March 14, 2005
By RACHEL GOTTLIEB, Courant Staff Writer
Jonathan Serrano is cruising through his first day of math
class after a five-month expulsion from Hartford Public High
School for bringing a knife to school in September.
Having done his time at the city's high school for students
who have emotional disturbances, Hartford Transitional Learning
Academy, Serrano, 16, is back at Hartford Public and doing
his best to fit in with his class. On this February day, he
doesn't have a textbook and periodically he announces to the
teacher and to his class that he missed instruction on this
algebraic principle or that one. But he is engaged in class
and he clearly has a talent for mathematics.
Hartford Public is trying to save students like Serrano through
a special program for ninth-graders, called the "pride
academy." In a cluster of classrooms on the school's second
floor, students at the lowest academic level, called basic
level, and those in special education take all of their core
The idea, Principal Mark Zito explains, is to create an intimate
environment within the large school of about 1,400 students,
so teachers can get to know their students and by tracking
them more closely, perhaps keep more of them in school. The
academy has about 150 students.
Throughout the nation, as cities are seeking ways to reform
large, comprehensive high schools, they are increasingly turning
to the idea of small learning communities within the schools.
Middle schools have long employed the strategy.
Hartford's other large, comprehensive high schools have academies
as well. Bulkeley High School has a similar program and the
city schools also have theme-based academies.
The first year of high school is the breaking point for many
students who were promoted through the elementary grades despite
inadequate academic progress. In high school, for the first
time, students are confronted with the reality that if they
fail classes, they won't earn the credits they need to move
up a grade. In a city in which more ninth graders read below
the fourth grade level than read at the ninth grade level,
the cold reality of credits, coupled with life's stress and
the increasing independence of high school, drives half the
freshmen across the city to give up each year and drop out
or stay back.
The dropout rate reported to the state does not reflect the
true scope of the problem, Zito said, because students can
miss weeks of school, but if they show up once or twice within
30 days then they are not considered dropouts. Students with
more than 20 unexcused absences in a course automatically fail
the course, and a tremendous number of students do miss more
than 20 days of school.
In the 2002-03 school year, for example, 7.1 percent of Hartford
Public's freshman class dropped out - a total of 46 students
out of 649 who enrolled by Oct. 1. But the number of students
failing their freshman year was more than three times that
number with 29 percent of the entire class missing 50 or more
days of school.
With sporadic attendance, students maintain their enrollment
in the school, but they cannot pass their classes and earn
the credits they need to progress to the next grade, Zito said.
By creating a more personalized environment, both Zito and
Bulkeley Principal Miriam Morales-Taylor say the district is
hoping to reduce truancy, failure and the frustration that
contributes to students dropping out of school.
The academy is having some success. Freshman Rukmin Rampersaud
said, for example, that she enjoys coming to school now because
she likes her classes - particularly the "teen leadership" class
that the academy requires. The class focuses on developing
character, learning to work as a team member and writing skills.
When she was in middle school, Rukmin missed a lot of school,
in part, she said, because she had to rely on a school bus,
which she often missed. Now she walks.
Others hate the walk in the cold, traversing unplowed sidewalks
and slushy streets. So after a snowfall, they stay home. Empty
chairs mark their absence. "If everyone on the list were
to come every day, we wouldn't have enough seats. But not everybody
comes," said Lynn Fidler, a special education teacher
in Hartford Public's academy.
All the students in Hartford Public's academy are divided
into two teams - the red team and the blue team - and each
class has a regular and a special education teacher. Bulkeley
also has team teaching.
But even with a team of teachers in each classroom, capturing
students' attention - and holding it - is a daunting task.
Teachers compete with so many distractions, such as the photo
album that a Bulkeley transfer student is showing to a new
friend in Jack LaPlante's Hartford Public social studies class.
Yet, in another social studies class, students are quiet and
seem to be paying attention. Several take turns reading aloud
from a textbook and LaPlante goes over the main point after
each reading. At the end, the class works collectively to answer
four questions - each a question that LaPlante has asked and
answered throughout class. The class gets four out of the five
questions wrong and LaPlante is disappointed.
"You read the section," he said to the class. "What
are we going to do to improve the score?"
Nobody had an answer.
After class, co-teacher Lynn Fidler reflects on the group
and the distractions in their lives. Four of the girls are
pregnant, she said, and one of them recently lost her home
to a fire. Also, since the class backs up to lunch, others
may have been hungry. Fidler keeps a huge box of crackers in
her cabinet to pass out when students complain they're hungry.
Each class is 80 minutes - twice the time of a regular high
school course - and since the teachers will loop with their
students into the tenth grade, they have the latitude to alter
the schedule. So, for example, classes are 80 minutes long
to decrease the down time that comes with changing classes.
Because the classes are so long, students are able to complete
an entire year's course in a semester.
As the first semester drew near its end, the teachers, who
ate lunch together every day to discuss students and fine-tune
the program, decided that students would feel less disrupted
if they kept the same teachers and schedule second semester.
So after Christmas break, the students who completed ninth-grade
science began tenth-grade science rather than social studies.
Next year, those students will take two concentrated semesters
of social studies to cover their freshmen and sophomore coursework
in a single year.
Except for extreme misbehavior, the teachers don't send students
to the principal's office or suspend them. Rather, "if
a student is disruptive, we put the red team kids in a blue
room class and blue in red so they don't have their friends
as an audience," Fidler said.
Can't Save Everyone
As innovative as the academies are, they don't save everyone.
Some students simply won't come to school.
Natasha Mercado is one of them. When she enrolled in the academy
in September, she was 15 and she had two children: one was
2½ years old and the other was 9 months. She stopped
coming to school in November, she said, around the time she
turned 16. Her teachers thought the trouble was a lack of consistent
day care. The day care in the school accommodates seven children,
but two of those slots are taken by staff members' children,
and there are 17 children of students on the waiting list.
Natasha, though, said that her mother and her grandmother
take care of her children. What she didn't like about Hartford
Public, she said, was some girls were giving her trouble and
she wanted more attention from her teachers than she got.
Since she left school, she said, no one from the school contacted
her. Zito checked with his attendance staff and said that on
Dec. 9 the school sent a letter home but no one responded,
and on Jan. 25, an attendance worker called her home but there
was no answer.
Her teachers miss her. Meg Geary, who team teaches with the
science teacher, described Natasha as a pleasure to have in
her class. "She's a bright kid and she's adorable, pleasant."
Zito said he has two attendance workers and that they do what
they can. But he said that parents must play a larger role
in getting their children to school. "Everyone expects
the school district to solve the problem of truancy. Parents
need to assist the school district. If your kid is 14 years
old and he's lying in bed, get him in to school."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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