As a valued classroom aide, Sondra Henderson represents both the promise — and the challenge — of the latest effort to rescue Hartford’s Milner School, one of the state’s most troubled public schools.

Henderson is one of the 20 aides hired last fall to assist teachers as Milner began making a series of reforms under the new management of Jumoke Academy, a successful Hartford charter school.

Yet Ms. Sondra, as she is known to her first-graders, will lose her job at the end of the school year, according to Jumoke officials, who were told that she and a handful of other aides lack the credentials required by the Hartford Public Schools and a union contract.

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Teacher Barbara Simon helps a first-grader during a recent Saturday class at Milner School. Simon is one of 27 new teachers hired this year in a restructuring of Milner.

“I really want to stay,” said Henderson, who once held a similar job at Jumoke. “My heart is here.”

It is one of the ironies arising from an unusual pairing of a charter school and a traditional public school — a high-stakes education reform experiment bringing together two widely different educational models that often have been at odds.

Jumoke took over operations at Milner last fall under a $345,000-a-year contract with Hartford Public Schools. But educators from Jumoke, accustomed to the broad flexibility granted to charter schools, are learning that running Milner means operating under central office and union regulations governing matters ranging from employee credentials to staff meetings.

In addition, they are facing a much different, and more challenging, student population at Milner than at Jumoke, including many more special education students and children from non-English-speaking families.

Officials from Jumoke, Hartford Public Schools and employee unions agree there have been rough spots as they work through the early stages of the Milner-Jumoke partnership, the only one of its kind in Connecticut.

“The amount of issues is just overwhelming. Any school that has the type of problems this one has requires just an intense focus,” said Michael Sharpe, Jumoke’s CEO.  “We’ve had to relearn … how you deal with a traditional public school setting — the fact you have union rules and all kinds of requirements we are not, on a regular basis, exposed to.”

Nevertheless, there are some early signs of progress, and officials are hoping the strategies that made Jumoke a high-performing charter school can be adapted at Milner. Among those watching closely are state education officials, who targeted Milner as one of four struggling schools to receive extra state support under the Commissioner’s Network. That program, established by state Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor, allotted Milner a $1.5 million grant this year to assist reform efforts.

“We’re encouraged by what we see,” said Pryor, who noted that Milner, which has 361 students this year, is one of several school turnaround approaches being tested under the new network. In New Haven, for example, the teachers’ union has taken a lead role in managing a school, while network schools in Bridgeport and Norwich are making changes under a traditional management structure.

The network is designed to address the achievement gap, the problem of chronic academic failure among poor children in the state’s lowest-performing schools. Of the 50 states, Connecticut has the largest achievement gap separating low-income children from their more affluent classmates.

Nowhere is the issue more evident than at Milner, a school enrolling pre-kindergarten through eighth-grade students in one of Hartford’s poorest neighborhoods. City officials, community agencies and a string of principals have made repeated efforts to reform the school — all to little avail.

“What Milner has been for the last 20 years is a chronically failing school, arguably the worst in the state,” said Sharpe, the Jumoke CEO.

For example:

  • 95 percent of the school’s students meet poverty guidelines under the federal school lunch program;
  • One out of four students is not fluent in English;
  • Of the 37 third-graders who took the state Mastery Test last year, only one met the state goal in reading. None met the goal in math;
  • A state review of Milner last year reported high rates of teacher turnover and teacher absenteeism;
  • That review also cited a 2010-11 report indicating that 298 of the school’s 412 students qualified as truant under state guidelines.

By contrast, more than half of Jumoke’s third-graders met the Mastery Test reading goal, and nearly three out of four met the mathematics goal.

Such comparisons, however, are difficult to interpret because the student bodies at the two schools are different. Although Jumoke officials have said their students come from similar neighborhoods and backgrounds as those at Milner, a closer look finds marked differences.

Milner’s 95 percent poverty rate, for instance, compares with 66 percent at Jumoke, according to state figures. Milner identifies 11 percent of its students as disabled, Jumoke about 4 percent. And while one of every four students at Milner is not fluent in English, there are virtually no non-English speakers at Jumoke.

Under its agreement with Hartford, Jumoke has authority to make extensive changes at Milner, a school now officially known as Jumoke Academy Honors at Milner. Officials hired a new principal, replaced nearly the entire teaching staff, and hired additional special education staff members, bilingual educators and a speech pathologist. Jumoke also altered Milner’s calendar to include longer school days, voluntary Saturday classes and an extended school year. Under the agreement, teachers pledged to stay at Milner for at least three years — an effort to stem Milner’s history of frequent teacher turnover.

Among the most striking changes was the hiring of aides, known as “academic assistants,” to be paired with teachers in every classroom — a key strategy copied from the Jumoke model.

“Last year I had 24 students by myself. This year I have 17 with an assistant,” said first-grade teacher Holly Moya, one of only five teachers remaining at Milner from last year’s faculty. The extra help “is huge. I’m very grateful,” she said.

Seventh-grader Carlos Sanchez agrees. “Having two teachers is better than one,” he said, adding that the extra aide helps control classroom behavior and makes it easier to learn. “This year I’m focusing on what I’m doing, finishing my homework.”

One of the immediate challenges last fall was to address the problem of poor behavior and classroom disruptions.

Students “would talk back in the most disrespectful manner … They would walk out of class, walk out of the building, do whatever they want,” said new Principal Doreen Crawford, who came from Jumoke, where she had worked as a teacher and administrator.

