Gina Navarra arrives at Dwight Elementary School at 6:30 a.m.
Most days she's not the first teacher there.
Inside the 19th-century brick
building on Wethersfield Avenue in Hartford, 10-year-old Angel
Reyes wears an audacious T-shirt proclaiming "Future College
On the ground floor of the
four-story building, violin music comes from underneath the
stairwell. In the makeshift "music
room," teacher Emily Tuber is giving Tatiana Aquino and
Klaudio Jovani, both 8, a violin tutorial.
Something quite extraordinary is happening at Dwight, which
four years ago registered among the lowest Connecticut Mastery
Test scores in the district. This year, they're among the top.
Mighty Dwight went from Watch List to Watch This!
Dedicated teachers, high expectations of students and no excuses
about limited resources are among the reasons why Dwight recently
gained national attention as a Blue Ribbon school. It's making
strides to narrow the academic achievement gap between poor minority
students and their more affluent peers.
On the CMTs, the Dwight fourth grades are ranked No. 1 in the
district in the percentage of students above the state goal in
reading, writing and math. But with Kathy Greider, the driving
force behind the turnaround, promoted from school principal to
district principal this year, the thing to watch now is whether
Dwight can sustain its momentum.
"She's got the best staff in here. These people work hard," said
Navarra, 27, a Hartford native. "They're dedicated, devoted,
tenacious. I've never worked with a harder-working group of people."
It wasn't always that way. When the energetic and animated Greider
took over in 2000 at age 33, she was elevated from Dwight teacher
to its new principal. She knew firsthand of the apathy throughout
the school. And then she did something that is normally a career-killer
for a new leader: micromanage.
Dwight was chaotic, lacking discipline and structure. Greider
implemented procedures for just about everything, from how the
kids would line up in the halls to how teachers would run their
As you could imagine, she was not voted Ms. Popularity. Today,
80 percent of the teachers who were there during the down years
are gone, replaced mostly by new hires in their 20s.
"The first thing I tackled was the school culture," Greider
said this week, while giving me a tour of the school. "Underneath
it all, if you don't believe that children in your school or
your community can achieve at high levels, you will never get
there. The kids in this building know who the adults are that
care for them, love them, believe in them. They can read you
as quick as they can see you."
Greider then reached out to parents, many of whom were not engaging
the school. She also established corporate and community connections
to augment the school's limited resources.
Now PTO meetings are well attended and corporate partners have
funded a playscape and computer technology.
Dwight's students are a mix of Latinos, African Americans, Bosnians
and others. Ninety-five percent of the families live below the
poverty level, most speak English as a second language. Many
come from single-parent homes.
Excuses were readily available if you wanted to quit.
That didn't prevent the school from promoting college as an
option well within the students' reach. There was even a tour
of Central Connecticut State University.
Angel Reyes says his college
2014 T-shirt says it all: "That
tells me the year I'm going to college. I think I'm going to
CCSU. If you didn't think about college now, then when you grow
up you're not going to be thinking about college."
Add Dwight to a small, but growing list of Hartford schools
making us take notice of their achievement.
Remind Greider of the near-implosion at Simpson-Waverly elementary
school after acclaimed Principal James Thompson retired last
year and she insists that won't happen with her departure.
The cadre of young teachers she has hired is a solid foundation,
and her hand-picked successor, Hartford-bred Stacey McCann, is
an effervescent go-getter who will keep the embers burning.
"If this doesn't sustain itself, then it's really a reflection
on me," says Greider. "I didn't set it up right."
From this vantage point, it looks like things are finally in
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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