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City Needs A School SWAT Team

August 16, 2006

The latest round of test scores has reaffirmed that Hartford is arguably the lowest performing school district in Connecticut. Now the only question is whether Mayor Eddie Perez will have the conviction to make the type of dramatic changes needed to fix the foundering system.

Almost a decade after a state takeover of the failing system, Hartford is back in the same old malaise. It's investing about $310 million a year in city, state and federal dollars, churning out a disproportionate number of functionally illiterate students.

When Perez leveraged himself onto the school board and into the chairman's slot nine months ago, he made himself the school system's point person. So, we point to him to come up with something - anything - to get this city off the academic scrap heap.

First thing he can do is try a different approach in hiring a new schools chief. Instead of the academia model, choose a proven results-driven leader from a different sector, such as business or the military. Hartford needs a CEO who can set and maintain a high-expectations, no-excuses tone.

Stability in leadership is at the root of the public schools' problem. A school superintendent's stay in the capital city is about two years. Hence, every time someone new is hired, it's the same routine: promises that a clear, ambitious vision will be set; vows that accountability will be enforced. ... Yet the foundation never sets.

"It's really sad. We really should be much further along in Hartford, given the history, the resources and the talent," said James Thompson, the retired principal at Simpson-Waverly elementary school, who led a noted academic turnaround there. "What's needed is a strategic accountability plan with a laser beam focus on student achievement."

What's also sad is that passionate principals and teachers in the ranks get overlooked when test scores are this dismal. In his best-selling book on leadership, former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani talked about New York's challenged public schools and what happens when a district loses its compass.

"What the system should have been about was educating its million children as well as possible," Giuliani wrote. "Instead, it existed to provide jobs for the people who worked in it, and to preserve those jobs regardless of performance. That's not to say that there weren't committed professionals at every level within the system. There were, and that's the shame of it."

Perez ought to form an educational SWAT unit, made up of those in the district who have excelled. It would keep a pulse on where there actually is progress - such as a promising 8 percent improvement in fourth grade reading scores - and identify those practices that should be duplicated.

Perez made a successful push for school uniforms and is raising aspirations of higher education in the district. Now, how about talking with the unions to establish longer school days and an extended school year? The promise for Hartford is tied to the progress of its schools. The magnet school expansion program needs to be accelerated. Real choice for city parents means choosing among high-achieving schools, not settling for a mediocre one after being buried on a waiting list.

Schools that aren't making the grade should be closed. Administrators and teachers who aren't getting it done should be asked to leave. Simple solutions for such a complicated problem. At least we know this time around who to hold accountable if things don't get better.

Right, Mr. Mayor?

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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