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Bottom Line On Hartford's Schools Chief

January 29, 2006
By DAVID MEDINA, Courant Staff Writer

More than half of the 1,500 to 2,000 freshmen who enter Hartford's public high schools each year never graduate. About 93 percent of them never go to college. Only about half of the remaining 7 percent enroll in a four-year college.

Year after year, the bottom line remains the same: A Hartford student's chances of getting a diploma and going to college, let alone earning a degree, are minute.

But Superintendent Robert Henry, whose contract expires in June and who has barely budged that bottom line in three years, wants another three-year deal.

Standardized test scores hover just above the bottom statewide. Suspensions and absences show a hairline downswing. And a questionable formula calculates graduation rate increases - even when the raw totals drop.

But Robert Henry believes the numbers make a strong case for a new contract.

Hartford's high schools, meanwhile, dump about 40 percent of their freshmen into a "basic studies" curriculum, where students take dumbed-down courses that flush them expeditiously through the school system, but the courses don't meet the requirements for college admission.

And Robert Henry, thrust on the city by state trustees days before the district returned to local control, thinks that for the sake of continuity and stability, he should be kept at the helm.

Mayor Eddie Perez, who under a revised city charter appoints a majority of the school board, wants vastly improved student achievement to be a hallmark of his administration. He wants it yesterday. He wants schools to demand more of students, believing that city children will meet higher expectations, as have low-income non-English-speaking children in other districts.

In 2004, Perez appointed a commission that recommended overhauling the curriculum to prepare every child for college. The panel also suggested steering more students to private secondary schools, where city youngsters are four times more likely to go to college. Perez quickly implemented the idea. Then last July, he established an Office for Young Children in city hall that, among other things, oversees all of Hartford's preschool programs.

Henry, co-chairman of the commission, hasn't taken to Perez's initiatives with the same sense of urgency.

The college-prep curriculum moves at glacial speed. Henry also makes no secret of his disdain for opening up opportunities to students in private schools. And he was said not to be thrilled about surrendering a top administrator to handle preschool from city hall.

As fate would have it, Perez couldn't find anyone who wanted to be the new school board chairman last month, so he had himself named chairman, putting him in direct control of Henry's paycheck.

Henry's contract requires that the school board advise him by late March whether it intends to keep him.

Chairman Perez won't say which way he's leaning, but at his first board meeting, he set up a subcommittee to find out why the college prep curriculum is taking so long and to recommend ways of accelerating it. Trust that there's a connection between the subcommittee's report and Henry's contract renewal.

In defending the pace of college prep curriculum, Henry says, "You can't simply move 12th-graders to college without fixing things in the lower grades. That's groundwork that is taking place." In fairness, he deserves great credit for opening seven new magnet schools and getting all of the city's schools accredited. He does buildings well.

But student achievement remains basically the same, and Henry's fate could rest on whether Perez believes Henry can institute dramatic changes faster than it would take to find and hire a new superintendent.

If he chooses to stick with Henry, Perez may have to light a fire under him by loading the contract with performance targets, timetables, incentives and penalties.

Better to find someone who doesn't need all that prodding - an educational leader who understands that his primary job is enabling all students by any means necessary to get ahead academically and who doesn't allow process or protocol to bog him down.

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.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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