HARTFORD —— The student populations seem much the same: Minority children from mostly working-class families attending schools in the city's North End.
The school buildings are separated by just a few blocks.
But the achievement levels are gaping.
At Jumoke Academy, a charter school on Blue Hills Avenue, 100 percent of the third-graders were proficient in math on this spring's Connecticut Mastery Test. Two-thirds scored high enough to meet the state's goal in math, while 72 percent did so in reading and 77 percent achieved it in writing, all ahead of state averages.
On Ridgefield Street, third-graders at the city's M.L. King School scored at least 30 points below the Jumoke children in math. Only a quarter of the King students met the reading goal and 47 percent reached it in writing.
In a state where billions of dollars have been committed to raising scores and desegregating classrooms under the Sheff agreement, Jumoke Academy stands out.
Only one child at the 490-student, pre-K to grade 8 charter school is white. The vast majority live in the city and four out of five come from families poor enough to receive free or reduced-price meals.
Yet their state test scores rival those from school systems such as Greenwich and West Hartford.
Michael Sharpe, Jumoke's chief executive officer, said he does not want to "berate public schools" and is careful to mention that unionized teachers are just as "passionate" as those on his staff, who routinely work in their classrooms well into the evening at no extra pay.
Sharpe also noted the improvements in city schools over the past five years under former Superintendent Steven Adamowski, one of dozens who have visited Jumoke from as far away as Indiana and China to understand its model.
But courtesies aside, Sharpe presents his school as a beacon in Hartford. He takes pride that Jumoke's enrollment is virtually all minority and wants more city children to join them. When promotional materials about Jumoke highlight the state's "insidious achievement gap," which has plagued the capital city, it is to point out that Jumoke has largely eradicated it.
"If you take Hartford kids from Hartford neighborhoods and put them in a good program of learning and school support, and a safe environment," Sharpe said, "the kids are going to prosper."
'Feeling You Belong'
Jumoke was among the initial group of state-sponsored charter schools that opened in 1997.
There are now 17 charters in Connecticut with almost 6,100 students, according to the state, which is spending $52.8 million on the schools this budget year. They include the Achievement First charter schools in New Haven, Bridgeport and in Hartford, a North End school that is affiliated with the city's school system. The network's flagship, Amistad Academy, opened in 1999.
Stefan Pryor, the new state education commissioner, co-founded Amistad in New Haven, but in recent public comments has avoided sounding like a charter booster. "The question is not how a school is structured," Pryor said last month. "The question is whether the school is providing outstanding student outcomes."
At first, what mattered to Karen Bell of Windsor were the test scores.
She said her son Timothy was behind in reading when he entered Jumoke as a first-grader four years ago. Bell had heard about Jumoke from her mother-in-law who lives in Hartford, she said, and decided to look at its website. She saw the mastery test scores and called the school. Soon, her family was getting the pitch from Sharpe.
"From the day I stepped in the building, what kept me here and drove us to stay here was the community feel, the feeling you belong," said Bell, a real estate agent and past president of Jumoke's parent association.
The teachers were willing to work with him and work with us," Bell said. Now a fifth-grader and an avid reader, Timothy scored a 5 in reading on the latest CMT and a 4 in math on the test's 5-point scale.
As Bell talked about the "family atmosphere," several parents stood nearby for Jumoke's daily morning meeting in the former St. Justin School building. The staff led the elementary students — lined up in the small gym, the boys in ties and slacks, the girls in cross-ties and skorts and tight ponytails — in cheers to get them pumped up for the day.
A few children gave a polite hello to the school's dean of family and student enrichment on their way to class.
"Jumoke Academy students will be respectful, responsible and ready to learn at all times" is the school rule ingrained among students like a commandment.
There is no admissions test to weed out poor performers. Like the state's magnet schools, parents need to apply, but a lottery determines who gets a seat at Jumoke. The children's abilities vary; some receive special education services.
Any disciplinary issues are handled within the school, including in-class suspensions, although misbehavior is infrequent because of peer pressure from classmates to follow the rules, according to administrators.
"Once they come to Jumoke," Principal Doreen Crawford said, "they know that we mean business."
At First, 'Failing'
Jumoke receives $9,400 in education spending per student, largely from the state but including smaller federal and foundation grants. The figure in Hartford public schools is $17,525 per child from a range of sources, schools spokesman David Medina said.
As a Connecticut charter school, Jumoke is under state supervision but is considered independent and has a board of trustees. The school has a chief financial officer who works on its budget. Hartford provides transportation for city children and meal services as a host city.
