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An Upbeat Opening Day

September 6, 2006
By ROBERT A. FRAHM, Courant Staff Writer

The news was so good on opening day at Hartford's Batchelder School Tuesday that Principal John Laverty could have shouted it from the rooftop.

On Thursday night, he'll be able to do just that.

That is when he will keep a promise he made last winter to sleep on the school's roof if his students made the grade on the annual Connecticut Mastery Test. He also promised to shave his head. That is scheduled for Friday.

Batchelder students took up Laverty's challenge, posting impressive gains in reading, writing and mathematics. Out of the city's 37 elementary and middle schools, just three - Breakthrough Magnet School, Hartford Magnet Middle School and Batchelder - made sufficient progress to meet the testing standards of the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

"Now it's time for me to pay. You kept your side of the bargain," Laverty told an assembly of students in Batchelder's cafeteria Tuesday morning.

"He's crazy," said Johnny Resto, an eighth-grader. "I didn't think he was really going to do it."

In a school system looking for good news, the mood at Batchelder was upbeat.

Across the city, officials said they were pleased that most students appeared to be complying with a new dress code, with thousands wearing newly required uniforms. At several schools, students came back to remodeled classrooms, and there was hope the new school year would bring a turnaround in test scores that were among the lowest in the state.

"I think all the city schools were feeling a sense of desperation [last year]," Laverty said.

Along with the 22,500-student Hartford system, about one-fourth of the state's public school districts are starting classes this week. Most others started before Labor Day, according to the state Department of Education.

In Hartford, Tuesday marked the opening of classes at half a dozen new or remodeled buildings, including Breakthrough, Burr, Classical Magnet, Rawson, Naylor and Webster schools.

One school, Hartford Public High School, did not open Tuesday, as workers continued construction on a $105 million renovation. Officials last week postponed the opening until later this week because some classrooms were still blocked off, some phones were not ready, and some textbooks were stored in inaccessible rooms. In addition, student schedules were not completed.

As of Tuesday morning, however, classrooms were open to teachers, and the school was "putting on the finishing touches" on student schedules, said Principal Zandralyn V. Gordon. "We'll definitely be ready" when students return, she said. Freshmen are due to report Thursday and upperclassmen Friday.

"I think we're going to have a great school, and I have a staff really ready to receive our kids," she said.

Teachers said they were eager to get underway in the new classrooms.

"I think it's going to be fabulous when all is said and done," said Bridget Allison, a social studies teacher. "I first came here two years ago. The old school was just a wreck, very dirty, run down. ... I can't wait to have a cafeteria, have a teachers' room again, have an auditorium. ... I want to have the kids realize this is their school, and they can take pride in it."

While several schools were sporting a new look, so were students. Schools across the city reported good compliance with a new dress code, according to Terry D'Italia, a spokesman for the school system.

At Batchelder, for example, nearly every student wore the required pants or skirts and blue or white shirts and blouses. Laverty congratulated the students for complying with the dress code, but most of the buzz was about his promise to sleep on the roof and then, in front of a school assembly, shave his head.

"I wanted to give them some motivation ... something to spur them on," said Laverty, an affable, burly man with curly brown hair, streaked with gray.

Throughout Hartford last year, schools revamped parts of the curriculum, including math programs. At Batchelder, which has students from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade, "we really zeroed in on addressing standards," Laverty said. "You've got to give our kids credit. They really, really tried. ... The staff did just a great job."

The gains on the test were striking. In math, for example, 66 percent of the school's fourth-graders scored at the proficient level or better, up from 43 percent a year ago. In reading, 65 percent of sixth-graders met the proficiency standard, up from 38 percent.

At Tuesday's assembly, Laverty said three students would be selected at random to be his barbers. Johnny Resto hoped to be one of them.

"Everyone will laugh at him," Resto said. "I think he'll look like Mr. Clean."

A discussion of this story with Courant Staff Writer Robert Frahm is scheduled to be shown on New England Cable News each hour today between 9 a.m. and noon.

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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