We aren't talking enough about what they're doing at Capital Preparatory Magnet School, though others outside of Hartford are noticing.
Soledad O'Brien is phoning. Bill Cosby is a fan. Schools around the country — including the state of Hawaii — have come calling, eager to know what founder and Principal Stephen Perry, a former social worker from Middletown, is doing for black and Hispanic children in Hartford, Connecticut.
Sure, we always hear how we can't accept failing city schools anymore. But at Capital Prep — located in the historic G. Fox building — teachers and students are taking this mission very personally.
Young men pull up their pants and wear blazers, students can take courses at the community college upstairs, teachers work year-round and the talk is about not-so-far-off places like Mount Holyoke, Bates and Rutgers.
"The purpose of our school is to send our students to four-year colleges," Perry says to me while we sit in his cramped office. A CNN film crew is wandering about. Students and teachers fill an adjoining room they call the "bullpen," banging out college essays and lesson plans, side by side.
It's small and new and there are only 300 or so male and female students. But in three years all of the 50 or so graduates have gone to college and 40 more will join them next spring — launching the school into a league unknown to Hartford. Perry pulls out a chart and shows me how his ninth-graders are scoring competitively with top suburban districts in math, reading and writing.
"We focus on the child as if he or she were our own biological children," he said.
In a city where only three or four students in 10 even graduate on time and reform is talked about as if it might take a generation, Perry looks at me and asks, would you get on a plane that had a 30 percent chance of even arriving at its destination?
"You couldn't even be a hairdresser who failed 70 percent of the time," he says.
Perry tells me, angrily, about a meeting he went to not long ago where somebody told him about students at another city high school who were coloring maps during class time. He tells me about some of his students who arrive at 6:30 in the morning, teachers who work Saturdays and where a challenge is having a high school student who reads on a fourth-grade level.
The school is based on intense relationships, Perry says, something that prevails at the best private schools. At Capital, which runs 11 months a year, there are after-school, weekend and summer sessions to bring students up to speed. Everybody must play a sport.
I ran into math teacher Scott Kapralos, who told me — perhaps too honestly — that Capital "is not a normal work environment. It is a big commitment."
How so? When he realized students needed an additional class to catch up, he started one and added it to his already full schedule.
I walked the halls with charming Kiara Smith, a senior from Manchester, who explained that "it's the small staff. It's like a family. I've learned that they will be on top of you."
Perry is a homegrown radical, the kind we need more of. He supports controversial ideas like vouchers and allowing children to attend whatever school they choose, but he remains committed to running the best public school in the land. He thinks people make too much of fighting with unions: he renegotiated the district's contract so his teachers work year-round, for slightly better pay and more freedom.
"I can't make you unpoor or unblack. In the end you are going to college with children who are not black and who are not from a single-parent household," Perry told me. "Nobody cares about your limitations. No one."
Pay attention to Perry and his school. It could be the start of something.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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