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Real Reform: City Schools That Failed Got Replaced

Rick Green

August 15, 2008

After years of baloney from education reformers in Hartford, something simple and revolutionary is unfolding.

Administrators are closing schools that fail.

This fall, 10 new schools will open in Hartford some existing schools that were completely redesigned and others that were shut down and are being reopened with new principals and teachers.

"We've never heard of this before," said Norma Neumann-Johnson, director of Breakthrough Interdistrict Magnet School, who will be overseeing the Breakthrough II school opening in the old Barbour School. "This is radical."

Over the years, we've seen plenty of radical in Hartford: privatization, superman superintendents who turn out to be less than average, a state takeover that made no difference, and always, the stale promises that failing schools would not be tolerated.

One thing has remained the acceptance of extreme poverty and children who can't read. We still aren't doing much about the poverty, but there are intriguing stirrings of change in the Hartford schools. For example, the improvements on mastery test scores in Hartford this year were better than other large urban districts, according to the independent group Connecticut Coalition for Achievement Now.

Still, by any measure, the situation remains drastic. Almost half of all third-graders are reading at "below basic" level, which likely means that most of them will never read well, which means that many of them will join the 36 percent of students who don't graduate on time, if ever.

When I listened to Superintendent of Schools Steven J. Adamowski speak to local business leaders at the Hilton earlier this week, I heard him excoriate a "Soviet-style system" where "generation after generation" of failing students have merely passed through. He told us that the region was in a "death spiral" unless we do something about Hartford's tragically failing schools.

Right. This has been standard practice for years.

But then, after the usual failure-will-not-be-tolerated litany, Adamowski grabbed my attention.

Schools that don't cut it, that haven't cut it for years, have been closed. Schools that succeed will be rewarded.

As in, a restaurant that stinks must close because no customers want the food.

This means a place such as Milner School, where a couple of years ago the fact that one fourth-grader had reached the state goal for reading on the Connecticut Mastery Test was just another "so what" moment for Hartford.

In June, Milner closed. Later this month, Milner will reopen with new teachers and new administrators as a "Core Knowledge Academy."

Neumann-Johnson, founder of the highly acclaimed Breakthrough model and a 40-year veteran of Hartford schools, offered me some perspective. Shutting and reopening isn't a magic pill.

"You can't just take the old people out and put them in the new building," she said. But with a retrained staff, one that is passionately focused around a new mission, with a longer school day and more resources, "the opportunity is here."

I'm told the schools are reopening with new outside models that have a proven track record Breakthrough, Montessori, Achievement First, International Baccalaureate and the back-to-basics Core Knowledge curriculum at Milner championed by educator E.D. Hirsch Jr.

"Our first and foremost goal is to get a significant increase in student achievement," Christina Kishimoto, assistant superintendent of school design, told me.

"These schools have to be successful in year one so we can start building community trust. We are going to focus on assuring families that we will have their kids reading on grade level."

Imagine that. Schools that must teach children to read or else.

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.
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