Only a few days into her new job, Crawford encountered a hallway fight between two boys that shocked her, she said. “I’ve never seen anything that vicious… I could not believe it.”

The school tightened enforcement of rules and made frequent contact with parents of disruptive students, “making parents accountable for their children’s behavior,” Crawford said. Officials also enlisted more parents to assist in hallways and classrooms.

“I’m here from eight to late,” said volunteer parent Andrea King, the mother of three girls at Milner. She said the school has a better relationship with parents this year.

Another parent volunteer, Letisha Garay, agreed that the atmosphere at Milner has improved dramatically.

“Last year, you’d come in the hallway, and every student would be running around, ready to knock you over,” she said. “This year, you walk in the hallways, and it’s quiet…The whole environment has changed.”

A recent status report on Milner by state education officials cited “dramatic improvement in parent perception of the school” and reported that student behavior is, “for the most part, appropriate and respectful.”

The report, however, gave Milner mixed reviews overall, saying that much remains to be done. It said, for example, that a professional training strategy for teachers was not fully implemented and that a data plan to measure student progress was incomplete. “Most teachers and staff,” the report said, “were not aware of an accountability plan or grade level targets.”

Officials report that attendance figures are up. Crawford said she is confident that academic performance will improve, too.

Still, Crawford admits the switch from Jumoke has sometimes been an adjustment. She ran into trouble, for example, with the teachers’ union early in the school year when the union filed a formal complaint alleging she held staff meetings more frequently than allowed under the union contract.

Sharpe, too, has expressed frustration over regulations such as those requiring classroom aides to have an associate’s degree, a rule that will disqualify Sondra Henderson and a handful of others whom Sharpe does not want to lose.

“The difficulty in working with personnel and budget and the policies of the district has been far greater than we anticipated,” Sharpe said. “The biggest disappointment has been the Hartford union…There’s no engagement. It’s all ‘gotcha.’ You walk into school, and it’s like a lawyer serving you a grievance saying you guys are having too many meetings… Why wouldn’t you just call me on the phone?”

The problem, he said, “has been trying to figure out how to accommodate certain rules without losing the model that we believe created our success.”

Whether Jumoke can solve that problem is an open question. There are obvious tensions.

“They just don’t like unions,” said Andrea Johnson, president of the Hartford Federation of Teachers. “They don’t think there’s any place for them…The thing that folks seem to forget is that Milner is a Hartford Public School.”

Hartford Superintendent of Schools Christina Kishimoto said the school system has a good relationship with Jumoke, but “this is a very new arrangement and concept… I don’t know that all the parties at the table necessarily know how it works.”

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Teacher Holly Moya works on a reading lesson with first-graders during a Saturday class at Milner School.

The Milner-Jumoke model is “not a charter school,” she said. “It’s [Jumoke’s] model, their approach, their curriculum design…but the rules are Hartford Public School rules….I think they’re on a very steep learning curve around how K-12 systems run.”

If the experiment works, it could help redefine the relationship between charter schools and traditional public schools in Connecticut.

Connecticut joined the charter movement 17 years ago, creating a limited number of independent charters that operate without many of the usual administrative and union rules.

However, charter schools have had a chilly relationship with the traditional public school establishment. Critics contend that charters skim off the best students and drain funding from traditional schools.  Teacher unions and school boards often view charters as competitors and say they have failed to live up to their potential as laboratories for new educational strategies.

The charter movement “was from the very beginning an attack on public schools…The attitude was ‘We’re better than you, and we’re going to trash you and take you over,’” said Sharon Palmer, the former president and longtime official with the state chapter of the American Federation of Teachers.

Nevertheless, Palmer, who now heads the State Department of Labor, said she hopes the Milner-Jumoke partnership succeeds. “If that’s the case, you have to figure out why it’s working, and can you replicate it,” she said.

Despite their differences, charters and traditional public schools have much to offer each other, said Pryor, the education commissioner.

“While not every charter school is successful, there are charter schools in Connecticut and around the country that are among the most successful in closing the achievement gap,” said Pryor, who in 1999 was a co-founder of the Amistad Academy in New Haven, one of Connecticut’s first and most successful charter schools.

“It’s very important that within a traditional public education context, within a unionized context, we create room for innovation,” he said.

Although the charter school movement across the nation generally has been made up of new startup schools, some charter operators have begun working with local districts to turn around struggling public schools in places such as Philadelphia and Baltimore, said Sarah Yatsko, a researcher at the University of Washington’s Center on Reinventing Public Education.

“That’s a definite trend,” she said. “As charter schools get less wary of diving in and as district schools grow a little bit more desperate and as some of the taboo around charter schools is slowly dissipating, districts feel it’s not quite as big a political risk.”

In New York City, the Explore Schools charter network operates a pair of schools in Brooklyn that enroll students from failing public schools that were closed. The schools remain independent and operate as charters without union or central office restrictions, said Morty Ballen, Explore’s founder and CEO.

Trying to turn around failing schools, Ballen said, “is not for the faint of heart.”

But, he said, “We are all public schools, whether traditional district or charter, and we should be doing more of what Jumoke is doing…We definitely need some more bold solutions.”

At Milner, “I believe it will work if there are relationships that are forged between the union and the officials at Jumoke,” he said. “Gosh, it could be a model for the rest of us to see if a charter school and public school…could make it work.”

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