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If Kids Can't Read, What Can They Do Later?

August 18, 2006

One kid.

Among 50 third graders from Milner School in Hartford, a single boy reached the state goal for reading on mastery test scores released the other day.

More than half of all third graders in Hartford and New Haven lack basic reading skills. Not even this newspaper thinks this is worthy of a front page story anymore: Poor kids failing, folks. Nothing new here.

I don't hear politicians talking about this. I hear nothing. It's nauseating.

We have a school where one student out of 50 is on par. Four miles away - in a neighborhood near my home in West Hartford - it's five out of six third graders who reach mastery goals at Bugbee School.

If a child can't read by third grade, can anyone honestly ask why we need a special "gun court" to handle the teenagers who shoot each other?

It isn't the teachers. It isn't the wasted money. It isn't the teenage parents and the joblessness and everything else that comes with poverty.

It's that I can't find any outrage. News that we have a school where just one precious boy gets our seal of education approval slips by us like dirty water down the drain.

No child left behind? This is every child but one left behind.

When I called former Education Commissioner Theodore Sergi, who cares deeply about urban schools, he told me I'm oversimplifying things. I wonder what the last dozen years have been all about.

Nothing, if you look at Milner.

I was here when former Superintendent of Schools T. Josiha Haig grew so frustrated over the schools that he camped out in front of city hall. I was sucked in by a for-profit company that hoodwinked folks into thinking it could run city schools.

One night in 1996 I saw a parent so mad he poured a pitcher of ice water on a board of education member. Months later I sat in the state Capitol as legislators patted themselves on the back when they "took over" city schools.

I listened, and believed, when a superintendent of schools promised we will never be last again. I spent months in classrooms watching teachers pour themselves into the lives of their children.

Where are we now? Our education commissioner jumps to the superintendent's job in Greenwich, because it's "a microcosm" of Connecticut. Meanwhile, 800 Hartford third-graders read below basic skill levels.

When was the last time you heard Jodi Rell talk about this?

"This is criminal. If you have 30, 40 or 50 percent of minority children who can't read, you can't hire them. Which means we can't grow our companies here," said Joseph McGee, vice president of the Business Council of Fairfield County.

"Either you teach them to read or you pay for jail later on," McGee, a former commissioner of economic development, told me.

Years of federal research show that poor readers, without intervention, rarely catch up. Third-graders who can't read won't succeed.

We spend more than $13,000 per student in Hartford. We are still last. Vouchers don't solve the problem, but I can't see any reason not to give every single family at Milner School a chance to get the hell out, now.

Let's cheer all those changes in Hartford. A big taxpayer-financed convention center. Condos and apartments. A new skyscraper. A school district the state pours millions of dollars into.

And one lonely third-grade reader at Milner.

Get me a pitcher of water. I want to dump it on somebody.

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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