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Abolish Old Ways In Schools

May 25, 2007
Column By RICK GREEN, Courant Staff Writer

Steven Adamowski's gift to Hartford could be the end of high school as we know it.

Because in the city with the second oldest public high school in the land, we're still clinging to an education model decades out of date.

But now the latest school reformer to take over city schools has a new plan: If it's not working, get rid of it. At the top of the superintendent's hit list are two concrete behemoths that rise like old smokestack factories in the north and south ends of the city - Weaver and Bulkeley high schools.

Adamowski would replace them with a menu of smaller schools, each tied to a specific theme. The newly rebuilt Hartford Public would morph into a collection of vocational academies.

In Hartford this is revolutionary. Other cities, including New Haven, have been doing this for years.

Schools that focus on nursing, information technology, finance and the global economy are under discussion. He's considering a high school tied to the Wadsworth or new science museum and even a high school for gifted and talented students - a program Hartford abandoned long ago. There's a high school for young mothers and even a boarding school on his expansive list.

The $15,000 per student that state and city taxpayers now annually pour into Hartford - enough to cover tuition at a good Catholic school - doesn't yield much return. At Bulkeley, just two black 10th graders reached state goals for science last spring.

Adamowski's point is the days of the big factory-style high school, where more than a thousand students are packed into a single building with a narrow curriculum, are over.

"We should not have three big high schools," Adamowski told me. "The mid-20th century model is not working here."

By the superintendent's calculation, just 29 percent of Hartford students graduate in four years. They drop out, move to parts unknown or just stagnate. We then continue to pay when they are arrested, go on welfare or don't have health insurance.

Numbers like this are panicking business leaders, who know they will be relying on urban schools to supply workers in coming years. If this were a business, it would be bankrupt.

That's a lesson that George Weiss, a philanthropist with a hugely successful bond trading company based in Hartford and New York, understands. His "Say Yes to Education" program has been trying to break the dropout cycle since the 1980s.

Say Yes and Adamowski are now discussing creating an academically rigorous school in Hartford, a campus-style program for gifted students that would serve kindergarten through 12th grade.

Students in Say Yes are guaranteed a college education if they stay in school. Over the last 20 years in Philadelphia, Hartford and Boston, Weiss has realized that the entire design of school must be revamped if low-income urban students are going to succeed.

"The modern high school is not functional," said Weiss, whose program now spends much of its effort working with the families of students.

"You have to look at new models and re-jigger," Weiss told me. "If it isn't working what does a businessman do? Do you keep pouring money in? No, you look at it from the top down and make it better."

Adamowski, who has yet to pause to decorate his spartan office in the old G. Fox building, says time is running out to make changes.

"We don't do the three or four things well that could transform a school system," he said, "like teaching kids to read."

Now there's a truly revolutionary idea.

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.
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