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Hartford High's Extreme Makeover

Steven Adamowski's aggressive new reforms are turning around one of the nation's most troubled districts.

By Wayne D'Orio | February 2009


Steven Adamowski stepped into his job as superintendent of Hartford Public Schools at the moment the state’s largest school district was at its lowest. By November 2006, test scores were in their seventh year of decline, fewer than one in three students were graduating, and Hartford had been deemed the worst performing district in the state of Connecticut.

The only good news was that the community was ready for change. And that’s just what they got when Adamowski arrived. Today, the 57-year-old superintendent is overseeing one of the most radical overhauls of an urban school district in the country. He and his staff have introduced an all-choice system, completely eliminated middle schools, and created smaller academies within the city’s underperforming high schools.

Change is nothing new to Adamowski, who fought hard as superintendent to reform Cincinnati Public Schools from 1998 to 2002, before arguments with the teacher’s union over a pay-for-performance program ultimately drove him out. During his tenure, he authorized charter schools within the district, a radical idea at the time, and replaced crowded high schools with more personalized learning centers.

At Hartford, he continues to introduce aggressive ideas for reform, and not a minute too soon. “There’s an urgency here,” says Adamowski. “We cannot go incrementally.”

Reforming Hartford High


Nowhere are Adamowski’s efforts better exemplified than at Hartford High School. The largest school in the city, and indeed the second-oldest secondary school in the country, had fallen the farthest. The building recently underwent a $100 million renovation, the view inside the classrooms wasn’t as good.

Of tenth graders taking the Connecticut Academic Performance Test in 2005–06, fewer than 10 percent met the goal level in any of the four areas: reading, writing, mathematics, and science. (The goal level is the state recommendation. It is higher than proficient, but below advanced.) Worse yet, not a single student met the goal level in all four categories.

“Hartford High School was the poster child for a school in need,” the superintendent says. Today, the inside of the school is barely recognizable. The high school has been divided into separate academies, each with its own principal. Students in grades 10–12 choose to attend one of three academies: the Nursing Academy, the Engineering and Green Technology Academy, or the Law and Government Academy. (The Grade Nine Academy, the fourth academy, is exclusively for students in that grade.)

Students take the traditional core requirements, while staff adapts these courses to the academies’ specialties, offering Algebra I for engineering, for example. Students are expected to take between five and eight discipline-specific classes in their three years, trading typical electives for focused study.

While these academic changes have only been in place since the beginning of the 2008–09 school year, the early results are positive. “I have seen major improvements just in the hallways,” says Zandralyn Gordon, principal of the 400-student Nursing Academy. And she should know; last year she was principal of the entire 1,600-student school.

Dressing the Part
one of the most visible changes hasn’t occurred in the classroom, but in the students’ appearance. Students at the high school must wear uniforms that relate to their academy’s specialty. Students in the Nursing Academy come to school every day in blue scrubs. Engineering students wear collared shirts and khakis.

Law and Government Academy kids wear white or blue dress shirts and black pants (girls may wear skirts). The boys wear ties, and sneakers are verboten.

“I think it’s great,” says Bonita Austin, a twelfth grader donning scrubs. The clothes make students feel closer to their profession, she adds.

While not every student agrees with her, they all comply. “We did have one student wash his tie,” says Adam Johnson, principal of the Law and Government Academy. He admits that the staff hadn’t realized some students needed instruction on how to care for their new clothes. The school should strike a deal with a local dry cleaner, he mused. (The district provides financial aid to help students purchase their uniforms.)

Adult approval of the dress code is off the charts. “It gives students a strong sense of gravitas,” Johnson says. “You don’t dress like that and act like a fool.” Teachers claim that they have at least 15 minutes more a day to teach—time that had once been spent dealing with students’ inappropriate wardrobes.

A Step Forward, a Step Back


new academies and student uniforms may breed optimism for a brighter future, but, as this community well remembers, reform efforts have failed here before. In 1994, Hartford—the second poorest city in the country, located smack dab in the middle of the second wealthiest state—became the first city in the U.S. to turn over the management of its entire district to a private company, Minneapolis’s Education Alternatives Inc. Only sixteen months later, the district prematurely ended its five-year contract with the company. Conflicting accounts attempt to explain why, but everyone agrees on one thing: the experiment was a disaster.

The state took control of the district just as Hartford High School lost its accreditation. Superintendent Anthony Amato came to the district in 1999 and proclaimed that the district would “never be last again.” Under his leadership, test scores improved immediately. But after three years Amato left, and as quickly as the district showed signs of improvement, it slid back again, reassuming its position as the worst performing in the state.

