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Despite Conflicts, Adamowski Is Reforming Hartford Schools

Rick Green

November 24, 2009

In Hartford, student test scores are up. More children are learning to read. New schools and innovative programs have opened across the city.

Why is Hartford's cranky superintendent of schools fighting with so many people?

Steve Adamowski hit the trifecta the other day, sticking a finger in the eyes of top legislators, Commissioner of Education Mark McQuillan and other superintendents with his threat to abruptly shut down transportation for suburban children attending city schools unless he got more funding.

Significantly, Adamowski won the standoff. The state coughed up $3 million after saying there was no more money.

"He's just created another chapter of drama," said state Rep. Andrew Fleischmann, co-chairman of the General Assembly's education committee. "I'm tired of it. Defenders of the superintendent and his style have run out of explanations at this point. How do you explain a guy jumping up and stamping his feet, again."

You explain it with the fact that Adamowski in a city where it has been OK for poor children to fail to learn to read delivers.

Much as I'd like to, I can't argue with this.

"We don't go around picking fights. Every one of these is meaningful," Adamowski told me Monday during a conversation in his sparsely furnished office. We talked about the difficulty of bringing change to a school district that, when he arrived in 2006, spent $400 million a year to get the worst student achievement in the state.

"You have to judge us by the results," Adamowski said. "How long do you want to live with an achievement gap which is the greatest in the nation?"

Adamowski is the lone gun who takes chances. In this most recent case, he knew the state had no choice but to pay more for magnet schools that the state is under court order to fund. It's an old line to say that Hartford is running out of time. Adamowski, no incrementalist, acts like he believes it.

"If you just bite around the edges, it is going to take 50 years," said former Farmington Superintendent Robert Villanova, who leads UConn's executive leadership program for school administrators. "The danger is you look behind you and you are by yourself."

Adamowski's relationship with the local teachers' union is another example. Taking up an issue long ignored by city superintendents, Adamowski is challenging seniority provisions in the teacher contract, a sacred tenet of the union. He's also refusing to pay the salaries of the top union leaders, upsetting a long Hartford tradition.

"Too much upheaval is not healthy for a school district. It is not good for kids," Sharon Palmer, president of the Connecticut Federation of Teachers, told me. "The more controversy there is, the more difficulty there is."

I agree with Palmer, whose union has shown it is willing to make concessions. Palmer's union is part of a unique partnership in New Haven where labor and school leaders have promised not to let a union contract get in the way of making school reforms. It's a feel-good opportunity with great promise and a long way from Hartford, where teachers recently brought a large inflatable rat to a board meeting for an anti-Adamowski rally.

But the problem is, I keep coming back to the numbers. Adamowski's can't be disputed.

"It would be everyone's hope that we get past the point of constant conflict, but it's not surprising," said Alex Johnston, who leads ConnCan, a school reform group, before he reminded me that Hartford under Adamowski has tripled the rate of student achievement over the last two years.

"The jury is still out," Johnston said. "We will see if Hartford can sustain its student achievement gains and what kind of leadership is necessary to do that."

Sure, people need to get along and unions must be part of the equation. But right now, Hartford doesn't need a nice guy to remind us things are fine. They aren't.

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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