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Dr. Perry's Beef

Steve Perry, principal of Capital Preparatory Magnet School, has a problem with his fellow educators and parents, and he's written a book about it

Daniel D'Ambrosio

August 04, 2009

Conversations with Dr. Steve Perry, founder and principal of Capital Preparatory Magnet School, are frequently interrupted by business.

The first interruption came when I was sitting with Perry in his office on the third floor of the old G. Fox building in downtown Hartford, where the magnet school, serving grades 6-12, shares space with Capital Community College. There was a knock at the door and a young man tentatively entered the room.

"Come in, please. What's up, chief?" said Perry.

The young man asked if Perry could please turn off the cell phone he had confiscated from him earlier in the day.

"Can I turn it off? No, I want it to die," replied Perry in a pleasant, conversational tone.

The young man objected that he was trying to put away the cell phone when it was taken from him in the hallway.

"No you weren't, you had it on," replied Perry. "In life there are no scholarships. You pay for every lesson you learn, son. Thank you, son."

With that, the young man withdrew from the room. Perry smiled and retrieved the offending cell phone from his desk drawer, turning it off.

"I wanted the battery to run out so when he got it back he wouldn't be able to use it still," said Perry. "I really believe there are no scholarships in life. You pay tuition for everything you learn."

Since opening Capital Prep in 2005, Perry has quietly become a national figure in the education debate, particularly as it pertains to minorities since 75 percent of the students at his school are African-American or Latino. With 100 percent of Capital Prep's graduates moving on to four-year colleges a track record that drew applause from the audience in a recent airing of CNN's Black in America 2 Perry has caught the attention of the national media.

He is a frequent guest on cable news shows, and has just completed his fourth book, Raggedy Schools, which is described on his Web site as exposing "teacher's unions, principals and Black parents for destroying public schools."

Perry's beef with teachers comes from their union rules, which allow a teacher with seniority who is laid off to bump out a teacher with lesser seniority anywhere else in the school system.

"It's horrible, the destruction of education," says Perry. "Teachers have guaranteed jobs, regardless of whether they're more qualified. There's no competition. As long as you've been in the [school] district longer, you got it."

Perry thinks Hartford parents should be attending meetings of the teacher's union to demand an end to the seniority-based system, or to at least limit bumping privileges to the school where the teacher is employed.

How, Perry asks, in a school district like Hartford's where 30 percent of the students are "at goal" in academic achievement, can 97 percent of the teachers receive an evaluation of competent or accomplished?

"It's because principals are not showing the courage necessary to identify the least effective teachers and get rid of them, or they don't know how to. It's either courage or knowledge," says Perry.

And finally, Perry blames parents, who are mostly black and Latino in the case of Capital Prep, for not showing up, literally and figuratively. He points to Capital Prep's football games as Exhibit A.

"If there are 40 kids on the team there should be at least 80 parents there. That never happens," says Perry.

Perry's tough talk earns him many admirers, but Eric Bailey, communications director for AFT Connecticut, the teachers' union, believes Perry himself is the problem.

"Instead of working with the teachers, Steve Perry has chosen to play the blame game," said Bailey. "What's worse, his racist remarks about black parents are offensive and disgusting. Superintendent Adamowski and the Board of Education should be calling him in and demanding his resignation."

But Perry stood by his remarks.

"There's nothing more racist than keeping a system that has created an achievement gap that is among the worst in America in place so teachers and principals can be guaranteed employment regardless of the performance of the children," said Perry. "If I as an African-American cannot say that black parents need to be involved, then there is no hope for moving our community forward in education or any area."

Hartford Public Schools could not be reached for comment.

Khamarr Smith, 16, is a junior at Capital Prep and has been at the school since it was founded, entering in the 7th grade.

"I got in this school because in elementary school I used to get in trouble a lot," says Smith. "I was in a social program, a mentoring program, and one of the guys put an application in for me."

It came as a surprise to both Smith and his mother when he was accepted into Capital Prep.

"She thought I knew about it," he says. "I was like, 'I have no clue what you're talking about.'"

It wasn't exactly smooth sailing for Smith when he made the transition to Capital Prep. In fact, he says he almost got kicked out a couple of times, and in the 8th grade, he was written up more than anyone else in the school for infractions like talking back, leaving class without permission and falling asleep in class. The student in second place wasn't even close.

"If you doubled or tripled their amount of referrals it still wouldn't be close to mine," says Smith.

Perry confirms that Smith was a "hellion" when he first came to Capital Prep.

"We did everything we could from yelling at him to telling him we loved him," says Perry. "Somewhere along the way even water can erode rock. I guess we cracked the rock. What we found was an amazingly beautiful young man who's going to set the world on fire."

Jenna Cormier, 17, who is white, came to Capital Prep from the suburbs in Manchester, fitting in nicely at the school her mother first told her about.

Perry said Cormier is not seen by the other kids as "Jenna the white girl," but simply as someone who "sees people as people."

"Mr. Perry says all the time it's like a family, and it really is," Cormier says of Capital Prep.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Advocate.
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