Bloomfield schools stage a comeback

Teacher Ross Hanson working with students in his Advanced Placement Calculus class at Bloomfield High School.

Robert A. Frahm

Teacher Ross Hanson working with students in his Advanced Placement Calculus class at Bloomfield High School.

Bloomfield – In a high school that only a few years ago posted some of the worst math scores in the state, a cluster of bright teenagers one recent morning tackled a series of challenging calculus problems.

Some had not been sure they were ready for such a difficult course, but now, like a team of young engineers, they plotted strategies to solve the problems as they prepared to take Advanced Placement (AP) tests for college credit.

“It’s difficult, but not as hard as if you had to do it by yourself,” said 18-year-old Richele Hardy, one of more than a dozen students in the class. “If you have a lot of people who have the same goal, it makes it more enjoyable.”

Classes like this were rare less than a decade ago at Bloomfield High School, where plummeting test scores among the largely African-American student body made the school a symbol of the chronic achievement gap afflicting low-income and minority students across the nation.

Now, however, much has changed. A dramatic increase in participation and success in rigorous AP courses such as calculus is just one sign of a promising academic turnaround across the entire 2,100-student Bloomfield school district. In a state that has some of the largest achievement gaps in the nation, Bloomfield’s improvement, from elementary to secondary schools, has caught the attention of state officials and education reform organizations.

Consider, for example:

  • On the statewide Connecticut Academic Performance Test (CAPT), 71 percent of the town’s 10th-graders met the state proficiency standard in mathematics last year, compared with 46 percent in 2011.
  • In reading, 89 percent of those sophomores met the CAPT standard, up from 62 percent in 2011.
  • Bloomfield high school’s four-year graduation rate rose from 74 percent in 2011 to 90 percent in 2014.
  • Elementary and middle school scores rose steadily on the Connecticut Mastery Test over much of the past decade, with proficiency levels in reading and mathematics catching up to statewide averages by 2013. (That is the last year for which state figures were available because the test is being phased out and replaced.)
  • In 2009, 51 percent of Bloomfield High School’s graduating class went on to two- or four-year colleges, according to a state Department of Education report. By last year, the figure had risen to 72 percent.

“It’s a success story,” said Marian Hourigan, an official with the Connecticut Council for Education Reform (CCER), a statewide, business-sponsored non-profit group that issued a report in March describing the district’s aggressive reforms as a blueprint to narrow the achievement gap.

Many states, including Connecticut, have poured millions of dollars into school turnaround efforts, but national studies suggest the results have been spotty at best — and questions remain about whether districts like Bloomfield can sustain gains over the long term.

Nevertheless, Bloomfield’s recent performance is encouraging. One of 30 low-performing school systems designated by the state three years ago as Alliance Districts targeted for extra funding, Bloomfield was singled out by CCER because it is one of the only districts that has made steady progress in all of its schools, said Jeffrey Villar, the group’s executive director.

“Quite honestly, in education, there’s a narrative out there that says minority and poor children can’t learn at the same levels as majority Caucasian kids. That’s a difficult thing to fight,” he said. The Bloomfield story “counters the narrative…that poverty and race are somehow destiny.”

Segregation increasing

A generation ago, in 1971, Look Magazine cited Bloomfield for its racial diversity, noting its designation by the National Civic League as an “All-American” city, a successful middle-class community mainly of blacks and whites. Since then, however, the town’s white population has declined, and the steady arrival of new, young black and Latino families has gradually turned the school system into one of the most racially segregated in the state. Today, members of minority groups make up nearly 90 percent of the student body, and about half of the district’s students meet low-income guidelines under the federal school lunch program.

Not only did the schools become more segregated, they began to lose students to private schools and regional magnet schools.

Academic performance lagged. The district made headlines in 2007, when less than 7 percent of the sophomore class met the mathematics goal on a statewide test, the lowest percentage in all of the state’s school districts. In 2011, state officials identified Bloomfield High School as one of Connecticut’s five lowest-performing high schools, making it eligible for a federal school turnaround grant.

“The general notion was that the school system needed innovation. They needed change,” said Donald F. Harris, Jr., chairman of the town’s Board of Education.

The town turned to James Thompson Jr., a veteran educator well known for his work in Hartford, including a successful record as principal at Simpson-Waverly School in one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods. Under Thompson, Simpson-Waverly won a prestigious Blue Ribbon award from the U.S. Department of Education in 2003.

