A federal education strategy of rewarding aggressive school reform efforts has brought Hartford its largest competitive grant ever–$13.3 million for an anti-dropout program.

After restructuring its high schools three years ago and gradually improving a dismal graduation rate, Hartford won the grant in part because the school system has shown encouraging progress so far, officials said.

Adamowski, Steven 10-1-10

Hartford superintendent Steven Adamowski announce education grant (Robert A. Frahm)

Many educators believe the Obama administration will increasingly require competition for federal education grants, following the model of the recent Race to the Top program.

Federal education officials “want to see someone who has a track record, that can use this investment well,” said Hartford Superintendent of Schools Steven Adamowski.

The five-year grant, starting with $2.7 million this fall, will be used to create “Student Success Centers” at Hartford Public High School, Bulkeley High School and Weaver High School. The centers will monitor students in an attempt to keep them from falling behind, particularly in ninth grade, a critical year when many students are in danger of dropping out, said Christina Kishimoto, assistant superintendent for secondary schools.

The goal is not only to stem the dropout rate, but to encourage more students to go to college. Most of the students in the city’s schools are black or Hispanic and come from low-income families – groups that traditionally have had lower rates of graduation and college attendance.

As recently as 2007, the city’s high school graduation classes included just 29 percent of the 9th-graders who had started four years earlier. That rate has improved to 47 percent this year, and officials hope to raise it to the statewide average of 79 percent within five years.

“This is obviously a very big concern of ours,” Adamowski said. “One of the targets of our reforms was the graduation rate – to bring it up from its 29 percent level. . . . This really has the potential, if we do it well, for us to close the gap.”

Of those who do graduate, slightly more than 40 percent go on to four-year colleges, a figure the district hopes to improve, he said.

Under Adamowski, the school system has undergone a series of reforms, including the restructuring of the system’s three large high schools, dividing them into smaller academies focusing on career themes such as nursing, engineering, journalism, teaching, culinary arts and law and government.

The U.S. Department of Education grant is “an incredible shot in the arm for the district, an incredible shot in the arm for these academies,” Adamowski said.

Hartford was the only district in Connecticut to receive the grant under an application process that was “incredibly competitive,” said U.S. Rep. John Larson, D- 1st District, who attended a press conference in Hartford, where the grant was announced.

Despite a major school reform law passed by the state legislature last spring, Connecticut failed to qualify for $175 million under the $4.3 billion Race to the Top program, while neighboring states of Massachusetts, Rhode Island and New York all won grants.

Adamowski said the $13.3 million in the anti-dropout grant is about the same amount Hartford could have expected under Race to the Top if Connecticut had qualified for the money.

Tom Murphy, a spokesman for the State Department of Education, said it appears the federal government saw promise in Hartford’s efforts to improve the graduation rate.

“We’ve seen that pattern. The U.S. Department of Education wants to put its money in school districts that have a proven record of performance,” Murphy said. “We’re happy Hartford got it. . . If they can establish these centers and it makes a difference, that’s a great thing, and maybe we can replicate it.”

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