January 29, 2006
By DAVID MEDINA, Courant Staff Writer
More than half of the 1,500 to 2,000
freshmen who enter Hartford's public high schools each year never
graduate. About 93 percent of them never go to college. Only about
half of the remaining 7 percent enroll in a four-year college.
Year after year, the bottom line remains
the same: A Hartford student's chances of getting a diploma and
going to college, let alone earning a degree, are minute.
But Superintendent Robert Henry, whose
contract expires in June and who has barely budged that bottom line
in three years, wants another three-year deal.
Standardized test scores hover just
above the bottom statewide. Suspensions and absences show a hairline
downswing. And a questionable formula calculates graduation rate
increases - even when the raw totals drop.
But Robert Henry believes the numbers
make a strong case for a new contract.
Hartford's high schools, meanwhile,
dump about 40 percent of their freshmen into a "basic studies"
curriculum, where students take dumbed-down courses that flush them
expeditiously through the school system, but the courses don't meet
the requirements for college admission.
And Robert Henry, thrust on the city
by state trustees days before the district returned to local control,
thinks that for the sake of continuity and stability, he should
be kept at the helm.
Mayor Eddie Perez, who under a revised
city charter appoints a majority of the school board, wants vastly
improved student achievement to be a hallmark of his administration.
He wants it yesterday. He wants schools to demand more of students,
believing that city children will meet higher expectations, as have
low-income non-English-speaking children in other districts.
In 2004, Perez appointed a commission
that recommended overhauling the curriculum to prepare every child
for college. The panel also suggested steering more students to
private secondary schools, where city youngsters are four times
more likely to go to college. Perez quickly implemented the idea.
Then last July, he established an Office for Young Children in city
hall that, among other things, oversees all of Hartford's preschool
Henry, co-chairman of the commission,
hasn't taken to Perez's initiatives with the same sense of urgency.
The college-prep curriculum moves at
glacial speed. Henry also makes no secret of his disdain for opening
up opportunities to students in private schools. And he was said
not to be thrilled about surrendering a top administrator to handle
preschool from city hall.
As fate would have it, Perez couldn't
find anyone who wanted to be the new school board chairman last
month, so he had himself named chairman, putting him in direct control
of Henry's paycheck.
Henry's contract requires that the
school board advise him by late March whether it intends to keep
Chairman Perez won't say which way
he's leaning, but at his first board meeting, he set up a subcommittee
to find out why the college prep curriculum is taking so long and
to recommend ways of accelerating it. Trust that there's a connection
between the subcommittee's report and Henry's contract renewal.
In defending the pace of college prep
curriculum, Henry says, "You can't simply move 12th-graders
to college without fixing things in the lower grades. That's groundwork
that is taking place." In fairness, he deserves great credit
for opening seven new magnet schools and getting all of the city's
schools accredited. He does buildings well.
But student achievement remains basically
the same, and Henry's fate could rest on whether Perez believes
Henry can institute dramatic changes faster than it would take to
find and hire a new superintendent.
If he chooses to stick with Henry,
Perez may have to light a fire under him by loading the contract
with performance targets, timetables, incentives and penalties.
Better to find someone who doesn't
need all that prodding - an educational leader who understands that
his primary job is enabling all students by any means necessary
to get ahead academically and who doesn't allow process or protocol
to bog him down.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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