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Substance vs. Style

Dr. Steven J. Adamowski's reform of Hartford Public School is making progress, but it's also rubbing some people the wrong way

Daniel D'Ambrosio

March 24, 2009

The mood soured quickly last week at a public meeting in Hartford's Theater of the Performing Arts to discuss a projected $18 million shortfall in funding for the public school system.

The shortfall comes as a result of Gov. M. Jodi Rell's efforts to deal with a state budget awash in red ink. Rell has frozen the Education Cost Sharing (ECS) payments to Connecticut cities and towns at current levels, holding back the 4 percent increase Hartford was expecting. For a city that relies on the state for two-thirds of its school budget, projected to be $367.6 million for 2009-2010, that's a big problem.

"It's hard enough when times are good, hard enough when funding's not going down," said Superintendent of Schools Dr. Steven J. Adamowski of the shortfall in an interview last week.

At the public meeting, an angry, packed house of Hartford parents frequently interrupted Adamowski during the first portion of the meeting when the board of education was supposed to be talking amongst themselves.

"Address it! Address it!" someone shouted when it seemed Adamowski might be sidestepping an issue concerning the programs that will be offered next year at Weaver High School, one of the lowest-performing schools in the city. "There are no choices because you left no choices!"

Although not responding directly to the shouted remarks, Adamowski told the board, "We cannot operate next year on $18 million less without making cuts."

The shortfall comes just as Adamowski and his greatly reduced staff in the Central Office down from about 230 when he took over in December, 2006, to fewer than 100 in the coming year are seeing their overhaul of Hartford Public Schools bear some fruit.

An analysis of 2007 and 2008 Connecticut Mastery Test scores by ConnCAN (Connecticut Coalition for Achievement Now), an education think tank based in New Haven, showed that the number of Hartford students scoring within the goal range of the test increased by 2.3 percent, nearly four times the statewide average of 0.6 percent.

That's a good start, said Adamowski, but it's only a start. "We have to do that every year for the next decade nine more times to close the achievement gap," he said.

That achievement gap is the worst in the nation, according to Adamowski, with the percentage of Hartford kids scoring in the CMT goal range about 26 points below the statewide average of about 74 percent.

Adamowski's reforms have included a multi-million-dollar building program funded primarily by the state that will see five new schools open this year. It also includes a downsizing of student populations into themed "academies," such as sports medicine or engineering, that strive to ensure no student suffers the damaging anonymity that often comes with big city high schools.

"You want every kid to be known, you want them missed, not just walking around a big high school where they get lost," said Adamowski.

For Hartford schools that do well, there is a high degree of autonomy for the principal and his staff under Adamowski's system, up to and including the formulation of the school budget. But for those schools still skimming the waves of academic achievement, the Central Office intervenes. And if a school falls below 40 percent proficiency on the CMT and CAPT (Connecticut Academic Performance Test) it is shut down and relaunched with a new team in place. Existing teachers and administrators have to reapply for jobs.

"The only thing that stays is the building and the kids," said Adamowski. "It's a different program with different personnel. We start over again, applying everything we know."

So far that's happened to 11 schools. Fox and Quirk middle schools closed this year and will reopen in about two years. Weaver High School has just squeaked by.

Another key element of Adamowski's reform is the ability of Hartford parents to choose the schools their children attend. As might be expected, that choice has resulted in a shortage of seats for certain schools and certain academies. Dr. Christina M. Kishimoto, assistant superintendent for school design, said there were 700 applicants for 400 seats in Weaver's culinary academy, and 600 applicants for 200 seats in its new journalism academy. There will be a lottery on March 31 to settle these placement issues, she said.

This year marks the first year for an all-choice process, and Kishimoto was pleased to find close to 90 percent of Hartford parents submitted applications for their children on time.

"For a process that's completely new for this community, the actual response was tremendously high and very positive," said Kishimoto. "We will now monitor how many students get their first, second or third choices."

Even Adamowski's critics seem to agree the substance of his reforms have a good chance of pulling Hartford kids up from the bottom of the achievement gap. But they say his style leaves a lot to be desired, and the results were manifested in the angry shouts that came from the audience at the public meeting last week.

"I think parents are OK with the reform but what they're saying as far as the way it's being implemented is it's not OK," said Milly Arciniegas, president of the PTO council. "They feel disrespected and not part of the process. It's about respecting the culture and respecting us as being the decision makers for our children. He should be valuing using us as partners to say 'What do you guys value in education? What's a priority to you guys?'"

But don't expect Adamowski to be asking those questions of Arciniegas or anyone else any time soon.

"We're not politicians going out to campaign for support because you're doing what somebody like Milly wants you to do," said Adamowski. "Support is based on results. The majority of our parents supports our schools and supports our reform because their child is going to a good school."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Advocate.
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