May 24, 2007
By ROBERT A. FRAHM, Courant Staff Writer
The success of a sweeping school-choice plan for Hartford's struggling school system will hinge on convincing parents the new schools they choose will be better than the ones they already have.
Getting parents to buy into Superintendent Steven J. Adamowski's proposed shake-up of the city school system will be crucial, according to parents, school board members and others who got their first detailed look at the plan during a board meeting Wednesday.
"I understand the advantages of an all-choice system," said board member Ada Miranda. "It's an ambitious plan ... [but] the choice that parents want is quality."
Adamowski told the board that replacing failing schools with high-quality alternatives is the central objective of his plan. It would give students across the city a broad array of options ranging from all-boys or all-girls academies to schools focusing on careers such as nursing, teaching or financial services.
Adamowski was hired last year to turn around a school system that has undergone numerous efforts to improve academic performance but has continued to post some of the lowest test scores in the state.
Some of the proposed specialty schools are certain to stir debate, but most board members Wednesday welcomed the idea of giving families more choices.
"What we have now, for the most part, is not working," said board member Andrea Comer. "Let's not pretend by making drastic changes we're making things worse. By creating more choices, at least, hopefully, we will address more parents' concerns. I think we're taking a step in the right direction."
Some ideas drew praise. Comer liked the recommendation for charter schools modeled after the successful Amistad Academy in New Haven. Board member Elizabeth "Brad" Noel singled out a plan for new Montessori schools.
"If you talk about no-brainers ... this is something loads and loads of people want," she said.
The first new specialty schools would open in 2008, with most schools ready within five years and the entire plan completed within a decade, Adamowski said.
Mayor Eddie A. Perez, chairman of the school board, said, "Our biggest challenge is to talk to parents and engage them in the work we're about to do."
Sam Saylor, president of the PTO president's council, said an ambitious plan "is the only thing we'll tolerate because we've dealt with disappointment for so many years." He said that the new system "has got to be designed to pull in parents."
By proposing a broad range of choices, Adamowski is tapping into an approach that is being tried elsewhere.
Across the country, many school districts have expanded choices through magnet schools and charter schools. Seattle, Denver, Milwaukee and several other cities operate extensive school choice systems.
"A lot of districts have variations on districtwide choice," said Marguerite Roza, a research professor at the University of Washington's Center on Reinventing Public Education.
"The movement is toward more choice. Sometimes the holdup is in ... the details around transportation," she said.
In Seattle, for example, where a choice plan has been in place for nearly a decade, officials are considering modifications to the plan as they weigh issues such as the cost of busing, the high demand for some schools and low enrollment at others, according to a recent story in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.
"The problem in a lot of places is that they haven't thought out the next step. ... When do you close a school if nobody wants to go?" Roza said.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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