Can a private firm and federal funds fix this public school?

BRIDGEPORT–Long before lunch hour begins, the cafeteria at Harding High School fills with students sitting idly around tables. Some chat on cell phones. Others slump in chairs. Not a book in sight.

Most are chronic class-skippers, rounded up by hallway monitors working for a private New York City-based consulting firm charged with trying to turn around one of Connecticut’s worst high schools.

Whether a private company can do what local officials have failed to do is uncertain, but the experiment to rescue Harding – backed by $2.2 million in federal stimulus money – will be watched closely by officials from Hartford to Washington, D.C.

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Harding High School principal Kevin Walston greets students entering the building

Harding–plagued by high dropout rates, disciplinary problems and academic failure–is one of 14 struggling Connecticut schools to receive U.S. Department of Education School Improvement Grants.

It is the only one of the 14 to choose the “restart” method, one of four models prescribed by the U.S. Department of Education to turn around failing schools. “Restart” requires the hiring of an outside contractor to restructure the school. At Harding, officials turned to Global Partnership Schools, a company run by former New York City schools Chancellor Rudy Crew and former Rochester, N.Y., school Superintendent Manny Rivera.

The scene in the lunchroom is a stark reminder of the daunting task facing Global. Officials estimate about 180 students are rounded up each morning–more than 10 percent of the student body. If Global is to succeed, it will have to reach students like 16-year-old Jeffrey Roscoe, who was ushered to the cafeteria one recent morning while skipping Spanish class.

“I didn’t feel like going,” Roscoe said. “It doesn’t interest me.” He said he is failing all his classes.

Officials say their first task is to change a culture in which too many students skip classes, ignore homework, and feel disconnected from Harding.

“It’s had such a long history of failure that it doesn’t believe in itself,” said Crew, Global’s president. “It believes itself to be what the papers have said about it, what the culture around it says… People who don’t think of themselves as graduating don’t act like graduates.”

Until now, not much has worked at Harding, where principals have come and gone with alarming frequency, trying various strategies to rescue the troubled school. Harding has had nine different principals in the past decade.

“Too many to count,” says veteran history teacher Leslie Waller. “We’ve seen so many initiatives start and then just stop.”

Waller and her colleagues are looking for better results from the latest initiative, including a shakeup of leadership and a fundamental restructuring of the school under the federal stimulus project.

The decision to turn to a private firm “was based primarily on the lack of success over time we’ve had in trying to turn the school around… Traditional methods did not work,” said Robert Henry, associate superintendent for the Bridgeport public school system and the former superintendent of Hartford’s schools.

A hulking brick fortress, Warren Harding High School once was the pride of Bridgeport. Named after the nation’s 29th President, the school opened in 1925 and produced graduates who became mayors, judges and prominent business and civic leaders. Today, however, it is a victim of urban decay, part of an impoverished East Side neighborhood of aging houses and an abandoned industrial complex that once housed bustling Remington Arms and General Electric plants.

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Principal Kevin Walston tries to resolve a dispute between two students and a teacher

It is exactly the kind of school the Obama administration targeted with the School Improvement Grants. According to a 2009 study by New York University, more than half of Harding’s students miss 19 days of school or more each year, and one out of five is absent on an average day,

The five-month study reported more than 2,000 disciplinary offenses committed by about 40 percent of the school’s 1,500 students. Nearly one-third of the grades in core subjects were Fs, and about two out of five students were lacking enough credits for their grade level.

Less than 5 percent of students met the goal on reading and math on the statewide 10th-grade performance test last year.

The $2.2 million that Harding will receive in stimulus funds “is enough money to really change the school,” said Joseph Garcia, a senior vice president at Global who remains upbeat about the prospects for change.

“There’s a lot of talent among the leadership team and in the faculty,” he said. “There’s a real chance here for this to succeed.”

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The restart is under a tight timeline. Global signed a contract with Bridgeport in September, and the formal kickoff for the restructuring took place Jan. 31. Nevertheless, the company has already made some basic changes, starting with efforts to improve attendance, reduce tardiness and improve the school climate.

“A lot of this really is just blocking and tackling,” said Garcia, who early in the school year walked the hallways himself with a walkie-talkie, ushering students to classes. Since then, the company has hired “climate specialists” to clear the halls of loitering students. The school, under a new state law, also set up an in-school suspension program and began seeking alternative placements for overage students who roamed the hallways, skipped classes and had too few credits to graduate on time.

Working alongside the school’s regular security guards, the school’s new “climate specialists” patrol all corners of the aging building.

“Ladies, do you have gym?” Aaron Stroud said as he found three girls huddled in a stairwell and ushered them to gym class one recent morning. The hiring of specialists such as Stroud, who previously worked with troubled young people at a child care agency in New York City, is the most visible sign of change so far.

In addition, the company plans to require school uniforms as early as this semester and is considering acquiring technology to block the use of cell phones, a frequent distraction among students.

The first major step in Global’s effort was the hiring of an “educational change agent” to oversee the three-year process of change at Harding. The company picked Eleanor Osborne, a respected former reading supervisor and associate superintendent for New Haven’s public schools and a professor at Sacred Heart University.

Officials also decided to replace Harding’s principal, Carol Birks, saying in the district’s grant application that there was “not enough cohesiveness in her action plans to improve student achievement.” To replace her, Global recruited Kevin Walston, a promising public school administrator in nearby Norwalk who had also worked as an assistant high school principal in the Bronx in New York City.

“In Norwalk, there was that sense of community, sense of belonging. With the kids, the staff, you felt that connectedness to the school,” Walston said. “Here, in the majority of the school, you don’t get that sense.”

“Our job,” he said, “is to create a sense of urgency among the staff.”

