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Hartford's schools provide a blueprint for Clayton

By Curt Yeomans

cyeomans@news-daily.com

State and local officials in Georgia may be unsure what to do with the Clayton County School System, if the district loses its accreditation, but Connecticut officials are all too familiar with the scenario.

The city of Hartford faced the ordeal 11 years ago. In January 1997, the New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC) nearly revoked the accreditation of Hartford Public Schools' flagship high school.

The scare was the final step in a series of actions, which resulted in five years of state control, during which an appointed State Board of Trustees overhauled the entire district.

Hartford Public Schools has some similarities to Clayton County Public Schools -- and some differences. The student population in Connecticut's capital city is half that of Clayton's schools. The districts are similar, however, because minorities make up the majority of the respective student populations.

Both districts have dabbled in the idea of privatizing education, and the two districts have also gotten in trouble with their respective accrediting agencies. In both cases, state officials have had to ponder ways to fix a wayward school system.

Hartford Public Schools' tale can be looked at as a cautionary one for Clayton's public schools, parents, and state and local leaders.

'A very trying time'

Hartford Public Schools had its problems in 1996.

According to reports from the Hartford Courant, the district was operating in the red, test scores were the worst in the state, and the Hartford Federation of Teachers had filed 33 grievances against the district in a two-year period. The Board of Education had to dissolve an 18-month privatization effort with Education Alternatives, Inc., (EAI) that left the district worse than it was a year and a half earlier.

Brad Noel, who sat on the board from 1993 to 1997 and has been back on the board since 2002, was no fan of the company, or the idea of privatizing the school system in general. She said other members of the board saw EAI, and "thought this was a wonderful opportunity to turn the district around."

She called then-EAI President, John Gooley, an "emperor with no clothes on." One of the biggest problems, Noel said, was "teachers were being laid off, left and right." District staff members grew unhappy under a near dictatorial relationship with EAI; a superintendent left because of frustrations with the company and the relationship between EAI officials and board members soured as things got contentious.

"It was a very trying time," Noel said. "Board of Education meetings were televised, and the governor lived in Hartford, so he naturally saw all of this on his television set. Eventually, people in the legislature got concerned about the situation."

Board meetings were out of control, including one occasion in which a parent approached board members and threw a water-filled pitcher at one who "said something inappropriate," Noel said.

There was the Sheff V. O'Neill case in 1996, where a trial court decided children in Hartford Public Schools had been segregated based on racial, ethnic and economic factors, because the state's districting statute had not been changed since 1909. As a result, then-Connecticut Gov. John Rowland established the Education Improvement Panel (EIP), which was set up to find ways to reduce segregation, while also improving the quality of education afforded to students across the state.

Then questions surrounding Hartford Public High School began to attract the attention of the regional accrediting agency. After an investigation of the school's curriculum, administration and the school building itself. The most significant issue was the building, which was more than 30 years old, and was beginning to fall apart and the school library was deemed too small to serve the needs of students.

In New England, schools have to meet a standard of accreditation which deals with the condition of the school's facilities. This standard is equal to standards which deal with governance, finances, community participation and curriculum. Hartford Public High School officials were told to "show cause" or lose accreditation.

The NEASC accredits more than 2,000 public and independent schools in Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Vermont. The NEASC differs from it's southeastern counterpart, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS), though, because New England school systems are not accredited as a whole, but individual schools within the system are accredited.

In the Northeast, school systems only make sure their high schools are accredited, so graduating seniors won't have to face difficulties while trying to get into college. It's rare to see a school system pursue accreditation for elementary or middle schools. Ninety-five percent of all the high schools in New England are accredited by the NEASC, said Pam Gray-Bennett, the director of the NEASC's Commission on Public Secondary Schools.

"There was a recommendation to terminate the [school's] accreditation, but the trustees did not act on that recommendation, because new information came to light," Gray-Bennett said. She declined to comment further on the situation.

The school avoided losing its accreditation by taking the NEASC to court. A judge determined NEASC couldn't take the accreditation away, because the agency had never put the school on probation. The judge mandated the school's status be changed from "show cause" to "probation" so school and district officials would have an opportunity to fix problem areas, and provide additional data, such a construction plan for the school, to NEASC officials.

"It allowed us to put together a construction plan for Hartford High, because it was the main problem in the eyes of NEASC," said Dr. Kishi Moto, the senior director of school redesign for the Hartford school system.

A state take over

Hartford Public High School's near loss of accreditation was the final straw for members of the Connecticut General Assembly.

The state legislature passed Special Act 97-4, which suspended the local Board of Education for 37 months, and established "The State Board of Trustees," whose sole function was to govern the school system from June 1, 1997, until July 1, 2002.

"We were dismissed and the governor put in a Board of Trustees, not all of whom were residents of Hartford," Noel said. "The board was up for re-election. I was going to run for re-election, but I'm not sure how many of my colleagues were going to run for their seats again."

The act charged the trustees with improving the "quality, adequacy, and equality of educational opportunities, increase student achievement, and allocate and manage resources efficiently and effectively," according to a 1999 report to the Connecticut Legislature's Program Review and Investigations Committee.

