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At Charter School, It's Achievement First And Foremost


September 17, 2012

HARTFORD Even the task of passing around papers is regimented in Adrian Mercado's classroom.

From left to right, freshmen at the new Achievement First Hartford High School distributed their physics worksheets one recent morning with "quick and efficient" motions, just as Mercado instructed.

There was no teenage slouching; students leaned forward and appeared as serious as their teacher, a 24-year-old recent Teach For America graduate. Several hands shot up when Mercado posed questions.

After the answers came, classmates snapped their fingers, the schoolwide gesture of agreement.

Principal Claire Shin expects teachers to "sweat the small stuff." She bans staff gossip because it can lead to an erosion of trust and order.

But the bar is also high for the 62 ninth-graders, all but two from Hartford and many from the city's North End, who make up the inaugural group of students that entered the public charter high school in late August. Shin said one graduation requirement, with few exceptions, will be acceptance into a four-year college or university.

The national debate surrounding charter schools has not come up in classes here. The focus: strict discipline, character, college prep and the expectation of an intense academic workload for all students, Shin said, even if their lives at home are difficult.

"The way you change your situation is through education," she said.

As a feeder for eighth-graders who attend two charter schools in Hartford, Jumoke Academy and Achievement First Hartford Academy, school officials plan to add grades 10-12 in coming years. Ultimately, they want to expand to 100 students per grade if the state continues to fund additional charter seats.

For the 2012-13 year, the state is spending about $67.7 million on 17 charters with 6,451 students, including Achievement First's network of schools in New Haven, Bridgeport and Hartford, said Jim Polites, a spokesman for the state Department of Education. Last fall, the state budget was $52.8 million for nearly 6,100 charter school students.

State Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor is a former board member and co-founder of Amistad Academy, Achievement First's flagship school in New Haven.

Public charter schools now receive $10,500 per student in state funding, a $1,100 increase tied to Connecticut's education reform legislation. (The Hartford school system spends about $14,830 per child from a range of resources.)

The charters are under state supervision but mostly operate with independence: The Achievement First network, which aims to close the achievement gap, has its own board of directors, several of whom are CEOs, and is a target of charter school critics who have complained about the "privatization" of traditional public schools.

The organization has been in Hartford since 2008 and is affiliated with the school system under an agreement in which the city provides meals, student transportation and use of the former Fox Middle School near the Albany and Blue Hills intersection. In return, city children are selected for elementary seats through a lottery.

Superintendent Christina Kishimoto noted the charter's growing test scores comparable to some of Hartford's highest-ranked magnet schools in supporting an expansion to the high school level.

Parents of Achievement First and Jumoke students also lobbied for the high school, wary of the possibility that their children might have to attend Hartford's low-performing, non-magnet public high schools.

In January, when the city school board voted 6-2 to allow the expansion, some board members argued that more students for Achievement First could mean fewer for struggling North End city schools such as Weaver High, where enrollment has dropped over the years.

"You're going to be siphoning away students and resources from what could be a vibrant Weaver High School," board member Robert Cotto Jr. said.

The charter high school's operating budget for the year is $1.7 million, a mix of state and city money, according to Amanda Pinto, an Achievement First spokeswoman.

The typical school day is from 7:35 a.m. to 4:15 p.m. Students walk to class through a main hallway with expansive windows and prominent quotes such as "Education is the key to unlock the golden door of freedom" (George Washington Carver) and "As I see it today, the ability to read awoke in me some long dormant craving to be mentally alive" (Malcolm X).

Vocabulary words that might appear on the SAT are taped above students' lockers. Passing periods are quiet.

Rolling one's eyes at a teacher will get a freshman sent to the school's Reorientation Room, where Dean of School Culture Peter Uwalaka said "they get the extra culture they need." A glimpse into the room one morning showed a girl working on an assignment.

If a student gets demerits, Uwalaka said, "We'll practice and role-play situations where you might get angry, you might get frustrated, and how to deal with those situations. ... Your choices are going to impact your success."

Students who earn enough merits for good behavior gain access to the College Ready Common Room, a dorm-like lounge with sofas and a foosball table where the teenagers can eat their lunch.

"We want to emphasize not only academics but character," Uwalaka said. "If you earn the trust, we trust you, and you can come in this room and hang out."

Student Safiya Millet said she applied to private schools for ninth grade but didn't receive enough financial aid. So she joined 14 of her Jumoke Academy classmates who enrolled at the new high school.

"It's much stricter here," said Safiya, a 14-year-old from Hartford who is thinking of studying obstetrics and gynecology in medical school. "But in the long run, it's going to end up helping me and helping us, so when we're older and have a career, we're able to present ourselves in a proper manner."

"It's another foundation," she added. "I'm ready for it to help build me up, and if I fall, it'll be there to support me."

Algebra teacher Tonya Claiborne, who taught in Springfield schools before coming to Achievement First Hartford High School, said students have shown urgency in their learning the past few weeks.

"Kids meet the expectations you set for them," Claiborne said. "If you have low expectations, that's what you're going to get."

Mercado runs his physics class with a firm pace.

"If you're a leader, clap once; if you're a scholar, clap twice," Mercado said to gain students' focus. Later, he told them, "Right now I see 100 percent of scholars working with purpose. I love that. I love the hunger."

Four out of seven instructors, including Mercado, are Teach For America alumni, said Shin, a former Manhattan management consultant who joined TFA in 2002 and became a founding principal of Achievement First Hartford Academy four years ago. Shin led the elementary grades before shifting to the high school, where she also teaches a section of literature.

Mercado entered Teach For America in 2010 and completed his commitment this year. Teachers' unions have been critical of the national group, which enlists recent college graduates to sign up for two years of teaching in low-income communities.

"I got in with six of my friends," said Mercado, a Los Angeles native who taught in Miami. "It's grown on me."

Along with college counseling and core academic subjects, the charter high school schedules a daily half-hour for book clubs. A goal this year is for students to read a combined 1,364 books, not including assignments for their literature and composition classes.

Earlier this month, Uwalaka led a club's discussion on "The Rose That Grew From Concrete," a compilation of poems from Tupac Shakur. In one poem, the late rapper likened himself to a tree that emerged from weeds.

"So even though he was born in poverty and struggled," Uwalaka said, "he still became "

"Someone great," a girl answered.

"Can anyone relate to that?" Uwalaka asked the seven students.

Safiya simply snapped her fingers.

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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