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Pushing To Close Gap

Magnet School Leader Charts Course For Success

Tom Condon

July 26, 2009

The so-called "achievement gap" is one of those major problems, like urban poverty and the highway death toll, that we could do much better at solving if we really tried. Steve Perry proves the point.

Perry is the principal of Hartford's highly successful Capital Preparatory Magnet School and something of a rock star among local educators. Last week he was on national radio and television shows, including a lengthy segment on CNN's "Black in America" series on Wednesday, and addressed the National League of Cities gathering in Hartford. He is also the author of such books as "Man Up! Nobody is Coming To Save Us," a title that suggests a philosophy of self-reliance and stronger parental involvement in the black community.

A federal report earlier this month found that the achievement gap between black and white students in reading and math in Connecticut is one of the worst in the nation.

I spoke to Perry a couple of times last week about the achievement gap. He has closed it at his school, a magnet school for nearly 300 students in grades six through 12 located in the Capital Community College building in downtown Hartford. All of his students, who are almost 85 percent minority, go on to four-year colleges. The school, which has a longer school day and school year than conventional schools, has hundreds of youngsters on the waiting list. Parents know where the good schools are.

And, increasingly, there are good schools in Hartford. The state's largest school system, abysmal just a few years ago, is turning the corner. The city's 2009 Connecticut Mastery Test and Connecticut Academic Performance Test results will be announced Monday and are expected to show substantial gains.

The improvements must be credited to the radical plan developed by Superintendent Steven Adamowski for an "all-choice" system and more autonomy for high-performing schools. Adamowski has closed six low-performing schools and by this fall will have opened 16 new schools. He is also establishing a new generation of hardworking, entrepreneurial school principals such as Perry who believe they can close the achievement gap.

Perry and the others start with high expectations, demand hard work and reward success. Probably the most important part of Perry's job is recruiting and retaining the best teachers. As a veteran educator once told me, it's all about stars in the classroom.

To get a consistently high level of teaching, officials have some work to do with the union to eliminate work rules that impede good teaching. According to a study earlier this year by the National Council on Teacher Quality, Hartford teachers have twice as much sick leave as the national average and one of the shortest contractual workdays in the country. Nearly all teachers are ranked as competent or above, even those in traditionally lousy schools, and tenure is handed out with little consideration of classroom effectiveness.

One rule that sticks in Perry's craw is systemwide seniority. This means that in times of workforce reduction, e.g. this year, a senior teacher who's not needed at one school can "bump" a junior teacher out of a job at another school.

So after the principal of a magnet school hand-picks a staff, getting the people he or she believes to be the best teachers for the school and theme, other teachers of unknown quality can bump these teachers out. Perry and others believe there ought to be seniority in each school building, not across the system.

The state education commissioner in Rhode Island did away with seniority-based bumping practices in Providence earlier this year. Adamowski said his counterpart in Connecticut has the authority to do the same thing in Hartford, and is being asked to consider it.

It's not clear why K-12 teachers need tenure, essentially a lifetime job guarantee, in this day and age, but as with other questionable provisions, it's in the contract. There's a role for the teachers union, but the schools have to be run for the kids.

Michelle A. Rhee, the reform-minded superintendent in Washington, D.C., has a possible way around the tenure guarantee. She's offering top teachers a separate career track. If they will forego tenure, be evaluated and meet her goals, they can earn an annual salary of up to $130,000.

Adamowski said the school system's longstanding business model is somewhat like that of the pre-bankruptcy auto industry, and needs to be brought into the 21st century. The school board will be working on it at a retreat next month. Meanwhile, one of his tenets is to expand what works. Plans call for Perry's school to move to the former Barnard-Brown building on Main Street, allowing it to double its enrollment.

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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