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Overhaul For Four Schools

Worst-Performing Facilities In City To Undergo Curriculum, Staffing Changes

July 26, 2007
By ROBERT A. FRAHM, Courant Staff Writer

Hartford Superintendent of Schools Steven J. Adamowski targeted four elementary schools Wednesday for complete overhauls next year as he released the latest test scores for the city's struggling school system.

The four schools - M.D. Fox, Barnard-Brown, Burns and Milner - again had some of the city's lowest scores on the annual Connecticut Mastery Test and will undergo dramatic changes in staffing, curriculum and management, Adamowski said.

Adamowski, pledging to continue a citywide shake-up of schools, will recommend to the school board that planning begin this fall to revamp the four schools by fall 2008.

The changes are the first wave of reforms designed to turn around alarmingly low test scores that leveled off this year after several years of decline.

"The best thing you could say about the test results is that they are not continuing to go down," Adamowski said. For the previous five years, however, "the district was almost in free fall in terms of its decline," he said. The city's students have posted some of the worst average scores in the state.

"Our education system has to be significantly, if not totally, redesigned to close the achievement gap," he said.

The latest Hartford test results were mixed; some schools reported encouraging gains, but the overall numbers indicate the daunting task that remains. This year, for example, 30 percent of Hartford's third-graders met the state proficiency level in reading - far below the 69 percent average among third-graders statewide a year ago. This year's statewide averages have not yet been released.

At Milner School, just 23 percent of third-graders met the reading proficiency level and at Burns School, 22 percent.

"There are a lot of problems, to be honest, with that school," said Wanda Torres, president of the Burns Parent-Teacher Organization. A complete overhaul "sounds good," she said, "but is it really going to work? Burns School really needs more parent involvement and more teachers who really care about their students and more discipline."

Across the state, children in grades 3-8 took the mastery test in the spring. Statewide results will be reported Friday.

In Hartford, the most encouraging test results were in mathematics, where scores improved at every level except Grade 4.

At Grade 4, scores fell in all three mastery test subjects - reading, mathematics and writing. Officials were investigating but were unable to explain the decline.

The overhaul of the four schools identified Wednesday is the first step in what Adamowski envisions to be a system allowing parents to make choices among a wide range of schools - including options such as year-round schools, all-boys or all-girls academies or schools specializing in the arts or international studies.

No specific design has been adopted for the four schools named Wednesday, but among ideas that have been mentioned are a Montessori program, a British primary school in the West Indian tradition or a school emphasizing character education, similar to the city's popular Breakthrough Magnet School. Parents and school officials will be involved in discussions of options, Adamowski said.

One of the goals is to recruit top-notch teachers to staff those schools. In Hartford and elsewhere, many low-performing schools have some of the least experienced teachers, Adamowski said. "What we're looking for," he said, "is a cadre of experienced teachers ... preferably with advanced degrees."

Teachers currently at those schools, in many cases, would be transferred to other schools in the city.

Under Adamowski's plan, schools that are successful will be granted significant levels of autonomy while those showing low performance or declining scores will be targeted for intervention or, in the most severe cases, complete redesign.

In addition to the four schools named Wednesday, several others also could be redesigned if their test scores do not improve by next year. Among them are Sand, McDonough, Sanchez and King. One school that had been a candidate for redesign was Kinsella, but the test scores there improved enough to allow officials to remove it from a list of schools in line for an immediate overhaul. Kinsella is undergoing renovations, and officials plan to maintain it as a magnet school specializing in the performing arts, Adamowski said.

Although the latest test results showed little overall change, some schools posted dramatic improvements. Officials cited three neighborhood schools - Betances, Burr and Naylor - for significant gains, along with the Greater Hartford Classical Magnet School and the Capital Preparatory Magnet School.

The largest gains came at Betances, where Principal Josephine Smith, part of a new administration at the school, saw major improvements especially in grades 3 and 4.

"There are parents who really jumped on board," Smith said. "Teachers were really passionate about teaching and learning." She also said the school monitored students closely and used test data to modify lessons and teaching strategy.

Adamowski said that Betances, whose students come from some of the city's poorest neighborhoods, is a model. "We've had this stereotype in Hartford that only our magnet schools can do well," he said. "I think these results show exactly the opposite. The greatest gains are coming in some of our highest poverty schools."

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.
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