The board of trustees consisted of seven members. The mayor of Hartford was automatically placed on the board, but in a non-voting capacity. The remaining board members were appointed by Connecticut's governor, and members of the legislature.

The act required an operational audit of the school system and, for the first time, required NEASC accreditation for all elementary and middle schools in the district.

Moto and Noel said the feedback from NEASC on how each elementary and middle school was operating was the benefit of making every school go through the accreditation process. "We got a wealth of information and we provided that information to the principals of each school, so they could begin making changes," Moto said.

The process of re-achieving accreditation continued into the middle of this decade, until every school was accredited, Noel said. Current Superintendent Steven Adamowski, who was hired in 2006, has decided to not continue pursuing accreditation of the elementary and middle schools, though, because of cost-related reasons.

The school system went through five accreditation cycles where eight schools were accredited at a time. The process of phasing out accreditation will begin in five years and it will continue throughout the ensuing six years, Moto said.

A period of change

Another aspect of the state takeover was the introduction of the Success For All reading program in 1998. The program standardized the reading curriculum, so every student was learning at the same level. "You could go into any third-grade classroom at 9:15 a.m., and every student in the district would be learning the same thing," Noel said.

The program didn't last long, however, because of complaints that Success For All essentially boiled down to scripted lesson plans. The Board of Trustees phased it out after a couple of years as a result.

There was some improvement on student test scores, particularly by elementary and middle school students, during the five years of state control, according to a June 4, 2002, letter from Theodore Sergi, Connecticut's commissioner of education at the time, to then-Gov. John G. Rowland and the leadership of the Connecticut legislature. Sergi outlined academic progress which occurred in the district during the period of state control.

The improvement from 1997 to 2002, was shown in the results of the Connecticut Mastery Test (CMT), which is Connecticut's version of the Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests (CRCTs). The percentage of fourth-, sixth-, and eighth-graders who passed the CMT Math test jumped from 18 percent in 1997 to 30.9 percent in 2002. Similarly, the percentage of students passing the CMT Reading section went from 19 percent to 25.3 percent. The percentage of students passing the CMT Writing test went from 25 percent to 35.7 percent.

The four-year dropout rate was cut in half, going from 44.1 percent in 1999 to 22.9 in 2001. The one-year drop out rate went from 13.4 percent in 1997 to 11.5 percent in 2001.

The percentage of students taking the SAT jumped from 47.8 percent, to 71.5 percent, but the scores went down slightly from 759 points to 754 points. Similarly, the number of high school students taking Advanced Placement (AP) exams went from 3.1 percent to 8.8 percent, but the number of students passing those exams dropped from 37.8 percent to 28.1 percent.

However, Sergi cautioned the work of improving student achievement was not going to end when the state handed control back to the Hartford community.

"... There has been a visible gain in student progress on the Connecticut Mastery Test [CMT, the Connecticut counterpart to Georgia's Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests (CRCT)]," Sergi said in the letter. "However, student achievement and outcomes will need to be improved further - and sustained over time in all grade levels - in order to establish a trend of comprehensive progress...

"The recent progress of the Hartford Public Schools can be attributed to its teachers, system leaders, parents, community groups and students. I believe that, over the last five years, many Hartford participants have changed their actions for the better, and away from the pre-1997 climate of accepting failure."

The State Board of Trustees also spent those five years working to improve Hartford Public High School's standing with the NEASC. The school's facilities were completely transformed through the district's construction plan. New classrooms were built and there was an expansion of the school's library. In May 2001, the agency finally decided Hartford Public High School was in full compliance with the accrediting agency.

According to the school system's web site, the local board of education was re-established in 2003. It consisted of seven members at the time. Four of those members were appointed, the other three were at-large members. In 2006, the board was expanded to 9 members, plus the mayor, who acts as the chairperson. The Mayor appoints five members of the board. The remaining four members are elected at-large.

Can it work here?

Noel isn't sure how well the approach taken in Connecticut would translate to a district in Georgia. "It's very hard to transfer things from one community to another, because not all communities are the same," she said.

State officials in Georgia are already taking steps to protect the students of Clayton County, though.

Gov. Sonny Perdue isn't ready to let Clayton lose its accreditation without a fight, but the question of "what can be done?" still lingers. No school system in this state has ever lost it's accreditation. There is no precedent in Georgia for how the state can fix Clayton County's problems.

On Feb. 22, Perdue announced he is sending two "special liaisons" to help the school system meet SACS' nine criteria to retain accreditation after Sept. 1. The governor is also having the state auditor's office review the district's finances. He instructed the state Department of Education to perform an audit of attendance records, and is having Secretary of State Karen Handel review the last school board election to see if board members met the requirements for election, including residency rules.

Perdue has also asked for legislation, which would trigger an automatic recall referendum for a school system's entire board of education, if the district loses its accreditation.

Bert Brantley, a spokesman for Perdue, said the governor has to find a way to deal with the situation without going against a state constitution that places a high premium on local government control, or "home rule," as the spokesman puts it.

"He's [Perdue] not willing to let a school system loose it's accreditation without the state trying to help out in some way," Brantley said. "It's a dire situation we're talking about ... He wants something that does some good [for the children]."