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Closing the Doors

State budget woes are likely to block a progressive school from opening this fall

Daniel D'Ambrosio

June 12, 2008

Jennifer Jackson was really pleased that her two young daughtersóRaeyah, 10, and Janaya, 5ówould be attending the new Achievement First charter school in Hartford this fall. She was hoping they would be challenged to reach levels of excellence rarely achieved in Hartford schools.

But now, thanks to budget problems at the state level, she's not sure the school will even open in the Mark Twain School on Lyme Street. The uncertainty is there even though students are already enrolled and staff has been hired and trained.

Frankly, it's not sitting well with Jackson at all. "How is it they don't have the funding?" says Jackson. "I know [the budget] is tight. At the same time, can you really bargain with a child's education? This is our future. If we don't take care of them, if they're not educated, they're going to grow up ignorant."

Achievement First is a not-for-profit organization that has achieved remarkable results with schools for predominantly poor children in New Haven, Bridgeport and Brooklyn, N.Y. The organization grew out of the Amistad School, founded in New Haven 10 years ago. Amistad has doubled or even tripled the performance of students in New Haven's public schools, according to Dacia Toll, Achievement First's president.

"We have closed the achievement gap," said Toll, noting that Hartford has the largest performance disparity, based on race and poverty, of any school system in the state.

Achievement First has gotten its results by instituting a longer school day and school year, and by recruiting motivated, top-notch teachers who demand excellence from their students. "We develop an overall culture where it's cool to be smart," Toll said.

Marc Porter Magee of the Connecticut Coalition for Achievement Now, a group working to close the achievement gap, says Toll is "fanatical" about getting teachers with a passion for their jobs.

"It's really infectious; when you visit a school like this, there's a different vibe immediately," said Magee.

The not-for-profit has already spent about $500,000 preparing to open its Hartford school, hiring and training principals and other staff. There are 252 students enrolled in kindergarten, first grade and fifth grade. By 2012, plans call for 730 students in grades K-8, with an Achievement First Hartford High School planned when the first class of students reaches eighth grade.

For all these reasons, Jackson was understandably upset last week when she learned that Hartford's new school can't open without $2.1 million from the state. And it may not get the money because of the state budget crisis.

Normally, the legislature makes adjustments to the second year of the two-year budget, which would have included the money for Achievement First Hartford. But this year, because of a growing deficit, legislators froze the budget.

"That decision was necessary because the state is already facing a $150 million deficit even without adjustments," said Chris Cooper, spokesman for Gov. M. Jodi Rell. "The bottom line is that many worthy programs, including many of the governor's own initiatives, were left out because the decision was made to stay with the 2009 budget put in place two years ago."

Last week, Superintendent Stephen J. Adamowski made an urgent appeal to Rell to save Achievement First Hartford. In a June 5 letter to the governor, Adamowski calls the school a "critical element" in his plan to shake up Hartford's public school system with the most comprehensive reorganization in its history, offering the city's students and parents more choices in high-performing schools.

"Failure to fund the seats for the new Achievement First Hartford school (252 seats are needed) would strike a blow at the heart of our plans for the upcoming year and set back our reform effort not only in the eyes of Hartford parents and teachers but also in the eyes of the national funding community for whom the inclusion of Achievement First in our plans is critical to their future support," writes Adamowski.

Adamowski copied the letter to Mayor Eddie Perez, the entire Hartford delegation to the state legislature, and the House and Senate leadership. The General Assembly will open a special session this week, but Cooper said the agenda does not currently include funding the new Hartford school. Rell has the power to order the state Department of Education to release the funds the school needs, however.

"While we are exhausting all legislative avenues to secure the necessary funds, I am writing to ask that you please consider taking administrative action to directly allocate the needed funds," Adamowski writes.

But Cooper said that's highly unlikely, given that legislators are looking for $25 million in cuts to prevent the state's gasoline tax from increasing to 7.5 percent from seven percent as it's scheduled to do.

"In the midst of this environment where we're looking to cut funds, it's certainly hard to find money for the school this year," Cooper said. "But having said that, the governor recognizes this is a very worthy program and hopes it could be supported in the next two-year budget, which we take up in January 2009."

That won't help for this fall. Andrea Comer, who sits on the Achievement First Hartford board, said if funding for the school doesn't come through, there will be a lot of disappointed students and parents in Hartford.

"We have 252 kids who will have to scramble to get another choice [of schools]," Comer said. "This late in the game, trying to find the best choice for a child at the 11th hour is going to be tough."

Comer wrote her own June 5 letter to Governor Rell to appeal for the funding the new school needs, putting what's at stake for Hartford in the starkest of terms. Only three out of 10 students in Hartford graduates from high school, she points out.

"Some think our children are beyond hope, that their poverty and other societal issues prevent them from learning," writes Comer. "I think some of the children themselves have bought into that notion, and have surrendered themselves to the streets or worse."

Comer says she knew one young man who told her the day before he died from a gunshot wound that "he wouldn't need an education."

"My heart wrestles regularly with whether his statement came from knowing he'd be leaving us, or if he'd lost hope that education could save him from the life he knew," Comer writes.

Toll, together with Christina Kishimoto, the senior director of school design for Hartford Public Schools, is planning a press conference for June 17 at the Capitol to focus attention on the charter school's funding dilemma. Kishimoto sent a letter out to parents, urging them to attend.

For Jackson, who dreams of college in her daughters' futures, the failure of Achievement First Hartford to open this fall would be "overwhelming," because she says she has put her faith in "believing they would get a good education."

"A lot of parents need to speak up," said Jackson. "This is their kids' future."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Advocate.
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