February 21, 2007
By STAN SIMPSON, Courant Staff Writer
Steven Adamowski, the latest Hartford schools chief, understands that the high schools misguidedly get all the attention when we talk about dismal test scores and dysfunction.
The graduation rate is 29 percent. Only 10 percent of Hartford students go on to a four-year college. A few years ago, there were more city ninth-graders reading at the fourth-grade level than at the freshman level.
But if the school district is ever to stop the hemorrhaging, the tourniquet has to be applied not on the high schools, but at the elementary levels. Educators tell you that third-grade reading is the most accurate predictor of a student's future achievement and a school district's vitality. Those scores are used to project a school district's graduation rate and, in several cases, a region's prison-population growth.
Three-quarters of Connecticut's 18,900 prisoners don't have a high school diploma. Only 15 percent of Hartford's third-graders are reading at grade level. If there is an exclamation point to magnify the most profound problem with the city's schools, insert it here: Little Johnny Ain't Readin'!
"You could draw a straight line between reading achievement in third grade, the rate of graduation in the 12th grade and the rate of incarceration," Adamowski said. "And you could actually predict it every step of the way based on who is reading in the third grade."
Connecticut dumps $605 million a year warehousing inmates, most of whom are functionally illiterate. But what if Connecticut took on what education researchers indicate is the real contributor to the prison population - illiteracy?
Adamowski, the reform-minded former Cincinnati schools chief, will be de-emphasizing a once-heralded Success For All reading program, saying it was poorly implemented. He says he's going to direct $14 million of $20 million in federal money earmarked for education-remediation to principals so they can hire reading tutors to augment the literacy programs they choose. Previously, most of that federal money went to other education programs, Adamowksi said, not specifically reading. Another new initiative is to mandate that any child not reading at grade level by the end of the first, second or third grades participate in a five-week, three-hour-a-day summer reading program "so you have more time to close the gap."
Hartford reading teachers will get additional training from the Haskins Laboratory at Yale University, a nationally recognized reading institute. Adamowksi's goal is to significantly ramp up the percentage of third-graders reading at grade level and fortify the foundation for achievement.
"A student who is not [reading at grade level in Grade 3] has the life prospect at best of working poverty - and at worse a life of incarceration," Adamowski said. His brief tenure has been marked by brutal candor. He says that the $108 million Hartford Public High School renovation project is ill-conceived, that the school district had been dealing with deceptive numbers on student achievement and that a military magnet school is an idea worth considering. He wants to see unfettered school choice across the district and ninth-grade academies to better prepare freshmen.
Adamowski's assessment of the system he inherited is that it's fixable. The best way to transform Hartford schools - and to measure his success - is to put extra attention on grades 1 through 3.
"We have been a system of a thousand initiatives. And we do a little bit of everything - but nothing well," Adamowski said. He's keeping things real simple for now. Get. Kids. Reading. Early.
A third-grader could understand that.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at