Progress and a question: Is there hope for Harding High?

Bridgeport -– It’s already mid-afternoon when the school day begins for 18-year-old Hanifah Kelly, who arrives at Harding High School grateful for a second chance she never thought she’d get.

Along with dozens of other students, Kelly checks in at about 3 p.m., logs into a computerized lesson -– today she is working on geometry problems –- and works to make up for lost credits and wasted time.

Before enrolling in the Virtual Academy, a new afterschool alternative program, she was a frequent no-show at Harding. “I really didn’t care about school,” admits Kelly, who became pregnant during her sophomore year, gave birth to a daughter and often skipped classes. She thought about quitting school. “I felt everything was going downhill,” she said.

The Virtual Academy is not only an effort to rescue struggling students such as Kelly, it is part of a multimillion-dollar experiment designed to save Harding High School itself.

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It is one of the many changes made under a $2.2 million federal stimulus grant that put Harding’s fate in the hands of a private consulting firm. By most accounts, Harding is a much different place than it was just a year ago, but its recovery remains fragile — threatened by budget cuts, staff turnover and lingering doubts about whether the momentum can be sustained.

The school’s turnaround is nowhere near complete, and one key official — who will influence where Harding goes from here — doubts that the school has gotten its money’s worth.

“Given the size of the grant, I would have thought we would have seen more,” said Superintendent of Schools Paul Vallas, a nationally known school reformer who took over the city’s troubled school district in January.

“I’ve met with a number of faculty members … and they, for the most part, are enthusiastic,” he said, “but I think the school itself has an incredibly long way to go.”

Harding is one of 19 struggling Connecticut schools that received more than $27 million in U.S. Department of Education School Improvement Grants. It is one of only two –- the other is a New Haven elementary school –- that chose the “restart” method, one of four models prescribed by the federal government to turn around failing schools. “Restart” requires the hiring of an outside contractor to restructure the school.

The Obama administration’s School Improvement Grants are aimed directly at the nation’s worst schools. Harding was a prime candidate. Bridgeport officials selected Global Partnership Schools, a New York City-based firm, to take over a school where hallways were chaotic, absenteeism was rampant and failure was the norm. Global is conducting similar turnaround projects at schools in Colorado, Maryland and Georgia.

“We took a real risk by applying for a restart project,” said former Bridgeport Superintendent of Schools John Ramos. “We felt like we needed to do something revolutionary.”

The impact of the federal grants on schools such as Harding will be watched closely in Connecticut. Last month, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy proposed a similar effort, asking the legislature to approve nearly $25 million to turn around Connecticut’s lowest-performing schools.

Bridgeport schools have been so troubled that state officials disbanded the city’s school board last year and replaced it with new appointees, but that decision was overturned by the state Supreme Court this week. The court ruling could mean another change in leadership for the district. What it means for the direction of reforms at schools such as Harding is unknown.

Restoring a sense of order

A hulking brick fortress, Warren Harding High School opened in 1925 and was once the pride of Bridgeport, producing graduates who became mayors, judges and prominent business and civic leaders. The school, however, fell victim to urban decay, part of a blighted East Side neighborhood of aging houses and an abandoned industrial complex that once housed bustling Remington Arms and General Electric plants.

Over the past decade, a string of principals tried a variety of strategies to save the 1,300-student school –- to little avail. A 2009 study by New York University found that one of five Harding students was absent on an average day. The study also reported that nearly one-third of student grades in core subjects were Fs, and that roughly two of five students lacked enough credits for their grade level.

One of the first steps taken by Global was to hire an “educational change agent” to oversee the turnaround effort, choosing Eleanor Osborne, a respected former reading supervisor and associate superintendent for New Haven’s public schools. Global also recruited a new principal, Kevin Walston, a promising school administrator from nearby Norwalk.

The company’s most immediate task was to restore a sense of order to the school.

To do that, Global began by hiring hallway monitors known as “climate specialists” to keep order, get students to class and round up class-skippers.

In the early months of Global’s work, the monitors rounded up as many as 180 class-skippers daily -– well over 10 percent of the student body –- holding them in the cafeteria to prevent them from wandering hallways and disrupting classes.

In another key step, Global refined a longstanding plan to break up the school into smaller academies, known as Small Learning Communities. The idea is not new. It had been tried for nearly a decade, but the academies had been so loosely defined that some students were unaware of them.

