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High School Makeover Plan

By ROBERT A. FRAHM, Courant Staff Writer

August 24, 2007

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Two of the city's three large public high schools are performing so poorly that they should be replaced with smaller, more manageable schools as early as next year, the city's top school official said Thursday.

Superintendent of Schools Steven J. Adamowski called for a complete overhaul of Hartford Public High School and Weaver High School after another round of discouraging scores on an annual statewide test of 10th-graders.

Citywide, the latest scores on the Connecticut Academic Performance Test remained little changed from last year's, with just 14 percent of high school sophomores reaching the state goal in mathematics and 15 percent in reading.

That is well below last year's statewide average of 46 percent. This year's statewide results will be released next week.

To turn those numbers around, Adamowski wants to break the high schools up into smaller units - part of a long-range plan to create a citywide all-choice school system that would give parents options to select from a wide range of schools with specialized themes.

The remaking of Hartford Public would include setting up smaller units in the building, which recently underwent extensive renovations. But the reorganization of Weaver could include the opening of a second campus in addition to the current building on Granby Street, Adamowski said.

"We have to redesign our [large] comprehensive high schools. We can't have these high schools continue to operate" in their current form, he said.

Across the nation, cities such as Boston, New York and San Diego have begun breaking up large high schools in an effort to improve achievement and reduce the number of dropouts.

"What we've learned is that small is an important ingredient" in creating successful schools, said Marie Groark, a spokeswoman for the Seattle-based Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which has poured millions of dollars into the creation of new schools across the U.S.

"Test scores have gone up, graduation rates have gone up," she said. "Students are saying for the first time, `Somebody cares about me.'"

In Hartford, Weaver and Hartford Public would be the first two high schools to undergo overhauls as part of Adamowski's plan to shake up the city's struggling school system, where test scores have been among the lowest in the state.

A third large school, Bulkeley High School, performed slightly better than Weaver and Hartford Public and was not immediately targeted for redesign.

The city's lowest scores occurred at Weaver and Hartford Public, where only 4 percent of sophomores met the state reading goal. In addition, nearly half the sophomores at those two high schools fell into the "below basic" category in mathematics, the lowest performance level on the test.

The exam includes sections on reading, mathematics, writing and science. No students at Hartford Public and only three at Weaver passed all four sections.

Those results are in contrast to some of the city's smaller magnet schools, where scores showed marked improvement this year. In particular, Adamowski cited Capital Preparatory Magnet School, University High School and the Greater Hartford Classical Magnet School.

The biggest gains came at Capital Prep, where, for example, 43 percent of sophomores met the state goal in mathematics, up from 13 percent a year ago.

Officials at the three magnet schools attributed the gains to a renewed commitment by faculty to focus on achievement, including extra tutoring and new Saturday academies. Adamowski said the size of those schools - ranging from 260 students at Capital Prep to about 650 at Classical Magnet - makes them more manageable and personal.

By comparison, enrollment at the city's large high schools ranges from 1,200 at Weaver to more than 1,500 at Bulkeley.

"If you're in a small school, it's easier to have close personal relationships between teachers and students," Adamowski said.

He also said the success of those magnet schools is related to a rigorous curriculum and a sharp focus on each school's mission.

He said no specific redesign has been recommended for Weaver, but he is proposing that Hartford Public be divided into units emphasizing career and technical education. Any changes would require school board approval.

Last month, Adamowski announced plans to redesign four of the city's lowest-performing elementary schools. Three of the schools - Burns, M.D. Fox and Milner - would undergo complete reorganizations of staffing, curriculum and governance while a fourth, Barnard-Brown, has been recommended as the new site for Capital Preparatory Magnet 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.
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