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Putting City Students On Prep-School Path

July 21, 2005
By RACHEL GOTTLIEB, Courant Staff Writer

Mayor Eddie A. Perez is announcing his own version of golden tickets for city children today.

But rather than access to a fabled chocolate factory, these tickets offer entree to exclusive private schools across the state - Miss Porter's School, The Hotchkiss School, Loomis Chaffee School, Choate Rosemary Hall and others - and to the networks of powerful friends and the pipeline to prestigious colleges that they offer.

In all, 17 private schools have joined the mayor's initiative to expose more Hartford children to a rigorous college prep curriculum by pledging $11 million in partial and full scholarships over four years. Perez also will announce the creation of a new foundation to raise more private support to send public school students to the private schools.

"These are powerful networks," Perez said of the children of the well-connected and well-heeled who attend these schools with annual price tags ranging from $8,000 to $35,000 in tuition and board. "Education is a great equalizer."

The idea is not universally embraced. The school board chairman worries about a brain drain and a loss of role models in the city schools. And one of the city's most vocal and active parents says that by heading the charge to send city youths to private schools, Perez is showing he lacks confidence in the school district's ability to provide a quality education.

But the state education commissioner disagrees, saying that children should have the option of attending the school of their choice, and that the city's schools should have high expectations for students and offer them a challenging and engaging curriculum.

The private school program came out of the mayor's blue ribbon commission on higher education, which presented recommendations in January 2004. Since then, Perez and a team headed by Karl J. Krapek, former United Technologies Corp. president and chief operating officer, met with private school headmasters around the state and asked them to dedicate scholarships and financial aid to Hartford students.

While that aid was being lined up, the group hosted a fair where students met representatives from the schools and gathered literature and applications. The effort was successful: One-hundred and sixty Hartford students were enrolled in the schools in the new partnership this past school year, and this fall, 197 students will attend the schools. The Hartford students still must meet the admissions criteria to enroll at the private schools.

Perez said his goal is to increase that enrollment by 80 to 100 students a year and ultimately to increase by 25 percent the number of all Hartford children attending four-year colleges. That figure is paltry: In 1999, according to Perez's staff, 1,190 students enrolled as freshmen in city schools. Four years later, in 2003, 790 graduated; 160 of those graduates enrolled in four-year colleges, and 82 of them were full-time. About half of the full-time students are expected to graduate within four years.

To support the college prep initiative, Krapek's committee will form a foundation to raise money for more scholarships and financial aid and to pay staff that will help prospective students learn about the schools and counsel students before and after they enroll. The agency, to be called the Hartford Youth Scholars Foundation, will be the hub through which students can find help arranging transportation or securing more financial aid.

"People all over the country and all over the world take second jobs and second mortgages on their houses to send their kids to these schools," said Tom Francoline, owner of Avon Ridge, a home construction and land development firm, and vice chairman of the committee chaired by Krapek. "This is people's dream all over the country - to send their kids to these schools."

Robert E. Long, chairman of Hartford's school board, said he doesn't want to hold kids back by depriving them of opportunities. Still, he lamented, "there's an impact on the kids who are left behind."

This year, for example, all of the high schools cut the number of honors and advanced placement classes, to the chagrin of students and their parents, because many of the highest achieving kids transferred to magnet schools and budget constraints precluded offering classes to small numbers of students.

This past year, 1,768 Hartford students left the district to attend suburban or magnet schools.

If the school district had the same kind of money to spend per pupil that some of the private schools have, Long said, then the public schools could offer similar enrichment and opportunities. Hartford's per pupil expenditure is about $11,000.

Hyacinth Yennie, a parent who sent her three children to the city's schools, said that by spearheading this effort, Perez is sending the message "if you want a good education, go to private school."

Betty J. Sternberg, state education commissioner, disagrees. "All kids deserve real choice options," she said. "Private school is one option."

What does send a bad message, she said, is the thought that the students who choose the public schools are not capable of succeeding in honors-level classes. Administrators should push more students to enroll in those courses, she said. "We need to have high expectations for every single child."

Throughout the nation, high school students are saying they're bored in school and that they don't feel challenged, Sternberg said, referring to a survey that the National Governors' Association recently released. "The message that came out of that is `we're not challenged and we'd like to be.'"

Perez, a graduate of Hartford Public High School and Trinity College, said that creating a more challenging curriculum in the public schools is one of his top priorities. But there are great opportunities in the private schools, he said, and he intends to make sure city children get their chance. "I had opportunities because other people stood up for me. I am going to stand up for Hartford's kids."

In addition to the schools listed above, other schools in the city's partnership include: Avon Old Farms School, East Catholic High School, Ethel Walker School, Kent School, Kingswood-Oxford School, The Master's School, Mercy High School, Northwest Catholic High School, The Salisbury School, Suffield Academy, Watkinson School, Westminster School and Xavier High School.

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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