January 12, 2007
By RICK GREEN, Courant Staff Writer
Numbers don't matter.
If they did, then the seven of 10 students in Hartford who don't graduate on time, if ever, would mean something. They don't.
Why, thousands of them can't even read very well, so what if they don't graduate? Somebody's got to work at the mall or Target. That's their future - and our economy.
Not only hasn't this situation changed, it's grown more dire in the 15 years that I've listened to dynamic superintendents, solemn state legislators, worried mayors and confident state commissioners of education say they care. Hartford's new superintendent is the latest. He's even got his own ugly numbers.
Of the 2,233 students in the Class of 2006 who started high school in Hartford four years ago, 640 - or 29 percent - were left to graduate last June.
"It's just incredible," Steven Adamowski told me.
Another superintendent is shocked. Good for him. Ten years ago, there was a million-dollar dropout prevention strategy. Then the state, in charge of city schools, had another powerful plan.
Does it matter that seven years ago, former Superintendent Anthony Amato said that numbers like this "stopped me cold" and persuaded him to start something called "Save our Seniors." Or that 15 years ago, a highly regarded corporate-funded program sought to do the same thing - and was eliminated. Or that in 1993, a UConn study found that three of four ninth-graders were failing, had dropped out or had moved away by senior year.
"It's worse than we want to admit," the UConn dean said at the time. It's worse now.
"I've never seen this before in my career," said Adamowski, who is blunt, focused and intense.
Welcome to the Rising Star, Mr. Superintendent. Folks in these parts don't get shocked. We've been running segregated schools for decades. What's a few (thousand) minority dropouts?
"Why is the community not up in arms? Why isn't the business community stepping forward?" Adamowski said. "This is a crisis."
It does seem so hopeless, and then you meet a sparkling woman such as Elizabeth Nieves, who works with what the high schools call "repeaters" - ninth-graders who can't pass. A dropout prevention case worker at Bulkeley High School, Nieves had something else to show me when I stopped by to talk about Adamowski's incredible dropout numbers.
A smiling face in a picture on her tiny office wall. A life saved.
A few years ago Michelle was another angry teenager spiraling out of control, not going to school. Nieves got involved in her life, cajoling and dragging her back, getting her into special programs with counseling and making sure she stayed in school. She graduated and now she's a mother who is finishing her certification as a nursing assistant.
For folks keeping score in the suburbs, that's one less welfare payment, one less uninsured mother.
"She wouldn't have finished," her mother, Lesby Cruz, told me when Nieves introduced me to her in the hallway. "It was the only support she ever received," Cruz said of the long hours Nieves put in with her daughter.
What shocks isn't the numbers. It's realizing that lives don't have to be flushed away.
Like every new superintendent, Adamowski is eager to take on the challenge. He says he'll close failing schools and make sure that children can actually read and do math. And finally, finally, do something about this dropout rate and show teenagers that it's worth thinking about a life.
"It happened with Michelle," Nieves told me. "It's possible. It just takes commitment."
Now that's incredible.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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