Sharpe's mother, former Hartford board of education member Thelma Ellis Dickerson, founded the charter school 14 years ago in reaction to the achievement gap. She wanted Jumoke to place a premium on parental involvement in addition to academics — believing, Sharpe said, that "there is no strong school in America that doesn't have strong family support."
The Jumoke name stems from Yoruba, a Niger-Congo language, and means "everyone loves the child."
Those ideals weren't enough in the beginning.
Test scores were low the first several years and it took about five years for parent engagement to seep into the school's daily culture, administrators said.
"Jumoke was a failing school and there were big rumblings in the state to close us down, because we just weren't cutting it," said Sharpe, 60, a family therapist by trade who began working at the charter school in 1998 after Dickerson asked for organizational help. He became CEO in 2003 and a breakthrough in scores came three years later.
Mark Linabury, a spokesman for the state Department of Education, said recently that "Jumoke needed to take a deep look at its faculty and administration." Now, Linabury said, "in relation to Hartford public schools, they fare quite well."
Crawford was a second-grade teacher when the school first opened with 125 students in kindergarten through third grade. She attributed the "growing pains" to a knotty mix familiar to urban schools — the challenges of a high-poverty community, students arriving far behind grade level and the need to deepen the curriculum while determining which teachers measured up.
The exhaustive work led to a situation in which everyone involved is wrapped in the Jumoke mission like a cocoon.
Teacher autonomy and support, partnerships with area colleges, teaching children their cultural history and extracurricular activities such as debate, drill team, cross-country, poetry club and Saturday hiking are part of their "haven," Crawford said. A reward system for students includes trophies for high mastery test scores, a "Leaps and Bounds" honor for those who improve and privileges for good behavior — for example, sitting in the teacher's chair all day.
"Show them respect and they'll give you respect," said Crawford, who lives in the North End and occasionally finds students at her doorstep for a weekend visit.
Jumoke has grown to three academies: a pre-K to grade two "Steps to Prep" early education program; a grade three to five elementary school; and a grade six to eight "honors" middle school that is located in a former church building down the street.
The seventh-graders this spring were 100 percent proficient in writing on the CMT, according to state data. Seventy-eight percent reached mastery in math and writing, while 81 percent achieved the state goal in reading. Eighth-graders read "The Great Gatsby."
"No one has ever said anything about a union… because we make sure teachers feel rewarded," Crawford said of Jumoke's non-unionized staff. "Success is what they get in the classroom."
And yet a weakness at Jumoke has been fourth grade, which has a new teacher this school year.
"If it's ineffective teaching, we eliminate it," Sharpe said. "There is no penalty for fixing mistakes. There is a penalty for not fixing it."
Second-grade teacher Michael Cassarino is in his fourth year at Jumoke after teaching at M.L. King School for a year.
"The level of academics, the focus on strong discipline and positive reinforcement" drew him to the charter down the street, Cassarino said, but he is not opposed to returning to a traditional public school.
He believed the differences are not so much charter vs. public as they are "school to school."
"When it's the expectation everywhere, from pre-K on up, it works," Cassarino said.
Education reform advocates point out that a similar focus is not uncommon at city neighborhood schools such as Parkville Community and Sanchez, where most students are Spanish-speaking and mastery test scores are improving.
"This is not about charter vs. magnet vs. neighborhood," said Jim Starr, the former head of Achieve Hartford! who sits on the group's board of directors. "It's about a high-performing culture."
At least 350 students are on Jumoke's waiting list.
"A pity," Crawford called it, "because we would like to have all of them here." The state allocated funding for an extra 56 seats this academic year, mostly for the middle school.
Sharpe's goal is that 5 percent of Hartford students will be attending Jumoke by 2015 — a total of roughly 1,200 students.
Jumoke has purchased the old Hartford Medical Society property on Scarborough Street, where Sharpe hopes to house the "Steps to Prep" program and enroll 264 children. Such a project would require a zoning change, which some residents on the wealthy West End block have opposed.
School officials also want Jumoke Academy to expand to the high school level.
Of the 39 eighth-graders who graduated from Jumoke in June, a third went to private high schools, Jumoke administrators said. More were accepted, but their families couldn't afford the costs.
In some cases, they end up attending a city public school if they don't get a slot in one of the area magnets, Sharpe said.
"Many of them have had to struggle… Our kids, either they win the lottery or they have no options."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at