Web Sites, Documents and Articles >> Hartford Courant News Articles >

A Personal Approach To Teaching

Academy At Hartford Public Aims To Reduce Truancy, Dropout Rate

March 14, 2005
By RACHEL GOTTLIEB, Courant Staff Writer

Jonathan Serrano is cruising through his first day of math class after a five-month expulsion from Hartford Public High School for bringing a knife to school in September.

Having done his time at the city's high school for students who have emotional disturbances, Hartford Transitional Learning Academy, Serrano, 16, is back at Hartford Public and doing his best to fit in with his class. On this February day, he doesn't have a textbook and periodically he announces to the teacher and to his class that he missed instruction on this algebraic principle or that one. But he is engaged in class and he clearly has a talent for mathematics.

Hartford Public is trying to save students like Serrano through a special program for ninth-graders, called the "pride academy." In a cluster of classrooms on the school's second floor, students at the lowest academic level, called basic level, and those in special education take all of their core classes together.

The idea, Principal Mark Zito explains, is to create an intimate environment within the large school of about 1,400 students, so teachers can get to know their students and by tracking them more closely, perhaps keep more of them in school. The academy has about 150 students.

Throughout the nation, as cities are seeking ways to reform large, comprehensive high schools, they are increasingly turning to the idea of small learning communities within the schools. Middle schools have long employed the strategy.

Hartford's other large, comprehensive high schools have academies as well. Bulkeley High School has a similar program and the city schools also have theme-based academies.

The first year of high school is the breaking point for many students who were promoted through the elementary grades despite inadequate academic progress. In high school, for the first time, students are confronted with the reality that if they fail classes, they won't earn the credits they need to move up a grade. In a city in which more ninth graders read below the fourth grade level than read at the ninth grade level, the cold reality of credits, coupled with life's stress and the increasing independence of high school, drives half the freshmen across the city to give up each year and drop out or stay back.

The dropout rate reported to the state does not reflect the true scope of the problem, Zito said, because students can miss weeks of school, but if they show up once or twice within 30 days then they are not considered dropouts. Students with more than 20 unexcused absences in a course automatically fail the course, and a tremendous number of students do miss more than 20 days of school.

In the 2002-03 school year, for example, 7.1 percent of Hartford Public's freshman class dropped out - a total of 46 students out of 649 who enrolled by Oct. 1. But the number of students failing their freshman year was more than three times that number with 29 percent of the entire class missing 50 or more days of school.

With sporadic attendance, students maintain their enrollment in the school, but they cannot pass their classes and earn the credits they need to progress to the next grade, Zito said.

By creating a more personalized environment, both Zito and Bulkeley Principal Miriam Morales-Taylor say the district is hoping to reduce truancy, failure and the frustration that contributes to students dropping out of school.

The academy is having some success. Freshman Rukmin Rampersaud said, for example, that she enjoys coming to school now because she likes her classes - particularly the "teen leadership" class that the academy requires. The class focuses on developing character, learning to work as a team member and writing skills. When she was in middle school, Rukmin missed a lot of school, in part, she said, because she had to rely on a school bus, which she often missed. Now she walks.

Others hate the walk in the cold, traversing unplowed sidewalks and slushy streets. So after a snowfall, they stay home. Empty chairs mark their absence. "If everyone on the list were to come every day, we wouldn't have enough seats. But not everybody comes," said Lynn Fidler, a special education teacher in Hartford Public's academy.

Many Distractions

All the students in Hartford Public's academy are divided into two teams - the red team and the blue team - and each class has a regular and a special education teacher. Bulkeley also has team teaching.

But even with a team of teachers in each classroom, capturing students' attention - and holding it - is a daunting task. Teachers compete with so many distractions, such as the photo album that a Bulkeley transfer student is showing to a new friend in Jack LaPlante's Hartford Public social studies class.

Yet, in another social studies class, students are quiet and seem to be paying attention. Several take turns reading aloud from a textbook and LaPlante goes over the main point after each reading. At the end, the class works collectively to answer four questions - each a question that LaPlante has asked and answered throughout class. The class gets four out of the five questions wrong and LaPlante is disappointed.

"You read the section," he said to the class. "What are we going to do to improve the score?"

Nobody had an answer.

After class, co-teacher Lynn Fidler reflects on the group and the distractions in their lives. Four of the girls are pregnant, she said, and one of them recently lost her home to a fire. Also, since the class backs up to lunch, others may have been hungry. Fidler keeps a huge box of crackers in her cabinet to pass out when students complain they're hungry.

Each class is 80 minutes - twice the time of a regular high school course - and since the teachers will loop with their students into the tenth grade, they have the latitude to alter the schedule. So, for example, classes are 80 minutes long to decrease the down time that comes with changing classes. Because the classes are so long, students are able to complete an entire year's course in a semester.

As the first semester drew near its end, the teachers, who ate lunch together every day to discuss students and fine-tune the program, decided that students would feel less disrupted if they kept the same teachers and schedule second semester. So after Christmas break, the students who completed ninth-grade science began tenth-grade science rather than social studies. Next year, those students will take two concentrated semesters of social studies to cover their freshmen and sophomore coursework in a single year.

Except for extreme misbehavior, the teachers don't send students to the principal's office or suspend them. Rather, "if a student is disruptive, we put the red team kids in a blue room class and blue in red so they don't have their friends as an audience," Fidler said.

Can't Save Everyone

As innovative as the academies are, they don't save everyone. Some students simply won't come to school.

Natasha Mercado is one of them. When she enrolled in the academy in September, she was 15 and she had two children: one was 2½ years old and the other was 9 months. She stopped coming to school in November, she said, around the time she turned 16. Her teachers thought the trouble was a lack of consistent day care. The day care in the school accommodates seven children, but two of those slots are taken by staff members' children, and there are 17 children of students on the waiting list.

Natasha, though, said that her mother and her grandmother take care of her children. What she didn't like about Hartford Public, she said, was some girls were giving her trouble and she wanted more attention from her teachers than she got.

Since she left school, she said, no one from the school contacted her. Zito checked with his attendance staff and said that on Dec. 9 the school sent a letter home but no one responded, and on Jan. 25, an attendance worker called her home but there was no answer.

Her teachers miss her. Meg Geary, who team teaches with the science teacher, described Natasha as a pleasure to have in her class. "She's a bright kid and she's adorable, pleasant."

Zito said he has two attendance workers and that they do what they can. But he said that parents must play a larger role in getting their children to school. "Everyone expects the school district to solve the problem of truancy. Parents need to assist the school district. If your kid is 14 years old and he's lying in bed, get him in to school."

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 |
Powered by Hartford Public Library  

Includes option to search related Hartford sites.

Advanced Search
Search Tips

Can't Find It? Have a Question?