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.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at [email protected]

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”