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Hartford Public Isn't Ready

September 1, 2006
By RACHEL GOTTLIEB, Courant Staff Writer

Hartford Public High School - the school that led the way to the state's unprecedented state takeover of the city's school system when it almost lost its accreditation in 1997 - will not be ready to open Tuesday when the rest of the city's schools open because of problems with renovation.

The school is also behind in setting up schedules for students and teachers, officials said.

Teachers trying to set up their classrooms Thursday used the word "chaos" to describe the condition of the building as they walked past "Danger/Do Not Enter" signs and construction workers in hard hats. The school is in the midst of a $105 million renovation project.

Some rooms, teachers said, didn't have phones; the intercom system wasn't working; some rooms were blocked off behind new walls; there was dust in the air; some textbooks were stored in inaccessible rooms; copying machines didn't work; and one of three elevators wasn't functioning.

The teachers, who asked for the delay, "are concerned about starting with chaos," said Cathy Carpino, the teachers' union president. "It's very hard to regain discipline when you start in such a difficult teaching environment."

Andrea Comer, a school board member who is on the school building committee, said she was surprised by what she saw.

"I'm astounded," Comer said. "Some of these kids have enough chaos to deal with. Why would we ask them to come into this situation and learn? We talk about test scores and holding the teacher accountable. Where's the accountability to give them an appropriate place to learn?"

Instead of school starting Sept. 5, freshmen will report Sept. 7 and upperclassmen will start Sept. 8. Until Thursday, officials had been optimistic the school would be ready to open on time.

Perhaps even more serious than the renovation troubles is the lack of schedules for teachers and students, Principal Zandralyn V. Gordon said.

Although the school has as many teachers this year as it did last year, more are needed because of a change in classroom structure to conform with a district policy to create small, thematic clusters.

The goal is to allow students to stay in defined areas rather than attending classes all over the large building. But in order to pull that off, Gordon said, the school needs more teachers. She said she isn't sure how many more teachers she needs.

Chris Doyle, the school's union representative, said district officials are canceling classes that don't have 28 students. Honors and advanced placement classes are generally small classes. This year, Doyle said, an honors English composition class and an advanced Shakespeare class he teaches every year were canceled for low enrollment.

"If they want the best and the brightest, they deserve as much as the lower-level kids. We're becoming a core-subject school," Doyle said.

The problems led some teachers to question what would become of the school's accreditation, a major issue at Hartford Public for years.

In 1997, the New England Association of Schools & Colleges nearly pulled its accreditation. The crisis fueled the calls for a state takeover of the city's system.

With help from powerful political leaders, the school hung on to its accreditation, but it was placed on probation. It wasn't until 2001 that full accreditation was restored for curriculum and instruction, leadership and organization, assessment of student learning and school performance and the school's statement of purpose.

To this day, the accreditation standard for community resources - specifically finances, the expansion of Hartford Public's library and the renovation and expansion of the entire school building - remains on probation.

"We're all concerned about accreditation. We will have a visit from accreditors in April, and we're getting ready for that now," Gordon said.

The continuing probation for the condition of the building propelled the city to approve a renovation plan for the school. Year after year, cost estimates rose - first $75 million, then more than $80 million, and finally the state legislature approved spending $105 million.

Still, the project is plagued with cost overruns and a complicated schedule designed in phases to allow school to remain in session during construction. Recently, the project's contingency was run down to zero, and city officials are projecting cost overruns that could be in the millions.

The project is expected to be completed by spring 2007.

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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