When future generations study the history of Hartford, they will probably identify the period between 2000 and 2020 as the city’s Golden Age of Education.
Many other initiatives launched during this time have faded into the background. But Mayor Eddie A. Perez’s vision of improved learning as a spark for Hartford’s economic revitalization endures despite a devastating downturn in the national economy.
The era began with the district perennially below the rest of the state in every measure of achievement, from test scores to graduation rates to attendance; with numerous buildings in disrepair and with an administrative structure so dysfunctional that the Connecticut General Assembly placed the school system under the control of a state-appointed board of trustees.
Today, Hartford is on track to close Connecticut’s worst-in-the-nation achievement gap between its low-income students and their suburban counterparts by the year 2018 under an epic reform plan that has been recognized by the White House and in the national news media as among the most progressive in the United States.
“People were understandably skeptical at first,” Superintendent Steven J. Adamowski said. “But our work at all levels demonstrates that it is possible to have high performing schools in high-poverty areas. Our gains in student achievement affirm the simple fact that attending a good school can change the life trajectory of a student regardless of income and background.”
Moreover, Mayor Perez’s 2002 decision to name himself chairman of the school building committee resulted in 13 schools that have either been reconstructed from scratch or extensively renovated at an accelerated pace unheard of in most cities.
“Providing a positive learning environment lays a solid foundation but it is only the beginning,” Mayor Perez said. “Raising academic standards is something we must continue to expect of ourselves — students, staff, and parents.”
Two landmark events helped make this dramatic turnaround possible: The first was a revised city charter that in 2002 created both a strong-mayor form of government and a nine-member local school board, five of which are appointed by the mayor. In 2005, the mayor appointed himself to the board and was named chair, a position he held for three years.
The second landmark event was the new board’s 2006 selection of Dr. Adamowski, a nationally recognized education visionary, as its superintendent with a clear mandate to enable more students to graduate and enter four-year college programs.
To that end, the board adopted Dr. Adamowski’s plan to transform the district into an all-choice system of small high-performing specialty schools and career-based academies.
The 16 new school models include: the Achievement First Hartford Academy, an International Baccalaureate school called the Global Communications Academy, the Montessori Magnet School, the Nursing Academy, the Hartford Academy of Culinary Arts, the Journalism and Media Academy, the Insurance and Finance Academy (also known as High School Inc.), the Law & Government Academy, the Academy of Engineering and Green Technology and the Teacher Preparatory Academy.
The board embraced a corresponding policy of student-based budgeting, in which the dollar amount allotted for each student follows that student to whatever school he or she chooses to attend, creating a financial incentive for schools to improve learning.
Along the way, the board also adopted the most demanding graduation requirements in the state – 24 credits, including two in world languages and two in visual or performing arts – a district-wide uniform policy and a policy establishing School Governance Councils in which half the members are parents. The councils approve their school’s budget each year, develop an accountability plan that sets educational goals for their school and recommend a new principal in the event of a vacancy.
“School Governance Councils enable us to truly empower and partner with parents to protect our children’s right to a robust college-ready curriculum,” said Board chair Ada Miranda.
As a result of the changes made since 2000, overall student performance on Connecticut Mastery Test and the Connecticut Academic Performance test has for two straight years improved at several times the state rate, even in low-performing schools.
The graduation rate, meanwhile, rose to 42.1 percent from an all-time low in 2007 of 29 percent. This year, four Hartford high schools – Capital Preparatory Magnet, Pathways to Technology, the Sport and Medical Sciences Academy and the University High School of Science and Engineering – were among just 16 in Connecticut to make the U.S. News and World Report’s list of America’s Best High Schools.
At the pace that Hartford Public Schools are progressing, it is not unreasonable to expect that by 2020, graduation and college entrance rates in the high 90s will be commonplace and that the achievement gap will be a distant memory.
What was unthinkable in 2000 is now a very real possibility.