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Magnets Can Attract Achievers

Commentary by Stan Simpson
August 31, 2005

When is a B in school not good enough? When you're Doris Smith's kid.

The East Hartford parent was talking this week about why she sent her two children - Sherifa, 16, and Dante, 14 - to the new Capital Preparatory Magnet School, which opened Monday in its temporary home at Capital Community College in Hartford.

"I felt they weren't being pushed enough," the Jamaica native said.

For example, Dante's teachers would tell her Dante was disciplined, respectful and a good student. When he got a B on his report card, Smith wanted to know why. Dante had missed a homework assignment, she was told. It was news to Smith, who had been in constant contact with Dante's teachers.

"They said, `Well, he's still doing good,'" Smith said. "But to me that wasn't good enough. If you can get an A, I want an A out of you."

That's why she is so enamored of Capital Prep, and Stephen Perry, its 36-year-old, goatee-wearing, no-excuses-tolerated, streetwise principal. He ran an intensive summer college prep program that became the model for the new grade 6-12 school.

Sherifa had been a regular participant in Perry's six-week summer boot camp, a college primer known as ConnCap - the Connecticut Collegiate Awareness and Preparatory program.

But Sherifa was miffed at the tone Perry took with her and some of her peers this year.

"On the second day, she said, 'Mr. Perry told us off,'" recalls Smith, a parent volunteer at the school. Sherifa said Perry "didn't think we should be in this program."

Smith asked her daughter what she planned to do about it. "She said, 'Well, I'm going to show him,'" Smith said. "That's what I liked. Some of these children need that."

This school year is an important one for Hartford, rapidly changing into "Magnet City." Capital Prep opened, heralding its college-geared curriculum. The University High School, to be located eventually on the campus of the University of Hartford, is allowing students with a proficiency in math and science to be exposed to college life and to take college courses.

With these new magnets, Hartford is off to a helluva start in trying to meet Mayor Eddie Perez's edict to send more city kids to four-year universities. Want to start changing perceptions about the capital city? Get people talking about how impressed they are with the schools.

About 1,500 students applied for the 230 seats available at Capital Prep.

Here's a school that actually replicated and expanded upon an academic success story in the city - an all-too-rare phenomenon. Show me a program that is successful in educating urban youth, and I'll show you one that is simply struggling to survive, let alone expand.

The ConnCap program, over a six-year period, sent 100 percent of the approximately 140 students who participated on to college.

A few years back, a crying parent, thrilled at her daughter's progress under ConnCap, asked Perry, 'What if.'

After some persistent lobbying of city and state officials, a full-blown school was hatched.

"When you spend $27,000 to send your child to Kingswood-Oxford, you are sending them for one reason only - to prepare them for the next level of education. That's it," said Perry. "So, our expectation is that our children have to compete for the same spots at the same schools."

Capital Prep's 230 kids, from 16 towns, are a serious-minded bunch. Seventy-five percent of the students are African American, Latino or Asian. Some of the suburban kids travel from as far away as Ellington and Cromwell.

Darius Ritches was rockin' the school uniform - blue blazer, white shirt, striped tie, khaki pants, black shoes. A diamond earring glistened from each ear. The 16-year-old junior from East Hartford looked sharp, or as senior Crystal Rosario put it, "crispy."

Juniors and seniors must take some college classes. School is year round - July to August; August to December; January to June. Classes are 93 minutes long, as opposed to the typical 45. There are mandatory after-school programs.

"It doesn't matter who you are, there are high expectations here for everyone," said Rosario, 17, from East Hartford.

Some students already have their resumes and college essays prepared.

"This program is going to make a big change in our community, a huge change," said Rosario, who would be the first in her family to pursue post-high school education.

How so?

She said succinctly, and this surely this will hearten Perez:


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.
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