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Some Urban Schools May Be Shaken Up

Proposed Reorganization Would Tackle Low Achievement

March 8, 2007
By ROBERT A. FRAHM, Courant Staff Writer

Some of Connecticut's most troubled urban schools could undergo complete shake-ups - in staffing, curriculum, even school hours - under a proposal outlined Wednesday by a coalition of education groups.

The coalition, led by the University of Connecticut's Neag School of Education, would bring together leading experts to reorganize up to a dozen schools in cities such as Hartford, Bridgeport and New Haven.

Those schools, patterned after a similar program that has operated in Boston for more than a decade, would be granted significant autonomy to tackle the problem of chronic low achievement among urban schoolchildren.

The coalition includes teacher unions, superintendents, principals and others. Calling itself the Connecticut Alliance for Improving Teaching and Learning, the group would attack an achievement gap that finds many low-income and minority students lagging far behind white and middle-class children.

"We can change our most challenging schools into places where all children can be successful," said Richard L. Schwab, dean of the Neag School, who introduced the proposal at the state Capitol.

Connecticut has some of the largest achievement gaps in the nation on math and reading tests in the National Assessment of Educational Progress, also known as the Nation's Report Card.

The coalition will appeal to the legislature for about $5 million this year and up to twice that much annually in the future to support the plan, Schwab said. State Senate President Pro Tem Donald Williams and state Sen. Thomas P. Gaffey, co-chairman of the legislature's education committee, attended Wednesday's press conference and said they believe there is support for the proposal.

Under the plan, UConn would become the site of a new Center for Urban Education that would tap into the latest research and expertise, providing assistance to urban schools from UConn's main campus in Storrs and regional campuses in Hartford, Waterbury, Groton and Stamford.

In addition to providing training, helping schools recruit teachers, and testing new approaches to discipline, one of the center's key projects would be the reorganization of up to 12 existing urban schools based on a Boston program that began in 1995.

In Boston, 20 schools, enrolling about 10 percent of public school students, have been granted unusual levels of autonomy in staffing, budgeting, curriculum, governance and school schedules and calendars.

That model, the Boston Pilot Schools program, allows schools to operate much like charter schools. Charters are publicly supported experimental schools that operate without the constraints of many administrative and union rules, allowing for changes such as a longer school day or school year.

The Boston program was, in part, a response by the school district and teachers' union to the competition from charter schools, said Dan French, executive director of the Center for Collaborative Education, a Boston non-profit agency that helps coordinate operations at the pilot schools.

"No one can deny that charter schools have placed increased pressure on regular school districts to be more innovative," he said.

A study last year found that the pilot schools, compared with Boston's other public schools, had better attendance, lower dropout and suspension rates, higher percentages of students going to college and better test scores.

In Hartford, where officials are studying ways to reorganize several of the city's lowest-performing schools, a pilot school similar to those in Boston is one alternative, said Steven J. Adamowski, Hartford's school superintendent.

"I'm very familiar with the Boston Pilot School model," he said. He said agreements with unionized Boston teachers to waive some work rules "opened the door for redesigning the schools in very significant ways."

He added, "Yes, we are interested in this. I'm hoping the UConn project may be able to provide us with assistance."

Under the Connecticut plan, school districts, working with unions and other coalition members, would identify schools to become part of the model program and agree to waive some of the usual restrictions governing most schools.

"I'm 100 percent behind it," said Reginald Mayo, superintendent of schools in New Haven and one of the officials attending Wednesday's press conference. "I'm going after a couple of schools to be a part of this, if not more."

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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