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Hartford Schools Making Progress, National Researchers Say

Vanessa De La Torre

January 11, 2011

Researchers from the University of Washington who have been studying the city's public schools released their findings on Tuesday, appearing to validate Superintendent Steven Adamowski's reform efforts while cautioning against a dip in progress.

The Center on Reinventing Public Education, a national think tank based in Seattle, examined Hartford as one of 21 city school systems around the country — among them New Haven, Los Angeles, New York City and Boston — that are part of the center's network of districts that have adopted a "portfolio" strategy for reform.

The portfolio approach emphasizes six elements: autonomy at the school level, funding with a per-pupil formula, school choice for families, closing or aggressively overhauling low-performing schools, seeking out new ways of hiring talented staff, and partnering with outside groups for support.

Some districts practice only a few of the elements, researchers Paul Hill and Sarah Yatsko said. But as they told a crowded room of school and community leaders Tuesday night at the Hartford Public Library, the city has managed to tackle aspects of each.

So far, Yatsko said, "the achievement data looks very promising."

"Knowing all the constraints on Hartford, I was surprised at how far they've progressed," Hill, the center's director and a professor at the University of Washington, said in an earlier interview. Hartford, Hill said, is "a model for other middle-sized cities that are looking to do a lot better than they've been doing."

Among the challenges the researchers identified were "stringent" certification requirements for new teachers and administrators in Connecticut —which they believe limit the hiring of professionals who may have career experience in core subjects — and a seniority-based system of layoffs, part of the existing labor agreement with teachers.

But they also pointed to a three-year trend of test-score gains among some of the district's lowest-achieving schools. When Adamowski first began reform efforts about five years ago, 26 city schools were ranked at the bottom of the district's own assessment scale. Now there are a handful, Yatsko said.

Hartford's progress is "at a pivotal moment," she added. "This is the point for the district to decide, at the departure of the superintendent … whether or not they want to continue this type of reform."

Adamowski plans to retire this summer, and the school board is conducting a superintendent search that will focus on internal candidates first. A new schools chief could be named as early as mid-February.

Jim Starr, executive director of the education reform group Achieve Hartford!, said he interpreted the study's findings as an endorsement of Adamowski's school choice system of neighborhood schools, magnet programs and specialized academies.

The new superintendent should "show some fidelity to the reform and what has been working," Starr said.

The school choice system has drawn a complicated mix of praise, confusion and some resentment from various corners of the city.

Yatsko, who visited Hartford twice last year, said she appreciated the "unflinching candor" she received from her interviews with administrators, school principals, board members, local advocates for reform as well as critics of the school system. The center's look at Hartford is part of a broader study, in its third year, of seven cities that include New Orleans, Washington, D.C., and Chicago that have adopted aspects of the portfolio strategy.

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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