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Board To Vote On New Charter School

Vanessa de la Torre

August 03, 2013

After meeting with Achievement First officials, the city school board plans to vote later this month on whether to allow the charter school organization to open its second elementary school in Hartford.

Achievement First and Superintendent Christina Kishimoto want the charter to start a new K-8 school, beginning with fifth grade, in the 2014-15 year. Elementary grades would eventually be rolled out in a location that has not yet been identified, administrators said.

Opening another Achievement First Hartford school could involve closing a city school and providing the building to the charter group, offering a school building that is unoccupied or giving classroom space within an existing school, Kishimoto said this week.

Either way, Kishimoto said she hopes the board decides by September so Achievement First can begin recruiting and hiring staff for mid-2014. "We're a little bit behind on this," she said.

The board had postponed a vote in June amid controversy over Achievement First's disciplinary practices and high number of Hartford suspensions that were revealed in a state report.

Board Chairman Matthew Poland said the board also wanted a better explanation for why the high-performing Achievement First Hartford Academy in the North End -- known for its strict "no excuses" model -- enrolls few special-needs students and children whose primary language is not English.

But after a presentation from charter leaders on Thursday, which included a PowerPoint slide showing similar low numbers of English Language Learners in other North End schools, Poland said he will vote yes for a new charter school when the board meets Aug. 27.

Dacia Toll, president of Achievement First, told the board Thursday that the charter welcomes launching the K-8 school in the South End, which has a large Spanish-speaking population.

"We would love to educate these students," Toll said. In a memorandum to the board, she also stated that "AF Hartford Academy will make every attempt to conduct outreach to under-served populations to ensure that the student applicant pool mirrors the community and school district."

About 900 city students attend kindergarten to 10th grade at Achievement First Hartford Academy, one of the top-performing schools in Hartford and the most popular pick for parents in the city's school choice program. The student population there is predominantly black.

Achievement First students attend school in the former Lewis Fox Middle building off Blue Hills Avenue. A new K-8 charter school in Hartford would feed into Achievement First's high school level.

The district's 2013-14 budget for Achievement First is $2 million -- part of a partnership that allows Hartford to include the charter's standardized test scores in the district's overall scores. Achievement First operates its Hartford academy with city and state funding.

In May, the state Department of Education released suspension data that showed an estimated 11.7 percent of kindergartners and first-graders at Achievement First Hartford were suspended last year an average of 5.4 times each. In the Hartford school system, 3.3 percent of kindergartners and first-graders were suspended an average of 2.1 times.

A report in June also noted Achievement First schools had among the highest suspension rates in Connecticut, drawing concern from the State Board of Education.

City board members Robert Cotto Jr. and Elizabeth Brad Noel, both of the Working Families Party, highlighted the suspensions Thursday and expressed doubt that the punishment "culture" at Achievement First Hartford could change.

"Not all people want Achievement First in Hartford," said Cotto, a vocal critic of charter schools.

Toll acknowledged that suspensions were "not something we focused on" until the state report. Now the charter is revising its policies and aiming for a 50 percent reduction in the number of Hartford suspensions over the next year, Toll said.

At Achievement First Bridgeport Academy, 4 percent of elementary students received suspensions this past school year, down from 11 percent in 2011-12, according to the charter group.

"I have every confidence that they can turn it around because they did it in Bridgeport," Hartford board member Richard Wareing said.

If parents don't like the charter's disciplinary model, they can enroll their child at a traditional neighborhood school, Poland said. "Part of the beauty of our school system is that there is choice. Choice is key to parental engagement."

Ada Torres, the mother of a seventh-grader at Achievement First Hartford, said her daughter has improved her academic skills and behavior since enrolling there in 2011. She spoke as part of Achievement First's presentation to the board.

"Discipline is not that bad," Torres said later. Students "need it."

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.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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