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Leaders Take Broad Look at Schools

March 21, 2005
By Rachel Gottlieb

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 moving?''

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 Test results.

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. 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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