Bloomfield Supt. James Thompson Jr. during a meeting with his administrative staff.

Robert A. Frahm / CTMirror.org

Bloomfield Supt. James Thompson Jr.

Bloomfield hired Thompson as superintendent of schools in 2011.

Thompson launched an aggressive effort to shore up academics, promote good discipline and behavior, and strengthen ties with parents and the community. Schools wrote new accountability plans and enlisted teachers to rewrite curriculum to align it with the statewide Common Core standards. Using state and federal grants, the district started new after-school programs, added summer classes and scheduled additional training time for teachers. Thompson also hired specialists such as a chief academic officer and a director to oversee school testing, data and research.

One of the most crucial steps, according to teachers and principals, was a renewed emphasis on reviewing student and school performance records during regularly scheduled meetings of school data teams.

Data Teams Essential

“Look at [this student],” Beryl Bailey said as she paged through a list of the latest reading scores at a recent data team meeting. “He was below, [but] now he’s on grade level.” Bailey, the district’s director of literacy, was reviewing students’ test scores in a library conference room with five 10th-grade teachers. The teachers discussed several individual scores and noted that the class, as a whole, had made encouraging progress since last fall.

In a profession that often is conducted in relative isolation behind classroom doors, the meetings also serve as a place to share classroom strategies, exchange teaching tips and review curriculum.

“I love being able to hear other people’s ideas,” history teacher Frank Macchi said after the 10th-grade teachers’ meeting. “You’re not on an island…If you’re going to be the most effective teacher you can be, you have to collaborate.”

Thompson, the superintendent, said, “When you have high-functioning data teams, that’s what makes a difference.” It was at one of those team meetings in the 2011-12 school year that Thompson himself was troubled by test data that exposed a perplexing problem — a sharp drop in performance among 10th-graders, even among honor roll students who once had outstanding test scores in elementary and middle schools.

“Tenth-grade honor students looked as if they had fallen off a cliff,” he said. “This was a defining moment.”

Dan Moleti, then an assistant principal, remembers. “I was at that meeting,” said Moleti, now the high school’s interim principal. The school had been known for its sports teams and performing arts programs, but not for academics, he said. “Our students were not prepared when they left high school,” he said. “A lot of students…were happy with mediocrity.”

Bloomfield Supt. James Thompson Jr. during a meeting with his administrative staff. At left is Bethany Silver, the school system's director of assessment.

Robert A. Frahm / CTMirror.org

Bloomfield Supt. James Thompson Jr. during a meeting with his administrative staff. At left is Bethany Silver, the school system’s director of assessment.

Moleti’s predecessor, Sam Galloway, said, “Quite frankly, the kids were not going to class.” A retired state trooper and military veteran who took on a second career in education, Galloway came to the school as principal in 2010, focusing initially on restoring order and enforcing the rules. “Law and order was the first step,” he said, “but you have to get to the next step — changing instructional practices in the classroom.”

The school created a freshman academy, hired a literacy director to bolster reading skills, and intensified the focus on academics. “We started going after every single kid, armed with the data…and started challenging them to rise to their previous performance levels,” Galloway said.

Soon, the atmosphere began to change.

Nowhere has the change been more striking than in classrooms such as Room A152, where Ross Hanson’s calculus class meets. It is one of several College Board Advanced Placement classes in which students can earn college credit by passing rigorous exams. The school, which has 513 students, has added AP courses in statistics and U.S. history in the past two years, and as many as 70 students now take AP classes, according to Hanson, who oversees the school’s AP program. In 2008, about 30 students took the advanced courses, but only two passed the exams, he said. Last year, 25 students passed one or more of the exams.

“I always liked math. I felt [calculus] was the next step. I liked the challenge of it,” said Johneilia Bariffe, 17, one of several students wearing Advanced Placement T-shirts in Hanson’s class. The course “sets you up for college,” said Bariffe, who plans to study engineering.

Seventeen-year-old Shawn Barrett also is thinking about an engineering career, but he might never have taken the calculus class. He was in a mid-level geometry course until Hanson reviewed his test scores and wondered, “Why is this student in such a low-level course?”

