Over the past five years, more than $107 million has been spent making Hartford Public High School glimmer like new. There's a cavernous new media center, a field house with a soaring ceiling and clean, bright classrooms.
But even broader changes are in the works for next year, when Superintendent Steven Adamowski's sweeping plan to remake Hartford schools takes hold. The plan is to divide Hartford Public into four or five academies, each with its own principal, teachers, theme, college-prep curriculum, uniforms, budget and building entrance.
"This is a major shift in how we do business in Hartford," said Christina M. Kishimoto, director of school redesign.
The trend in high school reform throughout the nation is to break up large, comprehensive high schools into small academies so teachers can get to know students well and collaborate on individuals.
Research shows that students are less likely to drop out of small academies than they are at larger, more impersonal schools. Other cities, including New York and Boston, have already broken down their large, traditional high schools into more manageable academies.
With academic achievement woefully low and the dropout rate high, few are complaining about Adamowski's goal of improving learning at Hartford High.
But teachers — even those excited about reform — are upset about his plan to make them reapply for their jobs.
And parents feel left out of the planning. Adamowski has answered questions at forums, but parents don't feel as if they are part of the process.
Students, who think that one of the benefits of the small academies will be fewer fights, are mixed in their opinions about the transformation from a comprehensive high school offering a plethora of electives to themed academies that seem more limited in their course offerings.
"This is not a private academy," said David Ionno, secretary of the Parent Teacher Student Organization and the father of a junior. "You cannot just experiment on my kid. I want to be involved."
The school board is expected to act on the superintendent's proposal for academies tonight, making Hartford Public the first of the city's three comprehensive high schools to be redesigned.
Under the plan, there will be academies dedicated to nursing, engineering, law and government, and possibly journalism for upperclassmen. Freshmen will continue in their own separate academy. The students will share common areas, such as the gym, but each academy will have its own curriculum.
Hartford High, a school with a history that goes back 370 years, has been at the epicenter of change in the school district for years. Its near-loss of accreditation 10 years ago was a major factor leading to the state takeover of the entire district and the years of tumult that followed. Some find the prospect of more change at the school exciting; others are upset.
Students and parents say they will speak out on the plan before the vote tonight. Teachers, wearing pins bearing the word "respect," voiced their frustration last month when hundreds protested outside Hartford Public in a cold rain before a school board meeting and submitted a petition demanding a more significant role in shaping reform throughout the district. Other critics say the speed of change feels breakneck.
"Change is good, but the way they are doing it is not good," said Erica Stanisclaus, president of the PTSO at Hartford Public.
"I have three kids here and I was never invited to none of the meetings. We are asking them to give us a list of parents who are on the decision-making team, and we cannot get that list. None of the parents I have met know anything about how the decision was made. When you are coming in with changes, you need to get the input of the people affected. We know what's good for us."
Kalia Wilson, a junior, said students should be queried, too. "They should have had meetings where students could put in some kind of input since we have to go there."
Stanisclaus doesn't doubt that the district will institute its plans by next fall, but she does doubt the transitions will be smooth.
"Everything has to happen at the same time," she said. "Teachers have to reapply for their jobs, they're bringing in new programs with new curriculum, kids have to choose, and transportation needs to be ironed out. It's a big thing."
Among the issues causing the greatest consternation is the planned transfer of the culinary program from Hartford Public to Weaver High School, where it would become an academy. Weaver has more space and more commercial equipment, Kishimoto said, and it doesn't make sense to spend more money retrofitting Hartford Public after all the money the city has spent renovating the school.
There are 125 students enrolled in the existing program at Hartford High, which has capitalized on the school's proximity to the Connecticut Culinary Institute by inviting chefs in for demonstrations. Students also walk to CCI for tours and programs.
"I feel as if we're working on something that's doomed to fail," said Mary Wyporek, a Hartford Public teacher on the culinary academy's design committee.
Need For Change
District officials are under pressure to improve achievement, but they say it's tricky to find a pace that affords a comfort level to parents, teachers and students.
"We're sensitive to what the community is feeling," Kishimoto said. "They're telling us to move fast, then move slowly."
For some, change can't come fast enough.
"There's part of me that feels we don't need to slow down. We have been failing our children for decades," board member Andrea Comer said. "But another part of me thinks that if we want to effect positive change, people have to understand what we're doing."
Kishimoto said some changes are coming in phases. For example, the school is already functioning with small, themed learning communities. Some existing themes, such as technology and law and government, are being further developed into academies. And the freshman academy is in place.
Kishimoto conceded that the district needs to include more parents in redesigning schools, but she said that teachers are either chairing or co-chairing each of the academy design committees, so they do have input.
The teachers are being asked to reapply for the jobs in order to allow the new principals to pick their own staffs. No teacher will lose their job, but some may end up at different schools.
Gene Chasin, director of UConn's new Institute for Urban School Improvement, said the pace of reform is crucial for longevity.
"We work with high schools across the country. When we break up comprehensive high schools, it's a four-year process in terms of building community ownership, staff capacity, physical structure and informing the students so that they can make the choices."
Richard L. Schwab, dean of the Neag School of Education at UConn, said communication is crucial.
"In order for any meaningful reform to occur, there has to be buy-in from all parties," Schwab said. "In some cases, you can't wait for everybody to have their arms around each other singing Kumbaya. But you have to move toward that goal with communication."
The long history and tradition of the school is invoked by those who are resistant to change and those who think change is long overdue.
"As the second-oldest high school in the United States, this school should be better. This school should be one of the best schools," said junior Laura Olivo.
Olivo is pinning her hopes on the academies to make her feel safe and to engage more students in scholarship rather than gangs. She plans to enroll in the law academy.
"I think that it is beautiful that we can get the opportunity to study law in high school," Olivo said.
At the same time, it makes Olivo sad that teachers who have dedicated their entire working lives to Hartford Public have to reapply for their jobs.
"There are teachers that have a whole life here — 20 to 30 years. They think this is their house and they love the school."
The idea of distinct academies doesn't appeal to everyone.
Juniors Charles Poventud, Raven Turner and others said they'd like to be able to take courses in a variety of academies. And junior Linnea Ionno, who attends a half-day magnet program, said the district already has many magnet schools and that she would prefer a comprehensive high school for the balance of her time.
"The only real problem I have with the small learning communities is I hear you can only go to one academy," Poventud said.
Under the plan, the nursing academy, in partnership with the UConn School of Nursing, will offer students the chance to become certified nursing assistants or emergency medical technicians. Students may enroll in courses to learn about patient care, anatomy, medical research, physics, chemistry and advanced placement biology.
The district is negotiating with UConn for automatic admission to its nursing school for students who satisfy certain requirements.
An academy for engineering and green technology would be an expansion of an existing technology cluster at the school. The theme of green technology, such as alternative fuel and energy, will be incorporated into all science and math classes. Students will work on projects such as designing green-friendly buildings. "Just about every field is looking to be more green-friendly, so we have a lot of opportunity here," Kishimoto said.
The law and government academy is another expansion of an existing cluster. Special features of the academy will include teachers who previously worked as lawyers or public employees, internships and the writing of legal briefs. Kishimoto is also thinking about placing a journalism and media academy at the school. The academy would focus on writing and research on contemporary political, social and economic issues.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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