Search form

Literacy, School Choice Are Superintendents Priorities


A district in crisis can't keep doing the same things the same way and expect change, Hartfords school superintendent Dr. Steven J. Adamowski said. He called for a system of school choice, with more autonomy for higher-performing schools. Included: A description of a plan to revamp an urban district.

About This Series

Education World news editor Ellen R. Delisio is spending time this school year at Parkville Community School in Hartford, Connecticut, to report on the challenges an urban school faces and the strategies it employs in its quest to make adequate yearly progress (AYP) under the No Child Left Behind Act.

When it comes to describing the state of the Hartford Public Schools, superintendent Dr. Steven J. Adamowski has neither the time nor the patience for euphemisms.

In many respectswe are a school district on its knees, Dr. Adamowski told staff members at a breakfast meeting. Its our job to kick it up againWe need to bring a school system that is on its knees to its feet one school at a time

We are in a crisis.

Just a handful of statistics show how dire the situation is:

  • Hartford is the lowest performing school district in Connecticut.
  • It is the lowest performing district among the six urban districts in the state.
  • Only 15 percent of all third graders read at grade level.
  • Only 8 percent of Hartford tenth graders scored at goal on the Connecticut Academic Performance Test (CAPT).
  • Only 29 percent of those who started high school in 2002 graduated in 2006.
  • Only 39 percent of Hartford graduates go to college; 20 percent of those attend two-year schools.
And this is in a state with the nations highest per-capita income.
Dr. Steven J. Adamowski

Confronted with these realities, Dr. Adamowski, a Connecticut native, is ready to overhaul everything: how students are assigned to schools, the districts hierarchy, the length of the school year, the calendar, and expectations.

We cannot just keep doing the things were already doing with more intensity, he said to teachers. He drew prolonged applause when he said, Right now, we are a system of 1,000 initiatives, but we dont do any really well because we can never really focus.


Reading, Dr. Adamowski is convinced, is the key to sustained, systemic improvement. If we do nothing else but get every student reading at grade level at the end of third grade, we could transform the district, he said. Early literacy is the most critical issue we face.

So starting this summer, for the first time, summer school will be mandatory for K-3 students who are not reading on grade level.

That benchmark is critical, Dr. Adamowski said, because reading at grade level by third grade is one of the best indicators that a student will graduate from high school.

We need to go from a bureaucratic, dysfunctional, low-performing school system to a system of high-performing, distinctive schools of choice.
Getting to that point with children from low-income families is harder than it is with other populations, he told Education World. Teaching children in poverty requires more time, focus, resources, intensive efforts, and maybe different approaches to teaching reading.

Our business is instruction, but we need to do things differently if we are teaching children in need, Dr. Adamowski continued Issues like the troubled home lives become serious challenges when we are organized like a school in the suburbs. If we wait for the challenges to go away, nothing will ever happen.


Converting Hartford to an all-choice system of schools, in which schools need to distinguish themselves to attract students, is key to Dr. Adamowskis plans for rejuvenating the district.

We need to go from a bureaucratic, dysfunctional, low-performing school system to a system of high-performing, distinctive schools of choice, he told the teachers in February.

The district currently has two parallel systems, he told Education World. There are magnet schools, which are well-supplied, well-funded, and whose students are showing success, and then there are all the other district schools. He envisions having a choice system in place within five years, which will include interdistrict and intradistrict magnet schools within three transportation zones. All schools would be funded equally.

Right now, we are a system of 1,000 initiatives, but we dont do any really well because we can never really focus.
We have a number of magnet schools doing better than neighborhood schools, Dr. Adamowski said. We have to get to the point where every school is at the same level. We have to ratchet up the non-magnet schools.

All elementary schools also are slated to be converted to K-8s -- about two-thirds of the schools already have been switched over. A few schools will serve grades 6-12.

Dr. Adamowski also said he would be advocating for smaller high schools in the district.

Not all the schools will be district-operated, according to Dr. Adamowski. Some will be charter schools, and the administration will entertain running schools in partnership with outside entities, such as businesses.

The idea is that every school will be a high-performing school, he continued. If a school is not making adequate yearly progress (AYP), then we will close it, redesign it, and reopen it.


To help every school become high-performing, Dr. Adamowski is advocating less bureaucracy at the top and more autonomy at the building levels. Central office will have a different relationship with schools, based on the schools level of performance. Relatively high-performing schools will be given more autonomy for programming. Chronically low-performing schools face intervention, redesign, closure, or replacement. Defined autonomy will be imposed on schools in the mid-range to help them improve.

"We need to bring a school system that is on its knees to its feet one school at a time.
"This doesnt mean we dont have good people, Dr. Adamowski said. We have to design a system where people can succeed. We start out with a few islands of excellence on which we can build.

Parkville Community School is considered one of those islands, and could show even greater gains under a reorganization. Parkville is one of many schools working hard and trying hard and deserves a system in which they can be successful, so they wont be a temporary island of excellence, Dr. Adamowski noted. We need a system that allows that to continue.


As part of the new approach, the total number of instructional days is increasing next year from 176.5 to 179 days.

Students also will spend more time in school before the states Connecticut Mastery Tests (CMTs) are administered in March. Next year, school will open for staff and students before Labor Day -- August 29 for students. The weeklong February vacation has been reduced to one day off, Presidents Day, to allow more instructional time before state tests, which are scheduled for March.3-20. Consequently, school will end by June 10 next year, as opposed to June 20 this year.

In 2008-2009, students will report August 25, and instead of a February and April break, school will close on Presidents Day and then for a week in March after the state tests. The last day of school will be June 4.

While these changes may sound like a lot to absorb, Hartford is in a far better position than many other districts in the country to make changes happen, according to Dr. Adamowski.

I know many of you are discouraged because you are working hard and not getting results, Dr. Adamowski told the teachers. Thats not the individuals problem. We need a system that allows good people to shine.