State approves rescue plans for four struggling schools

When state officials approved a plan Thursday to rescue Hartford’s troubled Milner School, they took a leap of faith that the latest strategy would succeed where years of earlier efforts have failed.

The State Board of Education approved turnaround plans for Milner and three other struggling, impoverished urban schools in Bridgeport, New Haven and Norwich — the first schools to be selected for millions of dollars in state assistance and intervention under a new Commissioner’s Network.

The network is an effort proposed by first-year Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor to address the problem of chronic academic failure in the state’s lowest-performing schools.

The four turnaround plans propose a range of strategies, including proposals to strengthen the quality of each school’s staff and to extend the school day and school year. Pryor said the plans “have a real chance of creating momentum at these schools that for too long have not shown progress.”

Of the 50 states, Connecticut has the largest academic achievement gap separating low-income children from their more affluent classmates, and closing that gap is one of Pryor’s biggest challenges.

Earlier this year, the state legislature allocated $7.5 million for the Commissioner’s Network to support reforms at the four schools for the coming year.

Under a new state law, Pryor has authority to intervene in as many as 25 schools over the next three years. He has said he intends to seek additional funds from the state legislature for the remaining school interventions in the following two years. The push to improve the state’s worst schools was a key element of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s education reform package this year.

The turnaround plans — developed by local committees of educators, parents and community leaders — proposed strategies such as bolstering parent involvement, attacking truancy and misbehavior, and, in Milner’s case, establishing a partnership with a promising charter school.

Pryor hailed Milner’s proposed partnership with Jumoke Academy, a charter that has produced encouraging results with children from the same neighborhood. Charter schools often have been viewed as rivals of traditional public schools, and Pryor said such partnerships are rare. Nevertheless, he said, “It’s very important that the charter school movement turn its attention to the large number of low-performing schools that continue to struggle.”

Nowhere is the problem of low performance more evident than at Milner, a school in one of Hartford’s poorest neighborhoods in the city’s North End. City officials have hired a string of principals, enlisted community agencies and tried various strategies to bolster achievement — all to little avail.

Milner was among schools cited as examples of the ills of urban poverty in the Sheff vs. O’Neill school desegregation trial in the early 1990s. It has tried various reading and math strategies and tutoring programs. In 2004, the school established an early intervention team to assist families with problems ranging from drug abuse to teen pregnancy.

The most recent reform effort was a 2008 redesign that revamped curriculum and identified the school as a Core Knowledge Academy, a back-to-basics model emphasizing knowledge of literature, art, mathematics and other subjects with the goal of making students culturally literate. Officials say the results so far have been disappointing.

The scope of the challenge at Milner, which includes children from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade, is daunting:

  • 95 percent of the school’s students meet poverty guidelines under the federal school lunch program.
  • One of four students is not fluent in English.
  • Of the 37 third-graders who took the state Mastery Test this year, only one met the state goal in reading. None met the goal in math. In other grades, too, students fell well below state and district averages.
  • A state review issued last month cited a range of problems, including high rates of teacher turnover and teacher absenteeism. Substitute teachers are often staff members pulled from other classrooms, the review said.
  • The review cited a 2010-11 report indicating that 298 of the school’s 412 students qualified as truant under state guidelines.

Under the proposed plan, the Jumoke Academy would help manage Milner, using a highly structured model that emphasizes teacher recruitment and training, family involvement, strict attendance guidelines, classroom discipline and smaller class sizes. The plan calls for a longer school day, a series of Saturday classes and the expansion of an afterschool enrichment program.

Like Milner, three other schools won state approval for plans with similar strategies to improve student achievement.

In Bridgeport, officials proposed smaller class sizes and more instructional time at the James J. Curiale Elementary School. The plan calls for staggered work schedules to allow for extending the school day and school year. In addition, the school plans to adopt a curriculum model developed by the National Center for Gifted and Talented Education at the University of Connecticut. The school also recently hired a veteran New York City educator as its new principal.

In New Haven, a union-management partnership proposes a series of reforms at the High School in the Community, including efforts to strengthen ties with the community, require students to demonstrate competence in academic subjects and provide additional classroom time and teacher planning time. The plan also calls for hiring a health specialist with psychiatric experience to help students and families.

And in Norwich, plans call for stronger home-to-school collaboration at the John B. Stanton Elementary School, including the hiring of a parent and family liaison. The school also proposes hiring a literacy specialist, a consultant and an executive coach to assist the principal with the turnaround plan. In addition to lengthening the school day, the plan calls for additional afterschool and summer classes.