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Saved by the Bell

Last-minute fundraising puts Hartford's Achievement First charter school over the top

By Daniel D'Ambrosio

July 31, 2008

It looks like the Jackson sisters will be attending Hartford's new Achievement First charter school this year after all.

Last month the Advocate reported that Raeyah Jackson, 10, and her sister Janaya, 5, would likely not have that opportunity because the school was short about $2.1 million in state funding. Jennifer Jackson, the girls' mother, said parents needed to "speak up," because their children's future was at stake.

Well, speak up they did, garnering a remarkable flurry of support that included $500,000 from the state, $400,000 from Hartford Public Schools, and $1.4 million in private donations, including $400,000 just from the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving. There is also a $600,000 in-kind donation from Hartford Public Schools, which is providing the old Mark Twain Elementary to house the new charter school, along with covering maintenance and other costs.

This fall, Achievement First Hartford Academy will open its doors to 252 kindergartners, 1st graders and 5th graders—including the Jackson girls. Superintendent Stephen Adamowski has made it clear the school is critical to his overall plan to resuscitate education in Hartford.

"I think I'm more excited than [Raeyah and Janaya] are," said Jennifer Jackson. "They don't realize quite how important this was."

Sarah Barr, spokeswoman for Mayor Eddie Perez, said it was the passion of parents like Jackson that drove the city's board of education and others to find money where there didn't seem to be any in this depressed economy.

At the state level, Robert Genuario, secretary of the Office of Policy and Management, said officials scrutinized the charter school budget line by line, comparing budgeted numbers to projected enrollments and squeezing out $500,000, in spite of the fact the state will likely end the year with an overall deficit.

"We believe there's enough funds when we compare budgeted amounts to current projections to make some money available for Achievement First," Genuario said.

Genuario also confirmed Governor Rell has committed to fully funding the Hartford school beginning in the 2009-2010 school year—a crucial point for the private donors who put their money on the line this year.

"People believed in the program and the school," said Barr. "It was important for everyone to come together for these students."

The Hartford school will gradually add grades up to 8th, doubling to more than 400 students next year, according to Dacia Toll, co-founder of Achievement First, which operates charter schools in New Haven, Bridgeport and Brooklyn, N.Y.

The not-for-profit organization has garnered national attention for the remarkable success it has achieved with inner-city children. Students at its Amistad Academy High in New Haven recently posted proficiency scores in math, reading, writing and science that were more than triple the scores posted by other New Haven high school students. Amistad even outperformed schools in perennially high-scoring Madison and Guilford in reading and writing.

Amistad Middle School was recently recognized by the U.S. Department of Education as one of seven schools across the country that should be "models for closing the achievement gap" between urban and suburban schools. Connecticut has the largest such gap in the country.

"Achievement First is an excellent example proving that if you give kids a chance, magic happens," Perez said at a press conference last week at Mark Twain, where parents and officials gathered for the announcement of the funding success.

Despite the overall euphoria that characterized last week, Toll said there are still hurdles to be cleared. For one, the school has to deliver on the promise of achievement that motivated everyone to give in the first place.

But more troubling, Achievement First also has to raise an additional $800,000 by next June to cover a shortfall that even the remarkable burst of fundraising leaves for the Hartford school.

The $2.3 million in cash raised is equivalent to the $9,300 per student the state normally provides to charter schools. But Toll said that in reality, it costs $12,000 per student to educate Connecticut children, which works out to more than $3 million for Achievement First in its first year in Hartford.

Toll has secured a line of credit to bridge the gap in funding, but it must be paid off by June. In New York, she said, charter schools are fully funded by the state. Achievement First doesn't face the shortfalls there it faces in Connecticut, where it has to raise about $3,000 for every student it enrolls.

"You feel very vulnerable [in Connecticut] and that's not a feeling you want when you're working with kids," said Toll.

While sympathetic, Genuario points out the state raised its per-student grant for charter schools from about $7,500 two years ago to the current $9,300, which he called "significant movement."

"I'm not suggesting that means there can't be a review and a revisiting of these issues," Genuario said. "What should not be lost in the story is that the performance of the students in the Achievement First schools is off the charts, and the reason the governor went the extra mile to find the funding and make the commitment is because of that performance."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Advocate.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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