Hanson urged Barrett to enroll in calculus instead. “He told me it wasn’t going to be easy,” Barrett said, but “he’s worked over the summer with me, and he’s really helped me…When I first came here, I didn’t think I would be in this course.” Now, he said, “I feel like I know most of the stuff we’re doing.”

Hanson credits the improving success rate on AP exams in part to a realignment of curriculum throughout the district. Before the realignment, “the students were almost set up for failure,” he said. “They’d be entering the calculus course without fundamentals.”

The biggest gains have occurred at the high school, but elementary and middle school students have made steady progress, too. At Metacomet School, for example, third-grade classes topped state averages in reading, writing and math on the Connecticut Mastery Test in 2013. The third-graders, consisting almost entirely of African-American and Latino children, far outperformed similar groups statewide. Sixty-five percent of Metacomet’s third-graders met the state reading goal, for example, compared with 33 percent of African-American and 32 percent of Hispanic third-graders statewide.

Turnarounds Difficult

Closing the achievement gap and turning around low-performing schools have been high priorities in many states, but success has been limited. A 2010 U.S. Department of Education study concluded that even in schools that had shown some initial success, “Sustaining school improvement appeared to be as challenging as achieving it in the first place.”

In a new government-sponsored survey by the National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, many states reported a lack of expertise in reform efforts, with about half describing turnarounds as very difficult.

“It’s really challenging work,” said Ellen Cohn, who supervises the school turnaround office at the Connecticut Department of Education. The state has allocated about $250 million to Alliance Districts to improve performance, including about $1.5 million to Bloomfield.

Because Connecticut is making the transition to a new statewide test and does not have current data, Cohn, the state’s interim chief academic officer, declined to compare Bloomfield to other districts undergoing reforms. Nevertheless, she said, “[Bloomfield’s] gains are impressive…I see all the ingredients for success.”

First-grade teacher Susan Sumberg, longtime president of Bloomfield’s teachers’ union, said a key factor in the district’s progress is “having a plan and sticking to it.” She said, “There was a good foundation when Dr. Thompson came…[He] was able to come and focus our needs.”

She added, “He listens…You have got to keep the teachers involved. They have to buy into [the reforms]…When we write curriculum, we’re all involved in it – so if you’re involved in it, you buy into it…What Dr. Thompson promotes is involvement of everybody.”

Ross Hanson teaches his Advanced Placement Calculus class at Bloomfield High School.

Robert A. Frahm

Ross Hanson teaches his Advanced Placement Calculus class at Bloomfield High School.

Despite the gains, educators agree there is room for improvement. High school reading and math scores remained below state averages in 2013, for example. And officials still worry about the exodus of families from the district’s schools. About 30 percent of the school-age children in Bloomfield leave the district for private schools and magnet schools, according to district figures.

A few families, however, are returning.

At the high school, there is “a new culture, more accountability,” said Mark Coley, explaining why his daughter, Makiah, after spending two years at Northwest Catholic High School in West Hartford, returned to Bloomfield. She is now taking AP and honors classes as a senior. A younger sister and brother also attend Bloomfield High School.

The recent reforms not only have shown promise in narrowing the achievement gap, they have begun to restore a sense of community pride.

“We’ve seen things change,” said Jeff Brand, vice president of the local branch of Farmington Bank. “People think more highly of the school system.”

The bank sends employee volunteers to Metacomet School to teach third- and fourth-graders basic financial lessons — one of several partnerships that are part of the district’s renewed effort to reach out to parents and community groups.

As the school year comes to a close, students across the state are taking a new statewide achievement test — an exam most observers expect to be more difficult than previous tests. In Bloomfield, educators, parents and others will be watching closely. How will their schools compare? Can the district sustain its momentum?

“We’re not feeling complacent about it. There’s not a feeling we’re done,” said Desi Nesmith, the principal at Metacomet. “It’s a long road.”

Still, Nesmith, a Bloomfield native, is encouraged. “The vision here is, let’s work on closing the achievement gap and make this school the best we can make it…

“I grew up here,” he said. On his office wall, he keeps a photograph of Metacomet’s first grade class from 1985. He’s the one in the top row, second from left.

“The whole experience — to be back here and have success here,” he said. “I can’t tell you how personal it is.”

Clarification: An earlier version of this story included college attendance figures for Bloomfield High School graduates based on college acceptance reports. The new numbers reflect adjustments for actual college enrollments as reported to the state Department of Education.

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