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First Phase Of Reforms Launched In Hartford Schools

By ARIELLE LEVIN BECKER | Courant Staff Writer

August 24, 2008

Monday, as thousands of children begin the school year, the Hartford school system will begin the first major phase of an ambitious reform plan designed to transform the way 24,000 children in the state's poorest city are educated.

The lowest-performing schools in the district have been shut down and reincarnated with different teachers and new educational philosophies.

And new schools are opening, based on models that have worked elsewhere, including the acclaimed Amistad Academy in New Haven and the rigorous International Baccalaureate curriculum used worldwide.

Some schools will have longer days and even classes on Saturdays.

Hartford Public High School has been transformed from a traditional, comprehensive high school to a collection of smaller academies with specialized focuses like nursing and green technologies.

Many more schools are beginning the year under some form of monitoring, with the eventual threat of redesign or other consequences if they fail to make enough progress in student performance.

And parents will gain a measure of control under a school choice program that began in two grades this year, and will expand throughout the district next year.

The man behind the changes, schools chief Steven J. Adamowski, arrived in Hartford two years ago with blunt words about the public school system's failures and promises for sweeping changes. His efforts to close the persistent achievement gap, one of many similar efforts in cities nationwide, are being watched closely.

Others have promised change in Hartford before, only to find themselves overwhelmed by poverty, despair, politics and persistently low student performance. In the past two decades, the district has been through private management, a state takeover and a series of superintendents with different visions and attempted solutions.

This time, supporters say, the plan can bring meaningful change, enough to raise achievement in a district where 90 percent of the students live in poverty, where only 45 percent of eighth-graders are proficient in reading and 64 percent of ninth-graders don't get a diploma in four years.

But critics point to potential stumbling blocks they say could undermine the changes.

Some parents and teachers complain that they don't feel respected by the administration or included in the decision-making. Some parents have wondered if, beneath the broad strokes, the details are in place. And, in spite of teacher and staff layoffs over the summer, the district will begin the school year with a deficit.

Either way, the stakes are high something Adamowski underlined in an address to area business leaders earlier this month. By 2020, an estimated 40 percent of the state's jobs will be held by people educated in urban schools.

"There is no way that we can support the economy in our state the way we know it today," he said, "without students in our urban areas doing well."

Accountability

The latest Hartford reforms are intended to solve a problem that has bedeviled high-poverty, urban school systems for years: While student performance has often improved in small pockets, raising performance significantly across the board has remained largely elusive.

Officials in Hartford are trying to break that barrier using a theory of urban school reform that treats a district as a decentralized collection of diverse schools, rather than a uniform school system run on a single model. Schools that perform well are given autonomy, schools that don't do well receive more oversight and those that fail to improve sufficiently get replaced.

Similar philosophies underlie the school rebuilding effort in New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, as well as reforms in Boston, Chicago, New York and other cities.

Paul T. Hill, who is director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington and who developed the model in use in New Orleans, described it as a "common-sense approach" that calls for districts to improve schools any way they can. Schools that are performing well shouldn't be thrown out in the name of transforming an entire district, the thinking goes, but other models that work, including those run by outside groups, should be embraced, too.

Robert Peterkin, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and director of the Urban Superintendents Program, said the widespread adoption of the idea probably stems from frustration with the limits of previous efforts nationwide.

"I think people are looking for a way to get out of some of the routines that people think hold public schools back union regulations, school board oversight, bureaucracy and there's a hope that these will be different," he said.

As Adamowski tells it, Hartford's reform efforts will transform the schools from a dysfunctional, "Soviet-style" system of centralized control and low expectations to a district of unique, independent schools, with high expectations for students and consequences for schools that fail to perform.

In his speech to area business leaders, he cited an Education Trust study that attributed 60 percent of student performance in high-achieving suburbs to parental influence. In Hartford, where families struggle with poverty and many parents don't speak English, the schools must overcome that by playing a far larger role in influencing student performance, Adamowski said.

That means longer school days and years, high expectations and smaller schools designed to foster relationships so a student who doesn't show up will be missed. All students must be prepared for college, with varying levels of support, rather than subjected to tracking, to accommodate different learning styles.

Requiring Results

But the plan doesn't prescribe how schools should achieve that. Instead, it requires results.

Already, schools deemed too low-performing to make significant improvement in student performance have been shut down and rebuilt from the ground up. Teachers at the old schools were required to reapply for jobs, and the new principals were allowed to select their staff.

