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Hartford School Board Refuses Proposal to Add Magnet Schools, Drops Capital Prep Plan for SAND

By Ann-Marie Adams, Staff Writer

HARTFORD — Connecticut doesn’t do change well.

That’s why it’s necessary to find alternatives to traditional schools for black and brown students, said Rep. Doug McCrory (D-Hartford) during Hartford Board of Education’s 90-minute public comment session before it nixed a proposal to have Capital Prep Magnet School Inc. manage SAND Elementary, a low-performing school in Hartford’s North End.

The eight members present on Tuesday voted 5-3 to reject two other proposals as a part of Sheff v. O’Neill‘s school desegregation agreement that would create more magnet schools: Capital Community College’s Senior Academy and Hartford School Inc. All three proposals were components of the state’s negotiated settlement with Sheff plaintiffs carved out for the 2014-2015 school year for the Hartford Public School district, which is 90 percent black and Latino. More than 92 percent qualify for free or reduced lunch.

The board’s vote came after the state failed to achieve racial balance in Hartford’s schools by the Oct. 1 deadline and Gov. Dannel Malloy announced a moratorium on magnet schools.

Board members’ collective pause on the matter means the state and the district must now continue the negotiation.

Hartford Public School Board’s Vice Chair Lori Hudson was adamant about having a plan that includes the Capital Prep model.

“It was all or nothing,” said Hudson after the late night vote in Rawson Elementary School’s auditorium. “The deal worked for me with the Capital Prep component. When they removed it, I was against it.”

Board member Richard Wareing was also against the removal of Capital Prep’s proposal, which had significant community support. Wareing gave an impassioned plea to “put Hartford students first” instead of the process that brought the proposals to the table.

Teachers protest what they called a "hostile takeover" of SAND.

Teachers protest what they called a “hostile takeover” of SAND.

Some administrators, teachers and opponents of Capital Prep’s Principal Steve Perry said the board’s process lacked transparency, and the Capital Prep model “can’t be forced on the community.”

Because of the confidential nature of the Sheff v. O’Neill plaintiffs’ negotiation with the state, board members and others disseminated very little information after a supposed agreement last week, Hudson said.

Local advocates for the Sheff desegregation agreement have also failed to engage the community, drawing less than a dozen Hartford parents and community advocates at a recent conference on school integration held earlier this month.

The Sheff settlement included, for the first time, money for Hartford’s local schools, Clark and SAND: a $3 million grant. In the past, no money would have been allocated to local schools.

Parkville Parent Teachers Organization and Hartford Parent Organization Council President Ivette Diana said that parents were misinformed about Capital Prep’s proposal.

“None of the kids were going to leave those schools,” Diana said referring to Clark and SAND elementary schools. “Parents didn’t know that. And no one knew about the money…. It was the pissed off move. We weren’t supposed to know.”

Diana said “unions should stay out of this.” She vowed to organize parents.

“If the teachers want to fight for something, they should fight for our children, not their jobs,” she said. “We’ll be back. We’re the parents. We should decide what happens to our schools.”

Board Chair Matthew Poland and Hartford Mayor Pedro Segarra said they heeded the cries of parents and community leaders who showed up last week and on Tuesday to protest a proposal to convert Clark Elementary to an Achievement First Charter School, another low-performing school in the North End.

In a statement issued last week, Segarra said: “I indicated clearly that any decision regarding a redesign of Clark Elementary would be predicated upon parental involvement and support. I am committed to identifying an alternate solution that meets our objective of accelerating student learning and closing Hartford’s achievement gap. I encourage all those invested in this issue to stay involved.”

After the vote, which occurred at about 11:15 p.m., Perry said the Hartford board dropped his proposal because several board members lacked courage to “stand in the face of some level of discomfort.”

He added: “At the end of the day, children lose again.”

Others had a different view, emphasizing the lack of transparency in the push to close several of Hartford’s low-performing schools.

At the public session, one teacher said that the board’s move to have Capital Prep take over SAND was sudden and hostile. So the teacher’s union mobilized and invited a few parents and children to speak out on teachers’ behalf.

