentially scuttled the plan, successfully lobbying the special master to kill the idea. He argued the plan was half-baked and would hurt, not help, the fiscal health of the school system.

His administration pushed the school board to impose a minimum 2.0 GPA for eligibility to play sports or participate in other extracurricular activities. And New London was three years ahead of the state in implementing a comprehensive teacher evaluation system. Opposition to the superintendent built up with every step.

That he would deliver his criticism bluntly while challenging his critics to put up or shut up, did not engender warm and fuzzy feelings.

However, the number of economically disadvantaged New London High School students attending college after graduation tripled during his five-year tenure. This year U.S. News and World Report awarded NLHS a bronze medal in its "2014 Best High Schools" rankings, noting its improvements.

In the state's most recent evaluation of state academic performance tests, 70 percent of the tested grades in New London's elementary and middle schools showed progress in the number of children reaching or exceeding state standards.

The improvements came even as the education budget remained frozen in place during most of Dr. Fischer's time as superintendent and enrollment grew from 3,000 to about 3,300.

He expressed frustration that state Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor did not intervene and block the board's decision to replace him, despite the academic improvements.

"To me the message that this sends out," said the superintendent, "is that if you really go out and do what needs to be done, you're not going to be supported. People have this misperception that you can make everyone feel wonderful and still make the changes you have to make."

As New London welcomes a new superintendent, it is a cautionary tale. Tough and sometimes unpopular decisions will continue to be part of turning city schools around. To see reform through, state education officials must be prepared to draw lines and not let the protection of any group take precedent over the students.

While he will never win awards for diplomatic skills, Dr. Fischer did appear to have the welfare of students at heart. As his pending replacement, Terrence P. Carter, noted, "When I look at the data, I see that Dr. Fischer has done a great job getting them on a trajectory of achievement; the numbers do show he has them on the right trajectory."

For that, we applaud Dr. Fischer for a job well done.

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