Supt. explains Hartford’s big turnaround

Hartford, Conn., is the second poorest city in America, in the second wealthiest state in the nation. When Steven Adamowski took over as superintendent in 2006, the district had a four-year graduation rate of 29 percent. Less than a third of the city’s children were learning to read by the end of the third grade.

Adamowski, a veteran educator, set about creating a system where high-performing schools gain autonomy and low-performing schools get attention and intervention – and then replaced if they don’t get better. In 2008 and in 2009, Hartford was named the most improved school district in Connecticut. Friday, Adamowski sat down with Education News Colorado before speaking about reform at a downtown Denver hotel.

6 questions for Steven Adamowski

Ed News: For those who don’t know much about what’s happening in Hartford, what’s the quick summary of what you’re doing there?

Adamowski: This is all about closing the achievement gap … the National Assessment of Educational Progress has documented that Connecticut has the largest achievement gap in the nation. So when our reform began in 2006, we were the poster child for the achievement gap. Our reform strategy and supporting policies, everything we’re doing in Hartford, is really designed to close the achievement gap for our students.

There are two fundamental pillars of our reform – one is our managed performance empowerment theory of action and the other is an all-choice system of schools. As a result of those two pillars, we have made some progress in creating a portfolio of higher-performing distinctive schools of choice.

Ed News: What is the managed performance empowerment theory of action?

Adamowski: The most centralized theory of action is managed instruction, where the district has the one best model. Everybody’s in the same reading program … and you assess how schools are doing based on their fidelity to the model.

The opposite end of that spectrum is performance empowerment. That’s where a district says, look, we’re going to just concentrate on five things – we’re going to set standards, we’re going to create a level playing field, we’ll ensure equity, we’ll build capacity and we’ll hold schools accountable for performance. Not unlike an artist who manages a portfolio of their best work, our job is not going to be to run the schools but our work will involve dropping low performers and adding higher performers.

Somewhere in between that is this managed performance empowerment theory of action, where you define your relationship with each school on the basis of its performance. So in our theory of action, we give a very high level of autonomy to schools that are high-performing or are improving rapidly. We intervene in the lowest-performing schools. And in those schools that continue to be low-performing over a period of two years, those are the schools we close and redesign and replace them with new schools.

Ed News: What are your criteria for that closure or change?

Adamowski: You have to have a way of classifying your schools and measuring them in a certain way. We use something called an overall school index, which is something a number of states use. It’s a good way of dealing with multiple subjects tested and multiple grades tested in the same school.

We put our schools on a matrix. Connecticut has three categories of achievement – you’re either below proficient, proficient or goal range.  Proficient would be relevant here. We say a school is declining if it loses more than four percent, it’s staying the same if it bounces around in a range of four percent and it’s improved significantly if it increases more than 4 percent. That’s keyed statistically to our assessment system in Connecticut.

You have to have clear-cut transparent measures. Our first year closing schools for the purpose of redesign was very controversial. In the subsequent year, last year, it became less so. And it’s more a part of our culture now where people accept the logical premise that a school that is failing its students generation after generation, year after year, should not be allowed to continue to exist.

We started with about 45 schools and we have about 60 now. We’ll probably push up around 75 when we’re done.

Ed News: What kind of results have you seen?

Adamowski: Test scores have gone up significantly. In fact, we’re the most improved district in the state the last two years … every time our students can score above the state rate of growth, we’ve taken a step toward closing the achievement gap. Our metric suggested when we started out that it would take us 10 years to close the gap. Now we’re at about seven years, based upon the gains we’ve made in the last two years.

Ed News: What is the governance structure there – appointed school board, elected school board?

Adamowski: We have been blessed by the fact we have a hybrid board. Five of our nine members are appointed by the mayor, who also serves on the board. So we only have four elected.

If you look at the movement nationally toward appointed boards in urban areas, it is exactly the way to go. You’ve got to be able to sustain this long enough to produce results. All of the institutional interests will push back on these changes and elected boards are the most susceptible to that level of pushback.

I had an elected board when I was superintendent in Cincinnati and we were able to do some great things there. But I would say, with an elected board, it would have taken us twice as long in Cincinnati to get to where we are in Hartford in two and a half years.

Ed News: How do you continue reforms in this tough economy?

Adamowski: One of the things that has helped us the most is our system of weighted student funding or student-based funding. We fund the child as opposed to the school or the institution. That child then takes their funding to whatever school their parent chooses. So you can continue to start new schools as long as there are parents who want that for their child. And the system will adjust naturally to that.

(This economy) forces a couple of things. It forces you to concentrate on your core business of instruction. It forces you to fund students and families as opposed to institutions. But it also kind of sharpens the idea that a school, in order to sustain itself, has got to be successful and has got to have customers that want to attend it.

Thus far in our nation, nobody has had experience doing this in an economic downturn. All of our experience has been during times when budgets were increasing and, to some degree, a number of places have just kind of layered the reform on top of the existing system.

In this environment right now, you can’t do that. You have to change the existing system. As you start to do new things, there are just as many that you have to stop doing because your resources are so limited or they’re going down. What we have tried to do in Hartford, at the same time we were doing new things to support our reform, we’ve also cut deeply into the existing things we have done previously.

This environment accelerates the systemic nature of the reform, for those that have enough political will to actually do it.

Nancy Mitchell can be reached at [email protected] or 303-478-4573.

What's Your Education Story?

As the 2018 school year begins, join us for storytelling from Indianapolis educators

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy/Chalkbeat
Sarah TeKolste, right, and Lori Jenkins at a Teacher Story Slam, in April.

In partnership with Teachers Lounge Indy, Chalkbeat is hosting another teacher story slam this fall featuring educators from across the city.

Over the past couple of years, Chalkbeat has brought readers personal stories from teachers and students through the events. Some of our favorites touched on how a teacher won the trust of her most skeptical student, why another teacher decided to come out to his students, and one educator’s call to ramp up the number of students pursuing a college education.

The event, 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 13, is free and open to the public — please RSVP here.

Event details:

5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.
Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018
Tube Factory artspace
1125 Cruft St., Indianapolis, IN 46203
Get tickets here and find more on Facebook

More in What's Your Education Story?

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.

For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.

Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.