Global restructured the school into four academies, each with its own group of students and teachers. Each was relocated to a separate area of the building clearly identified with hallway signs. Under the school’s dress code, students wear polo shirts with specific colors identifying them with their particular academy. One academy, known as “New Scholars,” is reserved exclusively for freshmen, while others focus on health and environmental science, communications and technology, and law and international studies.

“They set up a system where you knew who your guidance counselors were and [who your] teachers were and administrators were,” said Jhanelle Martin, a senior. “It was easier to communicate with them.”

As part of its strategy, Global made other changes. It altered the school schedule, revised curriculum, provided professional training for teachers, created a regular testing schedule to monitor student progress, started reading and math laboratories for struggling ninth-graders, imposed a more rigorous teacher evaluation system and scheduled Saturday and summer classes for low-performing freshmen.

Now in its second year, the turnaround effort has produced some encouraging signs:

  • Daily attendance is up sharply, now at about 85 percent, compared with 60 percent a year ago.
  • As a result of Saturday and summer classes, nearly 70 percent of ninth-graders earned enough credits to enter 10th-grade this year, up from less than 40 percent a year ago.
  • The number of failing grades fell to 26 percent in the first quarter this school year, down from 34 percent a year earlier. The percentage of A grades rose to 17 percent, compared with 11 percent a year ago.
  • In the first 18 weeks of the new reading laboratory last spring, nearly one-fourth of the participants improved reading skills by a full grade level, officials report. Two of three freshmen arrive at Harding reading between a third- and sixth-grade level, according to Osborne, the “change agent” hired by Global.

Nearly everyone agrees that Global’s efforts have restored a sense of order to the school.

Before the restart project, “Harding was a zoo,” said Courtney Baldwin, a 17-year-old senior. “Overall, it was horrible, to tell you the truth … fights everywhere, riots, unimaginable things happening in the bathroom stalls.”

Now, he said, “The whole atmosphere is much calmer, and there is also more student involvement … It’s a different Harding than it was before.”

Richard Pezzella, president of the school’s Parent Teacher Student Organization, said, “Kids used to hang out in front, and no one was trying to get in the building … Now, when I drop my daughter off at 7:10, there’s a line waiting to get in. That’s a big change.”

A virtual second chance

Among the programs getting high marks is the Virtual Academy, the afterschool alternative for those who were chronic truants, class-skippers or potential dropouts.

“We have students who were otherwise written off,” said Jonathan Shubert-Coleman, a science teacher who supervises the academy, where students sit at rows of computers, making up for lost credits by working individually on software that provides self-paced lessons.

The academy removes students from regular classes, where many had trouble or were disruptive, said social studies teacher Laina Kominos, who works at the Virtual Academy. “It definitely helps with truancy issues, class-cutting, and it has lowered the number of [disciplinary] referrals,” she said.

Still, much remains to be done. Harding’s sophomores made no gains on the statewide Connecticut Academic Performance Test last spring. Their scores remain among the lowest in the state, with less than 5 percent of Harding students meeting state goals in reading and mathematics.

And there have been missteps. Global revamped its professional training program after some teachers complained it failed to focus on the issues they considered most urgent. In addition, the teachers union filed formal labor complaints against the school district, challenging the scheduling of a student advisory period and contending that Global failed to fulfill a compensation agreement for teachers who attended voluntary training sessions.

Some teachers, including union officials, say they have been largely ignored by Global officials. “They paid no attention to our scheduling solutions,” said Gary Peluchette, president of the Bridgeport Education Association.

Michael Brosnan, a history teacher at Harding, sees progress but has mixed feelings about the turnaround.

He said the reorganization of the school has “created an environment that’s more welcoming. I think the majority of faculty is pleased to work here, and that makes a big difference. Collegiality has improved.”

Nevertheless, he said Global is losing momentum. “First of all, they’re running out of money,” he said. “A number of things they promised haven’t happened. I’ve been waiting on an order of 60 laptops since last March.”

And he remains skeptical about a process that he says had little input from teachers, students or the community. “Having an outside company run a neighborhood school is not appropriate on a philosophical level,” he said.

Still, he added, “It’s hard to deny the gains.”

What happens after the grant?

But can those gains be sustained? The school district, facing a budget deficit of more than $8 million, has made sharp cutbacks.

