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New London - When Nicholas A. Fischer applied to lead this city's school system, he saw a small city struggling with many of the same educational issues that larger urban districts face. But Fischer, whose five-year tenure as superintendent of schools ended Thursday, said he also saw a challenge.
"What I like to do professionally is come into a district and be able to say, 'It is possible to significantly raise student achievement by raising the adults' expectations of kids,'" Fischer said. "What was very attractive, and it still very attractive, about New London is that it is possible to make a significant difference, and I think we proved it."
To raise the expectations of students, the district, led by Fischer, implemented policies requiring students to demonstrate literacy before graduation and establishing a minimum grade point average of 2.0 in order to participate in extracurricular and athletic activities.
New London also established a teacher evaluation system based on student achievement. The state determined that the city's system exceeded state requirements and granted New London one of only two waivers from having to adopt the state's own system.
Fischer also faced the challenge of changing student behavior, particularly at New London High School, where some students had become involved with local gangs.
Working with the School Resource Officer Max Bertsch, Senior Assistant State's Attorney Lonnie Braxton and others, Fischer helped develop the Juvenile Review Board, which aims to reduce the number of students suspended or expelled from school.
In many cases, Fischer said, doing what is best for the student involved, looking at the totality of that student's circumstances and realizing that making additional services available to the student would do more good than a court hearing or expulsion. "Teaching isn't just about what goes on in the classroom," he said. "It's about the many things you have to deal with as a teacher, a principal, or a superintendent and dealing with kids one by one."
And earlier this year, New London High School was awarded its first national recognition - a bronze medal as part of U.S. News & World Report's "2014 Best High Schools" rankings - for performing "better on state reading and mathematics assessments than their poverty level would lead one to expect," and having "disadvantaged student subgroups that performed better than the state average," according to the group's methodology.
"My core belief is that when kids leave school, they should have the skills they need to have choices about what they do and have the skills and knowledge to be successful in lives as adults whatever they choose to do," Fischer said. "So when I look at the measure of what we did, yes, we made a lot of progress and I think we made the schools safer."
Fischer's administration was also marked by a sometimes contentious relationship with the city's Board of Education, culminating in the board's decision last year to not renew Fischer's contract.
"For my first two years the board was quite supportive," Fischer said. "But then the majority on the board shifted and, in particular, the board president made it her political mission to replace me." He was referring to Margaret Mary Curtin, who has been board president since late 2011.
Fischer said many board members were angry with him for encouraging the state to get involved in the district and to assign a special master to oversee the school system, and because they thought he was intentionally withholding information from them.
"What I perceived is that the board at that time was dysfunctional. They were trying to get involved in micromanaging the school district and I was also concerned that the district was going through multiple years of no increase in the budget," Fischer said of his support of the state's involvement in 2012. "The state had to make a decision. We were making progress but we weren't going to be able to sustain it unless we got some outside help."
In April 2013, the board voted 6-1 to allow Fischer's contract to expire without discussing the decision in a public session. At the time, The Day filed a complaint with the Freedom of Information Commission, citing evidence of an informal meeting or collusion among board members.
"I think the crux of the board's disaffection with me was political," Fischer said. "Did I feel the board was forced to follow FOI rules? No. Did I feel the decision was made in the best interest of the students? No."
During his time as superintendent, Fischer helped develop the ever-evolving plan to transform the city's school system into the state's first all-magnet school district, which could ensure greater choice for parents and financial stability for the district. "I think we've made a lot of progress, but there's still a lot of work to do," he said.
Though he has not made a decision just yet, Fischer said he is considering seeking out a job that would allow him to help build effective teacher evaluation systems or consult principals and administrators about improving student achievement.
If there's another opportunity to work as a superintendent in an urban district, Fischer said, he would pursue it because "it's possible to make a difference, and I think it's worth it."
Though his five years in New London had its ups and downs, Fischer said he regrets nothing.
"My wife Karen and I love the community, we love the work we've done with parents, kids and the staff, and I feel very good about what we've accomplished," he said. "Is it easy? No, but no job like this is easy."