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Candor Oils The Wheels Of Reform

May 30, 2007
Column By STAN SIMPSON, Courant Staff Writer

Steven Adamowski has my attention now. Actually, he had me at hello.

The Hartford public schools may lack for many things, but candor from their latest schools chief isn't one of them. Shortly after being hired a year ago, the former Cincinnati superintendent of schools crunched the numbers, perused the student performance data and said decisively: Hartford's graduation rate is 29 percent; only 15 percent of its third-graders are reading at grade level.

"We intend to close the achievement gap, and you have to have honest numbers to use as a base line to benchmark against," he said.

No muddled language, no numbers to misinterpret. And, oh by the way, the one-time Ansonia resident added, the new Hartford Public High School building under construction? It's going to be obsolete the minute the doors open. The building is too cavernous at a time when high schools are going small.

If Hartford is ever going to make a sustained jump as one of the lowest performing school districts in a state with the widest achievement gap in the country, then it has got to hear and handle the truth.

Here's another dose: Central office staff is bloated and needs to be downsized and, the new guy says, there are enough resources available now to make meaningful changes. Talk about shocking the system.

Adamowski last week introduced plans to radically shake up Hartford schools. The proposal was unprecedented in its ambition, depth and breadth. He wants to create a comprehensive school-choice system that would feature a year-round elementary school, all-boys and all-girls academies, Montessori schools and themed high schools specializing in such things as financial services, military studies and nursing. He also wants to duplicate the nationally renowned Amistad charter school in New Haven.

"There's not a single original idea on my part on that list," Adamowski said Tuesday. "These are all things that reflect aspirations of our community, but also included are things that have a sustained track record nationally in terms of improving student achievement and closing the gap."

The schools chief's willingness to be frank is bolstered by a 5-year contract and the reality that at 55, he's in the twilight of his professional career. He's not preoccupied with retribution or bruised egos. "I want someone to be candid with me," said Laura Taylor, a parent who has a child at Capital Preparatory Magnet School. "I appreciate that. Don't just give me minutiae but never give me answers or facts."

Other changes Adamowski is calling for include free use of the city bus system for students going to school and the introduction of a British primary school, known for its academic rigor and discipline. The schools are popular in Jamaica, which spawned one of America's largest West Indian communities in Hartford.

"I would really love to see some kind of stability with having someone stay in the system long enough to implement some of these beautiful plans," said Doreen Crawford, a Jamaica native and principal of Jumoke Academy, a charter elementary school. "I think it's really what Hartford kids need at this time."

Adamowski is pitching an earn-your-stripes model for principals. As their school's performance increases they earn more autonomy. The schools that are consistent failing will be closed.

His low-key, almost shy demeanor belies a bold and bodacious approach to education reform.

Hey Hartford: Adamowski's the truth.

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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