Harding, for example, lost about a dozen teachers this year and eliminated elective classes such as music, auto shop and some art and business courses. Some key players, including an assistant principal and a math coach, left the school after their positions were eliminated. Global itself underwent a shakeup when one of its founders, former New York City schools Chancellor Rudy Crew, left the company. Joseph Garcia, who had been Global’s liaison with Harding, also has left the firm.

The district’s central office, too, has lost key personnel, including Superintendent Ramos, who was involved in the hiring of Global. Ramos was dismissed by the city’s Board of Education and replaced on an interim basis in January with Vallas, a high-profile school reformer who headed schools in Chicago, Philadelphia and New Orleans. Meanwhile, Associate Superintendent Robert Henry, whose duties include overseeing the Harding experiment, is scheduled to retire this week.

No one knows what will happen to programs such as the reading laboratory, the summer and Saturday classes, the hallway “climate specialists” or the Virtual Academy -– all paid for by the federal grant, most of which will run out by the end of the school year.

Osborne, whose job as “change agent” also is expected to end when the grant expires, said she is hopeful the Virtual Academy can continue next year at a reduced cost by scheduling the program during the regular school day and staggering work schedules for teachers.

She said the academy already has led to diplomas for about 20 students who otherwise were unlikely to graduate. “It’s hard to put a price on that,” she said.

Nevertheless, officials doubt that Harding will be able to afford to keep the hallway monitors or programs such as the summer classes.

“Harding has done a tremendous job in changing the climate and the mind-set,” said Patricia Foley, a State Department of Education consultant who monitors the federal School Improvement Grant. “All those things you hear teachers saying have really helped them –- you would hate for those things to go away.”

That, however, is one of the dangers of spending short-term federal grants as if they were part of the school’s regular annual budget, according to Vallas.

“When you spend it as if it’s part of the operating budget, you have a tendency not to spend it efficiently or effectively, and you create a cliff, which means any success that emanated from the [grant] will quickly disappear once that cliff is hit … This money is going to run out,” he said.

Vallas is still conducting a review of Harding but said, “I’ve not been impressed with what I’ve seen so far.” He found the school climate orderly and respectful, “but clearly they have not yet made progress on the academic side.”

And he found the building itself -– scheduled to be replaced with a new building in 2015 –- in poor condition, including bathrooms scrawled with graffiti he described as the most “disgusting and disturbing … I’ve ever seen in any school.”

Nevertheless, he said remains optimistic about Harding’s potential.

“I’m not suggesting they haven’t come a long way from what they were … ” he said. “I always try to build upon what’s there. I don’t feel I have to come in and dismantle everything I see.” But, he added, “It’s too early for me to determine what they are doing in the school that is worth keeping.”

Despite the slow academic progress, it may also be too early to judge Global’s efforts at Harding. “Obviously, it’s difficult to completely turn around a school within one year,” said Manny Rivera, Global’s chief executive officer. “It takes time to yield the kind of results we want to see down the road.”

Although the federal funds are running out, Rivera said Global is aggressively seeking outside funding, possibly from private foundations, to continue the Harding reforms.

However, if private funding can’t be found, the question is, “How can you continue some of the critical and essential supports … and direct services within the existing school budget?” Rivera said. “That’s a much greater challenge.”

In order to meet that challenge, Bridgeport officials will have to convince parents, educators and the broader Bridgeport community that the Harding experiment holds enough promise to be worth sustaining.

In school reform efforts, one thing is clear, according to Pedro Noguera, a New York University professor who worked on NYU’s 2009 study of Harding. Any long-term effort to turn around Harding –- or any failing school –- must gain the backing of faculty and staff, he said.

“If they don’t understand and believe in what’s being done then it will be very difficult to sustain,” he said. “The school administration needs to work hard to get the input and support of the staff on the strategy. Ultimately, that is the only way that Harding will improve.”

At Harding, winning that support will be easier if educators can point to more examples like that of Hanifah Kelly, the chronic class-skipper who enrolled in the Virtual Academy after the birth of her daughter.

“I felt it was time to redeem myself, not only just for me, but for [my daughter], too … I love it,” she said. “There are other girls in my predicament who I was friends with, and they dropped out.”

Kelly has already made up most of her missing credits and is on track to graduate in the spring. She is thinking about a career in nursing.

If it weren’t for the Virtual Academy, “I probably would be in the street,” she said. “I probably would have dropped out, too.”