Hartford Prepartory Magnet School Has A Non-Nonsense Approach: Long Days, Long Years, And Rigorous Academics To Put Students On the Path To College
August 6, 2006
By ROBERT A. FRAHM, Courant Staff Writer
On a hot July morning in downtown Hartford, as students streamed off yellow buses for another day of school, they faced their first test before they got to the doorway. There, on the sidewalk, stood Principal Stephen D. Perry
Most got a friendly greeting, but a few also discovered that even a minor transgression - a missing book bag, for example - could result in a firm reminder that Capital Preparatory Magnet School is no ordinary school, and Perry intends to keep it that way.
Capital is a rarity, operating classes nearly year-round - part of a no-nonsense approach that includes a longer school day, a rigorous college-prep curriculum, regular homework, student uniforms and a strict behavior code.
"Good morning. ... Stop. Don't cross the threshold," Perry told a boy wearing a do-rag, a violation of a dress code that forbids most jewelry and other accessories. The boy pulled the do-rag from his head.
Later, Perry took another student aside, telling him to apologize to a teacher for talking back during class. He stopped another who arrived without his book bag - a sign that the boy failed to do his nightly homework. Moments later, he patrolled the hallways, telling stragglers to get to class.
"You correct the small stuff," Perry said, "and everything else is a lot easier."
Nothing, however, is easy about the mission Capital has set for itself. Many of its students are poor, and some are years behind academically, but the goal is to prepare every student for a college education.
That is a daunting challenge in a city where public schools send only about two of every 10 graduates to four-year colleges.
The school, alongside Capital Community College in the old G. Fox department store, enrolls about 260 children in grades 6 through 12. It began its second full year in early July, only three weeks after finishing its first year.
A handful of other public schools - including charter schools such as Amistad Academy and Elm City College Preparatory School in New Haven and the New Beginnings Family Academy in Bridgeport - operate with school years approaching 200 days, unlike the common 180-day calendar.
The extra time is especially important for children from struggling urban schools, said Perry, one of the school's founders. "How can I expect children coming from a school system like Hartford to keep up with kids from ... [suburban] Glastonbury by giving them exactly the same amount of time to do it?"
Drawing half its students from Hartford and half from nearby towns, Capital is a regional magnet school, one of eight such schools in Hartford already open or scheduled to open under a court-approved settlement in the Sheff vs. O'Neill school desegregation lawsuit.
The school is an outgrowth of the Connecticut Collegiate Awareness and Preparation Program (ConnCAP), a successful, long-running college-prep tutoring and study program for teens from low-income homes or from families who have never attended college.
Students can take courses for credit at Capital Community College and can earn associate degrees while still in high school.
"The entire school is focused on kids being prepared for college. That's really important to me," said Shari Smith, the guardian of her niece Thelma Smith-Chaney, an eighth-grader at Capital.
Capital Preparatory cultivates a prep school atmosphere, reflected not only in the school's name and its student uniforms but in its requirement that teachers also work as student advisers and supervisors of after-school clubs and activities.
Hard work, including daily homework, is routine.
"It's harder, much harder," said Martika Woodruff, a 15-year-old junior from Bloomfield who estimates she spends two to three hours a night on homework. "At my [former] school, I probably wouldn't even bother to do it, and I passed all my classes," she said.
AmoyBrock, 16, of East Hartford, took the summer classes in stride, something she has done for several years as part of the ConnCAP program. Otherwise, she said, "I'd be home, bored, have nothing to do, watching TV."
Perry said, "We believe in high expectations [of children] ... in their dress, in their speech, in their attitude." Perry said he has run into a handful of parents who resent the discipline and "try to make it possible for their children ... to have an undisciplined existence - and that's not going to happen."
The 36-year-old Perry is himself a product of the ConnCAP program at Wesleyan University in Middletown. He founded and directed the ConnCAP program at Capital Community College for several years before becoming principal of the magnet school. He holds degrees from the University of Rhode Island and the University of Pennsylvania and is unflinching in his drive to help students for whom a college education once seemed a long shot.
The message is getting through. The school received more than 1,500 applicants for fewer than 100 openings this year, Perry said.
Stepfan Holley, 16, of Middletown, said he was getting D's and an occasional F in his classes before transferring to Capital. Now his grades have turned around, he said. "It's 100 percent different [here]. You don't see kids skipping class, disrupting class. There are no distractions." he said.
Maria Frausto, a 16-year-old junior from East Hartford, said it was her mother's decision to send her to Capital. "But I like it here," she said, "because it gives you, like, a future."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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