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The Secret To Dwight's Success

COMMENTARY by Stan Simpson
September 28, 2005

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 Student 2014."

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 classes.

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 order.

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.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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