A key part of Global’s strategy is the refinement of a longstanding plan to break up the school into smaller units or academies, known as small learning communities. Harding has tried the idea for nearly a decade, but some of the smaller academies were only loosely defined and poorly understood by students.

“Some students we asked what small learning community they belonged to, and they didn’t know,” said Osborne.

Under the old arrangement, the school had seven academies enrolling students throughout the building, but the new plan calls for four academies located in separate parts of the school, each with its own group of students and teachers. One of the academies, known as “New Scholars,” is reserved exclusively for freshmen while others will focus on health and environmental science, communications and technology, and law and international studies. In theory, the small academies will allow students to form stronger bonds with the same classmates and teachers.

“Research says the more engaged students are with their school and school community, the more successful they’ll be,” said Walston.

Global also altered the school schedule, shortening 100-minute teaching periods and providing additional advisory time for teachers and students to meet. The company created a regular testing schedule to monitor student progress. It hired a reading specialist and began a significant expansion of professional coaching in reading and mathematics teaching methods. It also upgraded the school’s computers and acquired other new technology.

“I think it’s exciting. We’re going to get a new math lab, and we’re getting some new online programs,” said Mary Liggins, coordinator of Harding’s math department. Liggins said she is encouraged so far by the changes, including the hiring of Osborne.

“She advocates for teachers,” Liggins said. “She looks through teachers’ eyes.”

Much remains to be done, but Osborne is encouraged by the changes she has seen so far. “It’s like a night and day experience,” she said. “There’s a whole different feel to the building.”

Not everyone is convinced that the latest effort will work. Global has run into some resistance, including objections from some teachers who did not want to switch classrooms under the reorganization.

Gary Peluchette, president of the Bridgeport Education Association teachers’ union, said he would prefer a turnaround approach that gives teachers more of a voice.

“Quite frankly, the suggestions [that GPS officials] are coming up with are nothing different than what teachers have been suggesting for years,” he said. “You have to empower teachers. It can’t be this top-down approach.”

Garcia, the Global senior vice president, said, “The union has been a good partner” in the effort so far. “The faculty’s professionalism has been high.”

Some had hoped for a more aggressive start.

“It’s premature for me to say it’s not going to work, but the company that got the contract to take over the school should have hit the ground running. We should not have had to wait so long to see what’s going to happen,” said Linette Jones, president of the school’s Parent Teacher Student Organization.

Jones’ oldest daughter graduated from Harding last year. Another daughter is a sophomore in Harding’s International Baccalaureate program, but Jones remains skeptical about the school. “If I were independently wealthy, I would take my daughter out,” Jones said.

Although much of the reorganization has barely gotten under way, the most obvious change so far has been the crackdown on hallway loiterers.

Corey Baldwin, a lanky senior, said the problem has eased but was a serious distraction a year ago.

“Chaos,” he said. “During class, everybody was making noise in the hallway.”

Now, a few stragglers still try to evade security workers during classes, but most are caught and sent to the cafeteria.

Walston, the new principal, said the school is designing alternatives, including a staggered schedule and online study programs, for those who skip classes. Still, dozens are rounded up daily. “I was hoping the numbers would decrease by now,” he said. “They have not.”

Nevertheless, he remains optimistic that Harding is making progress.

“I certainly understand that change takes time,” he said. “When you’re living through it, you’d like it to go faster.”

Private companies have had mixed results intervening in public schools. In Connecticut, the most prominent experiment in privatization was the hiring of a Minnesota firm, Education Alternatives Inc., to run Hartford’s public schools in the mid-1990s. That experiment collapsed, leading to a state takeover of schools in the state capital.

In addition to Bridgeport, Global is working under federal School Improvement Grants with schools in Pueblo, Colorado and Baltimore, Maryland.

According to Crew, Global’s president, one advantage of the private management model is that “outside organizations sometimes can be more nimble.” An outside firm, he said, can operate “at a faster pace than going through school board meetings and all the other apparatus common to big city schools.”

Crew, who also works as a professor at the University of Southern California’s Rossier School of Education, gained a reputation as a reformer running giant public school systems in New York and Miami. Rivera, the company’s CEO, is a former national superintendent of the year credited with making significant improvements in Rochester’s schools.

“One advantage,” said Crew, “is, frankly, that we are all public school educators who have done this work in successful organizations.”

Most experiments with privatization have involved public charter schools rather than traditional public schools such as Harding.  There is relatively little good research on the track record of private companies in public schools, says Henry M. Levin, director of the National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education at Teachers College at Columbia University.

“The one thing we’ve learned over the years is there are no miracles,” Levin said. “Often these companies come in and promise something that’s never been demonstrated before.”

At Harding, computer graphics teacher Irwin “Doc” Coombs, a former union president, said he is hopeful the latest effort will work, “but I’m very wary of it right now… I have been forever opposed to public money going to private organizations.”

Educators and others will be watching closely to see the impact of the federal grants on Harding and the state’s other 13 turnaround schools. The School Improvement Grants, totaling about $23 million in Connecticut, are only a fraction of the $889 million in stimulus money received by the state for elementary and secondary education. The bulk of stimulus funding has been used to fill gaps in the state’s education budget and save jobs, but the improvement grants go to the heart of the Obama administration’s agenda to turn around struggling schools.

Many are taking a wait-and-see approach on the proposed shakeup.

“I haven’t seen evidence of it yet,” said Michael Brosnan, a history teacher at Harding. He said the restart plan “is extremely vague” and hasn’t been explained clearly to students or teachers. He also said teachers were not involved in making the original application for the federal grant.

But, he added, “If the end result is a more successful school, that’s hard to argue with.”

Stories in this report include: