A new multimillion-dollar grant to Hartford’s public schools not only will strengthen the city’s ties to charter schools, it could bolster a charter movement that some educators believe has never fulfilled its potential in Connecticut.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation today announced a $5 million grant to Hartford, one of seven U.S. cities receiving grants to promote collaboration between charters and traditional public schools – two groups that often have been at odds.

Hartford won the grant because of its efforts to include charters in its strategy to reform a system that serves severely impoverished neighborhoods and includes some of the lowest performing schools in the state.

Gates grant event

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and Hartford School Superintendent Christina M. Kishimoto listen as Noah Wepman, representing the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, announces a $5 million school reform grant to Hartford.

“This is important work,” Gov. Dannel Malloy said of school reform efforts such as those in Hartford. The Gates grant will help educators “to do what we know must be done to reinvent public education in Connecticut,” he said.

Malloy was among a group of local and state dignitaries, school officials, schoolchildren and others who attended a conference at the state Capitol, where the grant was announced.

The grant, one of the largest private grants ever awarded to a Connecticut public school system, will be spread over three years.

“This is, indeed, great news for Hartford,” school Superintendent Christina M. Kishimoto said.

Gates representative Noah Wepman announced the grant, saying, “When traditional public schools and public charter schools are willing to work together, all children in the community have a better chance of graduating from high school with an education that prepares them…to succeed in college and their careers,”

The grant will support programs for training the city’s teachers and school leaders, using strategies developed by charter operators, including Achievement First, a charter school network that operates schools in New York and Connecticut.

In 2008, Hartford became the first district in the state to affiliate with Achievement First, opening an elementary and middle school charter in the city. This year, Achievement First opened a high school in the same building.

The grant also will expand efforts by Jumoke Academy, a successful Hartford charter school, to manage and transform low-performing schools. Jumoke is in the first year of an experimental partnership with Milner School, a chronically troubled school in Hartford’s North End.

In addition, the grant will support Hartford in aligning the district’s curriculum with the Common Core State Standards, a national project establishing common standards and tests across the states.

Charter schools are publicly funded but are allowed to operate without some of the conventional administrative and union rules governing traditional public schools.

Connecticut joined the charter movement in 1996 when then-Gov. John Rowland signed a law allowing a limited number of state and local charter schools. The law, however, imposed strict limits on enrollment in state-sponsored charter schools and limited their ability to hire non-certified teachers.

Charter advocates considered the law to be more restrictive than laws in many other states and over the years have pressed for more funding and an expansion of enrollment.

Meanwhile, other critics contend that charters have failed to live up to their potential as laboratories for new educational strategies. Across the nation, supporters of traditional public schools, including teacher unions, have often viewed charters as competitors and have clashed with charter advocates over funding and other matters.

In Connecticut, “the [original] purpose was to have charters be incubators of innovation,” said Mark Waxenberg, executive director of the Connecticut Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union. Instead, some charters have operated as “a separate school system” in competition with traditional public schools, he said.

Today, Connecticut has 17 charter schools enrolling about 6,500 children, just over 1 percent of the state’s public school students.

Despite the success of some charters, comparisons with traditional schools are difficult to make, in part because many charters enroll relatively lower numbers of disabled or non-English speaking children than do most other schools in the same districts.

Such differences can make it more challenging to transfer the lessons of charters to struggling public schools.

Nowhere is the challenge more obvious than at Milner School, where officials from the Jumoke charter have begun tackling longstanding problems such as truancy, teacher turnover, and dismal academic performance. Of the 37 Milner third-graders who took the state Mastery Test last spring, for example, only one met the state goal in reading. None met the goal in math.

“This has been quite an eye-opener,” Michael Sharpe, CEO of Jumoke Academy, said during a recent interview at Milner. “The amount of issues is just overwhelming.” Among other things, the Jumoke-Milner partnership also has faced challenges from the system’s teacher union, including a formal complaint about the frequency of staff meetings.

Earlier this year, the partnership qualified for a $1.5 million award from the state under the Commissioner’s Network, a project developed by Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor to turn around struggling schools.

The Gates grant is the latest indication that charters will be part of the strategy to improve public education in Connecticut.

Both Pryor and Gov. Malloy have been supportive of charters as one of various approaches to school reform. In addition, state officials this year increased the level of financial support and eased enrollment restrictions for charter schools.

Although they have often disagreed, advocates for charters and traditional public schools have much to offer each other, Pryor said. “We can no longer sit in [separate] camps and hope for progress,” he said. “The time has come for true partnership.”

Hartford is the smallest of the seven cities receiving Gates grants, but it received the largest grant. Of the $5 million, the Hartford school system will get nearly $2.8 million, Achievement First about $1.2 million and Jumoke Academy just under $1.1 million. The grant will be administered by the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving.

In addition to Hartford, the Gates Foundation made grants to schools in Boston, Denver, New York City, Philadelphia, New Orleans and Spring Branch, Texas.

“The fact Hartford was singled out – it shows the progress they have made” on school reform, said Patrick Riccards, CEO of the New Haven-based education reform group ConnCAN.

Riccards said the Gates grant has the potential to ease the tension between charter advocates and supporters of traditional public schools.

“We often lose sight of the fact that charters are also public schools…We’ve spent too much time in Connecticut trying to draw these dividing lines,” he said. “This grant shows we’re all in this together.”

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