Kinsella Elementary, Plagued By Low Scores, Remakes Itself
And Now Has A Waiting List
October 31, 2005
By RACHEL GOTTLIEB, Courant Staff Writer
By virtue of his address, Edwin Oquendo could have enrolled
his two young daughters in Parkville Elementary. By most
accounts, it's a fine school that generally ranks in the
upper tier of Hartford elementary schools on standardized
But the doting father found what he thinks is a better place
for his youngsters: Kinsella Elementary School, clear across
town, near Hartford's Colt Building.
To those who know Hartford schools, Kinsella might seem a surprising
pick. From the outside, it seems a forbidding place, with high
brick walls featuring one lonely row of windows just below the
The school's academic track record is no less forbidding. Kinsella
typically ranks either dead last in the city in standardized
test scores, or a step or two from the bottom. Last year, just
7 percent of the fourth-graders met the state goal for reading.
It is one of two city schools
the federal government has tagged as "in need of improvement" for
five years running, a designation that gives Kinsella parents
the right to move their children to higher performing schools
under the No Child Left Behind law.
But Oquendo and other parents in Hartford are suddenly flocking
to Kinsella. The waiting list to get in this year was brimming
with 400 names. Some impatient parents have even lobbied school
officials to get their names closer to the top.
It's a hunger for art, music and dance that has parents hustling
and angling. Test scores are important, they say, but the arts
are the stuff of life - and Kinsella is remaking itself as a
theme school focused on the arts.
Here, reading, writing, science and math lessons are infused
with music, dance and art. Unlike other city schools, where the
arts are mostly held to a minimum, youngsters at Kinsella choose
from electives such as tap, ballet, drumming and violin in addition
to regular art and music classes.
Pamela Totten-Alvarado, Kinsella's principal and the architect
of this stunning turnaround, has ambitious plans for Kinsella.
Next year, she will convert the school into an interdistrict
magnet school open to children from surrounding suburbs. Planned
building renovations include construction of a black box theater,
a dance studio and other special art spaces.
Totten-Alvarado, now in her
third year as principal, moves through the building like a
wind storm. Look here, she says, pointing out the intricately
carved columns gracing the school's entry. "They're
from [a theater in] the Old State House. We cut them to fit."
And look there, in the auditorium
where kindergartners are having a tap-dancing lesson. "See
the curtains - they're from the Old State House. We had a guy
hang them. Boy that was a job. Now we have a theater in-the-round."
"No one wanted this school," Totten-Alvarado
says, in an uncharacteristically quiet voice.
She took over, she said, because Superintendent of Schools Robert
Henry asked her to do it. In the years before Totten-Alvarado
arrived, teachers and parents called reporters regularly to gripe
about chaos in the halls and classrooms.
The place was so out of control that teachers sometimes didn't
even know where their students were, insiders complained. Principals
came and went. The year before Totten-Alvarado took over, the
school year started without a principal, and, for months, principals
from other schools took turns spending the morning or an afternoon
filling in at Kinsella.
The atmosphere is infused
with optimism now. "When you
add the arts into instruction, every child has a way to learn," Totten-Alvarado
said. "It appeals to all learning styles."
Totten-Alvarado is intent on making sure the Kinsella children
return her investment by developing a love for learning. Eventually,
she promises, the test scores will reflect that love and Kinsella
will be a great school.
Parents in Hartford believe her.
At a fair showcasing magnet schools, Totten-Alvarado found Oquendo
and told him about her plans. She was straightforward with him
about the school's track record as one of the lowest performing
in the state.
"They told me that," said Oquendo, father of girls
aged 4 and 7. "But this school is going to be upgraded and
that's what these schools need. And art and music are very important
for kids growing up. My kids are artists."
At Kinsella, all kids are artists.
Walk into science teacher Heather Dinnald's sixth-grade class
and see the Kinsella Rappers perform their rap and dance about
the eight phases of the moon. Their work sparked hardy applause
from their classmates.
Ask the students in the class
if they like adding art, music and dance to science, and they
answer before the question is completed: "Yes!"
How are you learning?
"You have to memorize to perform," said
Jose Jimenez, one of the Kinsella Rappers.
"And you get to be active while you're learning," added
fellow rapper Christopher Barros.
A hallway away, students in
Christine Tocionis' seventh-grade reading class are acting
out scenes from the book "Holes" by
Louis Sachar. After the applause, Tocionis leads the class in
critiquing how well the actors interpreted the characters.
When the class takes the Connecticut Mastery Test in the spring,
she told her students, there will be open-ended questions about
reading passages and testers will critique students' answers
in much the same way the class was critiquing the actors' interpretation
of the book.
"The answers to open-ended questions," Tocionis tells
her class, "must demonstrate comprehension of important
elements and relationships beyond the text."
And in a second-grade classroom, arts education consultant Allison
Abucewicz is demonstrating a lesson for teachers on how interpreting
musical compositions that have beginnings, middles and endings
can teach students about the structure of a story.
Every performance is greeted with applause, which Totten-Alvarado
said bolsters self-esteem. A large showcase in the front of the
school shows the picture and work of the writer, artist and musician
of the week.
It's too early to say whether the infusion of the arts will
improve test scores, because the curriculum is new and standardized
tests won't be administered until the spring.
But parents say their children who attended the school last
year are thrilled by the changes. Last year, Maribel Gonzalez
said, her son hated going to school. Sometimes, she said, he
would stand outside and refuse to enter.
"Every morning he would
say, `I don't want to go.'"
This year, her son doesn't like to miss school, not even for
a doctor's appointment.
Elika Cruz describes a similar transformation in her 12-year-old
"Last year, she'd give me a hard time with behavior and
she'd say, `Yay, it's the weekend,'" Cruz said. "This
year she's doing great. She's learning the saxophone and on the
weekend she says, `Mommy, why don't we have school on the weekends?
"Yay, Monday's coming!'
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at