Academies for All
one of the biggest decisions Adamowski made when he came to Hartford was to forgo any untested programs, choosing only to implement models of successful schools from across the country. The first year brought 11 new schools, including a Montessori elementary school, a Global Communications Academy that aims to become an International Baccalaureate school, and a K–3 school that follows the Breakthrough magnet-school model started earlier in Hartford. The first phase of changes also included the four new Hartford High School academies.

Phase two, set to roll out next August, will bring eight new models to the 40-school district. While seven of the first 11 models were elementary, next year’s changes will have a high school slant with six secondary schools among the eight new models. Schools will include Young Men’s Leadership Academy for boys grades 6­–12, a journalism and media high school, an academy for insurance and finance (Hartford is known as “The Insurance City” because of the many insurance companies based there), and a teacher preparatory school for students in eleventh and twelfth grades.

When the reform effort is complete, each student in the district will choose his or her school, and no middle schools will exist. The district also is adopting student-based budgeting. This means each student is assigned a dollar figure based on his or her needs and that money goes to the school they choose. For instance, every fourth-grader may be assigned $8,000, but an ell student might carry an additional $1,900 to pay for necessary extra services. Hartford spends an average of $14,243 per student.

Overcoming Obstacles
because hartford has seen its share of reform efforts before, the community is concerned—some would say skeptical—about how these sweeping plans will be sustained. “People are asking, ‘Is this for real this time?’” says Christina Kishimoto, assistant superintendent of school design.

“That was a big concern of our board,” notes Adamowski. Urban district superintendents last an average of 3.1 years, with some cities running through five leaders in a decade. Hartford’s strong mayoral government means Mayor Eddie Perez is chair of the district’s school board and appoints four other members to the nine-person board.

“I made a five-year commitment,” says Adamowski, who started his career as a third-grade teacher in New Haven, Connecticut. While he has vowed not to leave the district before his contract expires, he plans to retire promptly at its conclusion, after identifying a successor.

One other potential roadblock is funding. The district has a $215 million budget, but each new school costs an average of half a million to start. The district typically brings in a new principal well before a school starts in August, sometimes as early as February. The principal can then set up the new school’s staff and get started on curricula development.

“It’s a challenge,” Kishimoto says. “We’re all new to this.” While Hartford High’s Law and Government Academy is already underway, for example, the assistant superintendent says the district hopes to construct a mock courtroom and a forensics lab that can simulate detective work.

One of the challenges with so much change so rapidly is that time hasn’t stood still. A classroom full of tenth graders doing English work includes a handful of students who have already failed this class. Everyone is aware that if these students don’t pass this year, it’s unlikely they’ll ever come back.

“We’re racing against dropouts,” says Hartford High’s Johnson. Attendance is a problem, too. Getting students and parents to “believe in the power of education is not an easy thing to do,” he adds.

Trying to overhaul the system while still educating students is like trying to fix the airplane while you’re flying it, says Adamowski.

Promising But Fragile
adamowski brings a clear-eyed view to the district and its board of education meetings. He doesn’t shrink from the district’s bad news, stating it plainly, and offering a plan for improvement.“We’ve tried to be brutally honest with the facts,” he says, “and raise the sense of urgency around the work that needs to be done.”

For instance, although the state’s computation of the city’s dropout rate is 20.8 percent, Adamowski says a more accurate count shows only 29 percent of the students who started ninth grade were getting diplomas four years later, in 2006­–07. (One year later, this figure has edged up to 36 percent.) “As painful as that was, it has enabled us to improve and focus.”In fact, Kishimoto experienced Adamowski’s style as soon as she met him. When Kishimoto, then senior director of school improvement, met the new superintendent, he asked what she did. When she told him, he said, “I don’t think we need that.” She agreed with him, and after creating a new administrative cabinet, Kishimoto was named assistant superintendent of school design, the office responsible for overseeing the creation of the district’s new schools.

The big question, after all the plans, uniforms, and changes, boils down simply to How are the students performing? In his first State of the Schools Address this November, Adamowski pointed out early gains but warned that the district’s progress was “hopeful, promising, serious, and fragile.”

In the latest test results, Hartford’s students showed the greatest gains in the state. The average increase was less than one point, but Hartford student scores rose 2.3 points. According the district’s own matrix, 17 of the 40 schools are improving, including Hartford High School. Even with these gains, three of these schools, again including Hartford High School, are substantially below proficient. Only five of the district’s schools saw their test scores slide more than three points.

Overall, the district met seven of its eight performance targets for the year, ranging from test scores to graduation rate. Attendance on the first day of school this year was almost 90 percent, versus 80 percent in 2007­–08.

“There are many people who feel we have turned a corner after years of decline,” Adamowski said at his State of the Schools Address. He warned against “romanticizing” the students who beat the odds. The district, he says, needs to doggedly pursue improvement so that successful students are the norm, not the exception. “We have miles to go.”

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