Hartford school and city leaders attending a two-day
retreat discussed declining test scores, preliminary plans to
request a 5.9 percent budget increase for education and the need
to be brutally honest with legislators and each other about problems
in the city's schools.
In what was perhaps the most harmonious and productive meeting
of Hartford's school board and administration since the city
resumed control of the school district, board members, the mayor
and the superintendent aired grievances and articulated goals.
The weekend retreat took place at Avon Old Farms Hotel Friday
and Saturday, with some board members spending the night at the
hotel compliments of The Hartford, the retreat's sponsor.
Participants called on educators to make clear presentations
on data such as dropout and graduation rates, and to communicate
with legislators and city leaders in a way that will persuade
them to provide the money needed to improve student achievement.
Officials described the conundrum they face in being honest
about the district's problems, challenges and failures while
simultaneously seeking more money.
``We need the suburban support,'' school board Chairman Robert
E. Long said, referring to legislators. ``They look at the city
as an enclosed place with nothing but problems. You can't tell
people you need more security guards without telling them why.
... But telling them about crises in the city helps alienate
us from them.''
But anything short of pure honesty obscures the mission, Vice
Chairman Michael C. Williams said. ``To only look at the progress
without giving reality-based information on challenges leads
us to believe we're doing extremely well.''
Mayor Eddie A. Perez, who met with the board from 10 a.m. until
8 p.m. Friday, hammered home the point that complete disclosure
and honesty is the only way to begin improving student achievement.
``The biggest challenge is for us to admit where we're at. If
you don't establish a base line, how do you know when you're
John Simpson, retreat leader and retired Ann Arbor, Mich., superintendent
of schools, said building a ``trust culture'' is paramount, but
that it takes courage.
The facts are ``brutal,'' Simpson said, so ``really being able
to withstand the press or anybody saying, `Wow, we didn't know
it was that bad,' and then saying, `We didn't know either,' ...
is not excuse-making,'' he said.
Superintendent of Schools Robert Henry offered no excuses when
it was his turn to give a brief overview of Connecticut Mastery
The most telling chart tracked the progress of the same mainstream
students in fourth grade in 2000, sixth grade in 2002 and eighth
grade in 2004.
The group lost ground in math over the four years, with 74 percent
testing proficient as fourth-graders, 80 percent as sixth-graders
and just 62 percent in the latest test.
Reading tests showed steady improvement, going from a low of
44 percent scoring proficient in fourth grade, to 60 percent
in sixth grade and 62 percent in eighth grade. In writing, scores
went up from 73 percent scoring proficient or higher in fourth
grade to 84 percent in sixth grade, then dipping slightly to
80 percent in eighth grade.
The Grade 10 Connecticut Academic Performance Test results are
grim, with Hartford sophomores scoring lower than their peers
in the state's other cities every year since 2001.
Next year, Henry said, the district will introduce a revised
math curriculum. The budget includes a $200,000 allocation for
new math textbooks.
Henry and his staff explained the work that goes into revising
curriculum, including changing schedules and training teachers.
Then Williams asked Simpson: ``How do we mediate the sense of
urgency that the board has and the sense of nuts and bolts that
the administration has?''
Simpson said the board should ``keep the sense of urgency''
but tackle a small number of topics at a time rather than expect
a complete overhaul in the system.
Officials presented an early look at budget needs for 2005-06,
but cautioned that the numbers could change by the time they
submit a finished proposal to the board on March 29. Preliminary
figures show a requested $12.2 million increase in spending --
for an operating budget of $216.2 million.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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