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A Frosh Approach

City School System Intensifies Efforts To Teach Ninth-Graders

By ROBERT A. FRAHM, Courant Staff Writer

August 30, 2007

Hartford's aggressive effort to turn around its alarming high school dropout rate began Wednesday morning in classrooms like Room 309 at Hartford Public High School -- Mr. Panaitisor's freshman algebra class.

"You're going to work very hard," said Panaitisor, also known in the school as Mr. P.

Hard work was a common theme on opening day at Hartford Public's new ninth-grade academy, where freshmen this year will be the sole occupants of the school's third floor, kept separate from upperclassmen. They even have a separate entrance to the building.

The freshmen will stay with the same group of teachers, get twice the normal amount of time in math and English and receive after-school tutoring and Saturday classes as educators try to keep them from quitting school.

The task will not be easy. At current rates, more than two-thirds of the city's ninth-graders never make it to graduation. Many are years behind in reading and math, arriving at high school unprepared for high school level work.

In Panaitisor's algebra class, the first homework assignment included addition and subtraction of fractions - a skill that should have been mastered in elementary school. "Last year I had students between a third- and fourth-grade level," Panaitisor said. "They're coming to ninth grade hoping they're going to cover three, four, even five years of math."

An estimated 22,500 students were expected to return to 40 schools around Hartford, one of more than 130 public school districts opening across Connecticut this week.

In Hartford, ninth-grade academies also opened at Weaver and Bulkeley high schools, but those two schools, unlike Hartford Public, do not require uniforms. The academies are one of the first major changes under Superintendent of Schools Steven J. Adamowski's plan to shake up the struggling school system. The theory is to catch students during the crucial and vulnerable transition to high school, giving them a smaller, more structured place where they are less likely to get lost in the crowd.

"Fifty percent of Hartford's dropouts have occurred between ninth and 10th grade," Adamowski said during a brief stop at Hartford Public Wednesday. "You get students through ninth grade, you've got a pretty good chance of graduating them."

At Hartford Public, freshmen and upperclassmen arrived at a sparkling building that has undergone a $107 million renovation. Opening day had the usual hitches as some students registered late or tried to straighten out class schedules.

"Right course, right name, wrong room," Panaitisor told one boy.

A few ninth-graders arrived unaware of the new rules, including the dress code requiring khaki pants or skirts and white or navy blue shirts.

"I gotta wear a uniform?" 14-year-old Manuel Hernandez said, rolling his eyes as he and his mother were greeted by Assistant Principal Aida Fernández-Ramos.

Manuel's mother, Maria Ortiz, liked the idea. "That way, they'll be learning more and not worried about what they're wearing," said Ortiz, who also approved of the extra time for reading and math. "It's good because he's really smart, and he needs the challenge."

Students and teachers seemed ready for the new experiment.

"I like it because it's more organized. ... We have our own space," said Marisela Santiago, 14.

Michael Maziarz, who teaches world history and is the lead teacher at Hartford Public's ninth-grade academy, said, "We're trying to build a family here. ... We're preparing to change the face of this school and change the face of this city."

He said freshmen will take rigorous classes with the goal of getting them on a path toward college.

"The time in Hartford of having these kids skate by is over," he said.

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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