But another parent said he was in favor of “something different” because his child can’t do first-grade math.

When contacted via phone, one active parent said he knew nothing about the proposals. After being briefed, he said:

“Steve Perry is an ass. But there’s a difference in his school. Capital Prep doesn’t say to students ‘you are poor so you can’t learn.’ The teachers at Prep educate and empower students. They don’t make excuses,” said Robin Williams.*  “These teachers are all white and from the suburbs. They don’t want to change the status quo. That’s the other side of the coin that needs to be explored.”

Teachers had their say, too.

Ronald Linker, who teaches at Hartford Public School’s Academy of Engineering and Green Technology, said teachers are burdened with students who have been passed through the system every year to increase the district’s graduation rate.

“They’re pushed along like they’re on assembly lines, not by parents or teachers but by the district,” Linker said. “They failed to hold back these students, and they keep offering alternatives like summer schools to get them to graduate.”

His colleague Ron Williams agreed.

“These are not failing schools,” Williams said referring to Clark and SAND. “These are failing policies.”

Neither teacher is at SAND Elementary. But they said they were there to support their colleagues who teach at SAND.

“We’re here,” Linker said, “because they are coming for us next.”

*Robin Williams is a pseudonym used to protect his identity.

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Hartford School Teacher Honored

HARTFORD — The Connecticut Association of Schools named Hartford Principal Desi Nesmith of SAND Elementary School the 2010 recipient of the “William Cieslukowski Outstanding First Year Principal Award.”

Recipients of the award, named after the former president of the Elementary & Middle School Principals of Connecticut, must demonstrate exemplary instructional and organizational leadership, a willingness to take risks and the ability to overcome adversity.

Nesmith was recognized for his work in facilitating the school’s transition to the nationally acclaimed America’s Choice education design and for producing the highest gains on the 2010 Connecticut Mastery Test of any elementary school in the district.

“It’s truly an honor to be recognized,” Nesmith said. “But the real credit goes to our students, their parents and to our dedicated teaching staff. I also want to thank America’s Choice for its support throughout this process.”

Established in 1998, the America’s Choice School Design is a proven model that provides an unmatched combination of professional development, technical assistance, and high-quality materials to help turn around schools that have a substantial group of students with difficulty meeting standards. Since then, more than 1,000 schools nationwide have adopted the design, which is customized for elementary, K–8, middle, and high schools.

Nesmith’s implementation of the America’s Choice design in his first year as a principal resulted in a 14.8 percentage point increase in his school’s Overall School Index, the highest increase among elementary schools and the second highest in the entire district.

“Mr. Nesmith also wasted no time introducing himself to the community and setting higher expectations for educational success even before the official start of schools,” said Assistant Superintendent Christina Kishimoto, who oversees school redesign.

“It was not long before the community was buzzing with talk about the new guy going door to door talking about the new school going into their familiar neighborhood building.”

The new principal also aligned the 7th and 8th grades with the new Journalism and Media Academy giving students a strong writing component to their curriculum. Students also participated in a four-week summer program at the Simsbury Community Farm, where they participated in science and literary classes.

“Desi’s contributions have given life, breadth and depth to the message and vision of America’s Choice at SAND,” said Jennifer Weiss, Senior Associate of America’s Choice in New York City. “As a first year principal, faced with seemingly insurmountable challenges and adversity, Desi remained focused and driven, curtailing air supply to all potential fires by devoting time and effort where it matters most: with students and teachers.”

A graduate of the University of Connecticut, Mr. Nesmith was a 5th grade teacher in the East Hartford school system. He later became a “Teacher in Residence” at the Connecticut State Department of Education’s School Improvement Unit and then an Intervention Resource Specialist in the Office of the Hartford Public Schools Assistant Superintendent for Elementary Education.

“If my own children were just starting elementary school, I would want Desi to be their principal,” said M. Leon McKinley, director of Elementary Education for Hartford Public Schools and Nesmith’s mentor. “He’s that good for children.”

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