Charter Lesson: High Goals, Accountability Turn Schools Around
By Stan Simpson
October 28, 2011
Stefan Pryor starts his new job as Connecticut's education commissioner as a nationally recognized charter school champion.
The co-founder of Amistad Academy in New Haven, however, rankles at this narrow view of him because it diminishes his vision for urban education reform. Pryor told me he prefers to be seen as an "advocate for effective schools.''
The problem is that the success of several of these Connecticut charters — independent, publicly funded, non-union operations — is too irresistible to ignore. Their remarkable progress in educating poor, urban, ethnic minorities in a state with the widest achievement gap in America makes you take notice. And it causes you to wonder: "Why in the world can't we do this more often?''
As the senior executive adviser to the Hartford Journalism & Media Academy — a start-up 400-student public high school graduating its first senior class next spring — I find myself acutely enamored of urban school success stories. I can't read enough of them. Frankly, over the years, I've written my fair share of them.
The Courant's Page 1 story last week on the continued academic success of Jumoke Academy in Hartford; its impressive expansion and burgeoning waiting list, was no surprise to me. As a Courant columnist for 15 years, I wrote about Jumoke's evolution from a failing school to a high-performing kindergarten-to-eighth-grade academy. I visited the Blue Hills building on several occasions. I did the same with several other successful urban schools, including Amistad; Elm City Preparatory School in New Haven and West Elementary School in Washington.
Opining about schools that belied the misguided notions that poor urban youth could not be educated, let alone earn test scores comparable to more affluent suburban schools, was a privilege. So, why hasn't Connecticut been able to duplicate its pockets of success with urban schools?
Simple: leadership and lack of political will. This was best exemplified when the state was unsuccessful in securing any of the billions of dollars in federal Race to the Top dollars. Those funds were earmarked for comprehensive proposals to reduce the academic achievement gap. When your state has the widest achievement gap in America and still can't get a sniff of grant money set aside to eradicate the problem, it means funders believed your plans' were superficial. There wasn't a sense of urgency.
As a columnist, I had the greatest job in the world. They paid me to tell you what I think. It's really not that much different in this new job with the Hartford school system. They don't always agree with me here, either. But the challenge of adding educator to my journalist pedigree has been fulfilling. Working with these students, many of whom are products of Jamaican immigrants like myself, has been rewarding.
Every day, you try to remind them about the importance of a high school diploma and how a college degree can transform their lives.
In my leadership role, I am no policy wonk, but simply a "best practices" advocate. I've seen what works — in the most challenging of education environments. As a result, I came to the job not very tolerant of bureaucratic delays, blunders, excuses and what sometimes passes as progress.
I've learned from the lessons of Amistad, Elm City, Jumoke and others.
There's no magic elixir for turning poor-performing schools into high performers. At all of the good ones, you'll see exceptionally strong leadership, high expectations, engaged teachers, and accountability for students and teachers. A culture is created in which achievement is valued and celebrated. Test data is used to develop individual student portfolios with game plans for how to improve performance.
Here's the other thing I learned about these high performers. In just about all cases, they failed miserably before having great success.
Usually what triggered that turnaround was an overhaul of staff and administration. The hardest part of this mission of urban education reform is understanding that it takes patience. Yet, there must also be impatience — and the willingness to shake things up when the status quo prevents past practices from becoming best practices.
Stan Simpson is host of "The Stan Simpson Show'' (www.ctnow.com/stan and Saturdays, 6:30 a.m., on FoxCT) and senior executive adviser at the Hartford Journalism & Media Academy.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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