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School Chief Makes Waves

Crafts New Approach To Learning In City

February 19, 2007
By RACHEL GOTTLIEB, Courant Staff Writer

Visitors to Hartford Public Schools headquarters would step off one of the elevators, and if they went forward more than two strides they would run smack into a wall.

The only break in the long expanse of plasterboard was a tiny window. Behind it sat a uniformed security guard. To the window's right stood a pair of massive, locked doors.

"It was like a prison," said school board member Andrea Comer.

One of the first things Steven J. Adamowski did when he took over the city's troubled school system last fall was to tear down that wall.

Step off the elevator now and you enter a bright, open space, where the word "Welcome" is spelled out in big, brass letters and you're greeted by a receptionist.

Adamowski's demolition hasn't stopped there. Since taking over in November, he has been tearing down figurative walls that for years have hidden the severity and depth of the district's problems.

And his no-nonsense approach sometimes has the subtlety of a sledge hammer.

Straight away, Adamowski said Hartford has some of the worst dysfunction he has seen in more than 30 years as an educator. He has, for example:

Calculated that only 29 percent of high school freshmen make it to graduation.

Called the design of Hartford Public High School's $107 million renovation "obsolete" before it's even finished.

Said the city's three comprehensive high schools aren't educating undergraduates much better than an unaccredited, adult-education program.

Those are just for starters. And disturbing as it may be, board members say they're glad to hear the truth.

And they should be, said George Coleman, acting commissioner of the state Department of Education. "This kind of brutal honesty is important. It's part of accountability."

But in a city where intractable school problems are tightly intertwined with economic and social ills, some wonder whether one man working strictly on an academic agenda can make much of a difference.

They wonder if Adamowski - even with an educational model built for urban school systems and a penchant for novel solutions - can buck the effects of unemployment, substandard housing and crime on children in Hartford.

An Ansonia native, Adamowski calls Hartford "the lowest of the low in a state that is the highest of the high nationally."

It is a district that has lurched through a long series of failed reforms.

There was the fruitless experiment that privatized the schools from 1994-1996.

Then came a state takeover from 1997 through 2002, first under an interim superintendent who made summer school or extended days mandatory for failing students, then under a superintendent who decried "education malpractice" in the system.

Then came the return to local control, but not without fits and starts.

First there was a hybrid school board with a majority of members elected and a minority appointed by the mayor. Then that was flip-flopped - a majority appointed by the mayor and a minority elected.

Former Superintendent Robert Henry rode out those transitions. But he struggled against a board he said was micromanaging, and standardized test scores fell back to the lowest in the state.

And now, there's Adamowski.

The school board quickly got a taste of Adamowski's directness. One of his earliest acts was to give its members homework.

In a December workshop, the superintendent outlined what he saw as the scope of the system's dysfunction. Then he handed out copies of the book "What School Boards Can Do: Reform Governance for Urban Schools" by Donald R. McAdams.

Adamowski told his bosses to read it by the next meeting.

He plans a series of reforms - some of them right out of the book, others unique to Hartford.

High on his list are things that under previous administrations had been sacred cows. Among them:

  • Central office: Cut it to a fraction of its current size. So many people work there, Adamowski says, it isn't clear in some cases who reports to whom.
  • Testing: Eliminate incessant practice-testing in advance of the state mastery tests and spend more time teaching.
  • Suspensions: Implement an academic program for students given internal and external suspensions so they won't fall behind in class as a result of punishment.

That's just for starters.

He wants to give higher performing schools more autonomy over their finances, curriculum, hiring - maybe even over the length of their school days and years.

He wants to give at least $10 million in federal money to principals to spend on reading tutors and other supplementary programs as they see fit.

Schools that haven't improved would be redesigned in the style of others that have succeeded in urban settings.

Youngsters in grades one through three who can't read at their grade level would be assigned mandatory summer school.

Struggling high school students would be encouraged to cut their course loads from five classes to three and to stay in school for an extra year. Those who need help could get tutors, have longer school days or years.

To encourage high school students to be ambitious, Adamowski would award two levels of diplomas - a higher one for those who reach the state goal on the Connecticut Academic Performance Test and complete a college-prep curriculum.

He wants to let parents choose schools - from among inter-district schools that include suburban students or intra-district schools that accept only Hartford children.

Board members are learning that the new superintendent embraces the fine details as much as the broad strokes. And he often sees nontraditional solutions.

A recent presentation of architectural plans for Kinsella Magnet School of the Arts was meant to be a quick informational briefing. It turned into an inquisition of the school principal and a case study in thinking outside the box.

When Adamowski learned that a school dedicated to the arts would offer foreign language, he questioned the principal intensely.

Why would she include foreign language in the curriculum? What would arts students be sacrificing to study a language?

Worried about costs, some board members questioned why the school needed a special "black box" theater when it already had an auditorium.

Adamowski surprised them, suggesting the special theater replace the gym - and dance classes suffice as physical education. Adamowski says he is focused on meeting the state average for proficiency in reading, math and science and the state average for college enrollments.

And he wants a school system that satisfies parents.

But those simple goals have bedeviled superintendents and even state overseers for decades. And some experts are skeptical about academic goals that don't address social and economic problems that affect students.

Casey Cobb, director of the Center for Educational Policy Analysis at the University of Connecticut Neag School of Education, said realistic goals should address housing, the economy and the job outlook.

Adamowski disagrees. The district seems to have been focusing on easing social issues for the past 10 years, he said, and that strategy has failed.

"We have every kind of therapist and social worker possible, yet the poor remain poor," he said.

There is a middle ground in the debate over academic vs. social issues, according to Yale University Professor James P. Comer.

The Comer School Development Program is being used in more than 500 schools.

Under Comer's model, teachers are trained to become more cognizant of each child's circumstances.

For now, Adamowski is focusing on what he sees as the most egregious failings in the system.

As he told his board: "We're in a state of emergency."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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