The former Thirman L. Milner and Dominic F. Burns elementary schools, for example, have been closed down and are reopening this year with new focuses. Milner will be run on the Core Knowledge philosophy, a model used in some 1,500 schools nationwide that stresses cultural literacy and engaging students with literature and poetry. Burns is reopening as an academy for Latino studies, which will use a hands-on curriculum and emphasize having a global perspective, skills in both English and Spanish, and lessons on Latin American countries.

In contrast, schools that have performed at the highest levels Classical Magnet School, Capital Preparatory Magnet School, Sports and Medical Sciences Academy, for example are considered autonomous, with principals given the power to determine how resources are spent, which staff to hire, even what hours the school will be in session.

Schools that fall between the extremes are given varying levels of oversight and coaching, which can change from year to year depending on student performance. Significant changes in performance could ultimately lead to autonomy or being slated for redesign.

While performance will be measured largely by test scores, parent choice will provide another indicator of school performance, creating a market in which parents essentially vote with their feet to signal which schools are appealing and which are not.

This year, the district offered partial choice, allowing all incoming ninth- and 10th-graders to apply for entrance to particular schools for the coming year. Participation was high; of the incoming ninth-graders, 92 percent submitted an application, and 60 percent were placed in either their first- or second-choice school.

There was a wide disparity in schools students requested. In all, 479 incoming freshmen listed Sports and Medical Sciences Academy as their top choice. The school had 80 slots. By contrast, only 77 incoming freshmen listed Weaver High School, one of the city's comprehensive high schools, as their first or second choice. Weaver's freshman academy will open tomorrow with 256 students.

Friction

Of course, plans are one thing; implementing them can be quite another. As the plans for the schools have been rolled out over the past year they have, at times, generated friction.

Teachers have criticized the district's requirement that all teachers in redesigned schools reapply for their jobs, and more teachers than usual left the district this summer, some because they felt insulted, according to the teachers' union. Layoffs of teachers and staff members drew protests.

Andrea Johnson, president of the Hartford Federation of Teachers, said she'll wait and see how the reforms are implemented, but questioned whether decisions about which schools are deemed failing or successful are based on a broad enough set of indicators to truly measure what happens in the classrooms.

The proposal to divide the upper grades at Hartford Public High School into three smaller academies also prompted an outcry, from parents who said they were not properly consulted about the sweeping changes planned for the school.The comprehensive high school, the second-oldest public school in the nation, has been divided into a freshman academy and three upper-school academies, each with a specific theme: nursing; engineering and green technology; and law and government.

The announcement came shortly after the school received accreditation from the New England Association of Schools and Colleges after years of probation, and the plans to change the school troubled some parents.

"That made a lot of people feel like their work [to gain accreditation] wasn't worth anything," said David Ionno, executive secretary of the school's Parent Teacher Student Organization.

Ionno questioned why so many changes are taking place this year, rather than being enacted more slowly. He said the plan takes advantage of a sense of crisis in the city to bring in more radical changes than may be necessary. "I'm not ready to throw out the baby with the bathwater," he said. "I'm willing to try things, but in a sensible way."

And even some people who support the premise behind the changes worry about how they will be implemented.

Longtime South End community activist Hyacinth Yennie supports higher standards and change in the school system, but worries about the details. In particular, she is concerned that schools, which now receive money on a per-pupil basis under a new budgeting formula, will run out of money before the end of the year. She is also concerned that not enough people bought into the changes and have instead felt a lack of respect from the district's administration.

"Change is good sometimes, but it depends on how you do the changes," she said. "It has to be well thought out."

Adamowski said the fact that so many teachers wanted to be in the new schools indicates a widespread buy-in among faculty. Even in the most dysfunctional systems, he said, there's security in the status quo.

He pointed to gains in test scores over the past year as something that will help counteract naysayers, and said better results will help bring people on board.

Still, any major changes, good or bad, won't happen overnight.

Richard L. Schwab, dean of the University of Connecticut's Neag School of Education, which is involved in remaking M.D. Fox Elementary School, said making changes part of schools' cultures will take at least two to three years.

"One of the biggest problems in Hartford is that there've been too many starts and stops, and we can't do that anymore," Schwab said. "We have to work together in setting the direction and following through."

Mayor Eddie Perez, the chairman of the board of education, described the reform plan in terms of a five- to 10-year track. While the board will measure progress regularly, this plan is a long-term effort.

He is hopeful these changes will make a difference. He and Adamowski both point to magnet schools, some of which greatly outperform other schools. The students and teachers come from the city's regular school system, Adamowski said, but manage to produce different results.

"We've done it with magnet schools," Perez said. "Why can't we do it with neighborhood schools?"

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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