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Recipe For School Reform

August 4, 2007
By STAN SIMPSON, Courant Staff Writer

Alexis Highsmith's upbringing was decidedly middle-class. Born and reared in Hamden, she attended private schools, then went on to Duke University where she earned a degree in history. After that, it was law school at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

She's in her first year as an attorney at Greater Hartford Legal Aid, a nonprofit where she can "interact with a broad spectrum of people and make a difference."

"Now that I'm working here, I kind of have a stake in the Hartford community," Highsmith, 28, said Friday. "The way our services work, we have a lot of partnerships with community organizations."

Highsmith is one of the many advocates for a nationally acclaimed charter school for Hartford like New Haven's Amistad Academy - a development that would provide an encouraging sign of school reform in Hartford.

The state Board of Education next month is expected to approve a proposal for a K-8 school from the nonprofit Achievement First organization. A final endorsement must come from the state legislature.

"There's a certain culture there," said Highsmith of her spring visit to the New Haven-based middle school. "There was definitely this amount of respect that the teachers give the students and that the students are able to give back to the teachers." Her father, Carlton Highsmith, an entrepreneur, is a member of Amistad's board of directors. Her late mother, Deborah Highsmith, was a speech pathologist for the New Haven school district.

On Wednesday, I noted the laudable progress of Jumoke Academy, a once-struggling K-7 North Hartford charter. In the latest Connecticut Mastery Test, Jumoke's 21 7th-graders made great strides in reading, math and writing, including an astounding 95 percent at or above the state goal in writing.

The small number of urban schools that have gained traction in reducing the academic achievement gap are those with strong leadership, a clear mission and an energized corps of teachers. Most of these charters are nonunion, creating tension. But teachers in at least three state charter schools have joined unions. How the charter school philosophy of extended days meshes with union work rules bears watching.

The state can build only so many independently run charters. Meaningful change will occur when school districts not only include charters as part of their school choice options, but incorporate the philosophies districtwide that make those schools distinct - extended school days, Saturday academies, accountability and the ability to amend curriculum to meet student deficiencies.

I've been both intrigued and infuriated with the success of Amistad. The school, which takes in a mostly poor and an almost entirely black and Latino population, has consistently registered competitive test scores. Its achievements in reducing the achievement gap between black and brown students and their white peers earned a personal visit from then-Secretary of Education Rod Paige a couple of years back.

But it was maddening to watch Connecticut, the state with the largest achievement gap in the country, not act with a sense of urgency in duplicating the Amistad model. New York City was so enamored with Amistad, it built five such academies, which Achievement First oversees. Now, Elm City College Preparatory operates in New Haven. Another Achievement First school is opening in Bridgeport next month; Hartford's would open next fall. This is a big deal.

Connecticut is starting to get it. The seeds of real education reform are finally being planted.

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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