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A Changed School

New Principal Has Brought Betances Back To Life, Partly By Introducing Time Management, Partly By Being Very Available And Involved

By RACHEL GOTTLIEB FRANK, The Hartford Courant

November 22, 2007

Principal Josephine Smith and her assistant principal measure days at Betances down to the seconds because they have none to lose. Smith made it her mission to cut down on discipline referrals to the office because of the class time wasted walking the hallway and talking to the assistant principal about bad behavior. When Assistant Principal Karen Faiman learned, upon arrival at the school last year, that the school had five lingering lunch waves, she cut it down to three crisp ones. And it's not unusual for the pair to pull out stop watches in a classroom to measure how much time a child is wasting instead of learning.

"We don't waste a minute," Smith said.

It shows. Betances, the lowest-ranked elementary school in Hartford two years ago, improved its Connecticut Mastery Test scores 8.1 percent last year in the first year of Smith's leadership. The gain, the largest in the city last school year, spared the school from being closed down and redesigned and earned Smith the Outstanding First Year Principal Award by the Connecticut Association of Schools.

Student test scores don't tell the whole story, but when the percentage of students reaching the state goal in math, reading and writing languishes in the single digits or even zero in several grades as is the case at Betances the failure can neither be rationalized, nor ignored.

At Betances, progress is measured in incremental gains rather than stunning leaps. While the number of students reaching the state goal remains low, the percentage of students moving out of the lowest CMT scoring band, called the "intervention" level, means they are catching up with their grade level.

In Grade 4, for example, 80 percent of the students scored at the intervention level two years ago; that dipped to 71 percent last year. The number reading at the state goal, rose from 7 to 11 percent.

The school, which enrolls more than 400 students in grades pre-K through 6, is overwhelmingly poor and Hispanic. In 2005-06, the latest year with information available through the state, 74 percent of the students lived in non-English speaking homes and 84 percent were identified as Hispanic and 15 percent black. Just 45 percent of the kindergartners had attended preschool.

Superintendent of Schools Steven Adamowski points to the gains Betances has made in presentations to state education officials, business leaders and his own board to prove his point that if Hartford children improve their test scores at a steady rate of 4 percent a year which is four times the average rate of improvement in the state then city children will close the achievement gap with their suburban neighbors in about 10 years. In its first year under Smith's focused leadership, Betances improved at twice the rate of Adamowski's goal, showing, he has said, that his goal is attainable.

Go Team

The descriptions by parents, teachers and administrators of Betances before Smith's arrival depict a place that was more like a pit stop than a school. Principals changed every year, and about half of the teaching staff turned over annually. It was normal for youngsters to have long-term substitutes for months, or even an entire year. There was no PTO, parents said they didn't feel welcome in the school and student behavior was out of control.

"This is a school that was in a downward spiral," Smith said.The first thing Smith did was assemble a leadership team to work with her to develop direction and change the culture of failure at Betances.

"This school has wonderful teachers," Smith said. "They needed direction."

Smith knew Faiman from her work as a "turn-around specialist" at Moylan Elementary School in Hartford, where Smith worked as an assistant principal before Betances. Faiman had been offered a job in another district, she said, for significantly more money. But Smith prevailed on her to give Betances a try and Faiman agreed. Students often think Faiman, who looks like Smith, is Smith's twin sister. The two women think alike, too, and call each other on their cell phones at all hours even during the World Series to chew over ideas.

Jennifer Horrigan, who Smith brought on as the literacy coach, had been a student teacher in Smith's class seven years ago when Smith was a teacher at Naylor.

And Monica Quinones, Betances' math coach, was a kindred spirit who Smith discovered years earlier at a school district conference on "data-driven decision making." Quinones had a binder like the one Smith uses filled with data and graphics about student performance.

"Josie asked to see my data," Quinones remembers. It was respect at first sight.

When Smith landed the Betances job, Quinones had decided to leave the school. The school was slated for redesign and the fate of its teachers was uncertain, Quinones recalled. It seemed time to go.

Smith pressed her to take a risk, spend one year at Betances. Quinones agreed.

Smith has worked in Hartford since 1989 with stints as a special education teacher, an advanced algebra teacher for middle school students, a district literacy coordinator and an assistant principal. Each of her former jobs, she said, helped her develop the skills she now employs using data to customize instruction for students and training for teachers.

She has the respect of teachers "She's terrific," said Cathy Carpino, president of the teachers union and of the parents.

But Smith says it's her team that makes it work.

"Nobody could do this alone. We complement each other."

Charting New Territory

With her team in place, Smith assessed where every child was in the school academically and behaviorally and told teachers that poverty would not be an acceptable excuse to explain student failure.

She spent hours of her own time making bar graphs that showed each students' skill level in everything from how many letter sounds and letters each kindergartner could identify to the skill levels of all the students in reading and math.Smith uses her graphs to help teachers understand how to customize their lessons for both struggling and gifted students. She also uses the graphs to design training for teachers. If most of a class is weak in certain areas, then the teacher gets help designing lessons to bolster those skills.

Throughout the year, Smith and Quinones taught the teachers how to use Excel to create their own graphs, which they post on the walls outside their classrooms. And the teachers, in turn, taught students to create graphs showing their own progress, which are also posted on the walls outside their classrooms. On their individualized graphs, students list their goals for improvement.

Behavior infractions are charted and analyzed in the same manner as academic achievement.Smith and her staff look for patterns: For example, one boy acted out on the same day of every week. Ultimately, Smith said, she realized that the boy's mother was home on those days and the boy misbehaved so that he could get sent home and spend time with his mother. Smith enlisted the boy's mother for help and his behavior improved.

Another boy, she noticed, got in trouble every day after lunch. "We realized he has math at that time. Children are very honest. I asked him 'How do you like math?' He said 'I hate it.'" Smith got him help in math.

"We look at triggers," Smith said. "We have a Top 10 list of kids who need attention so we give it to them."Such efforts have reduced referrals to her office for bad behavior by 80 percent.

Smith also enlisted parents in her reform. When she noticed that parents were regularly picking up their children 15 or 20 minutes early, she put an end to the practice. She hired a family resource aide, who coordinates services such as English classes for parents and she created a PTO.

Sally Vazquez, president of the PTO, said that before Smith arrived parents had to make appointments in order to see the principal. Smith doesn't require appointments.

"I've got her cellphone number," Vazquez said. "She meets with parents and [their children's] teachers."Vazquez, who works at Mi Casa Community Center, said she was blown away last year when Faiman and a school social worker dropped off some Betances youngsters for a program and asked for a tour. "They wanted to see how their students were spending time after school."

When the district planned to transfer Faiman at the end of the year, Vazquez stepped in circulating petitions to parents and teachers. She even went to the mayor. In the end, Faiman was allowed to stay.

Betances remains far behind most schools in the state and even in Hartford. And not everybody showed improvement last year. The fifth-grade class, for example, bucked the improvement trend. The percent reaching the state goal for reading dropped for 11 to 3 percent while the number scoring in the lowest "intervention" category meaning they're nowhere near grade level increased from 71 to 85 percent. In math, the number reaching the state goal inched up from 0 to 5 percent, but the number landing at that intervention level spiked from 51 percent to 69 percent.

That class was set back by long-term substitutes who took over when teachers left the school and their positions remained vacant before Smith arrived at the school, she said. It will take years for those children to catch up with their peers, she said, particularly in reading.Smith isn't giving up on her long-term goal, though.

"We're going to be competitive with the suburbs."

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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