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Published in Print: December 4, 2002, as Hartford Reshuffles as Lead Actors Exit

Hartford Reshuffles as Lead Actors Exit

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With a new school board set to take office this week, the Hartford, Conn., district is winding up a year of dramatic leadership changes. Not only will the event mark the end of a five-year state takeover, it also comes on the heels of the resignation of Superintendent Anthony S. Amato, who is credited with putting student performance on an upward climb.

What's more, Mr. Amato's exit followed that of Edwin Vargas, the local teachers' union president whose alliance with the superintendent had been held up as a model of labor-management cooperation.

The leadership shuffle in the 24,500-student district poses a real test for Connecticut's largest school system. With the departure of many of the actors who played lead roles in the district's turnaround, the question now is whether Hartford can build on its current momentum, or if it will lose its hard-fought gains.

Already, the new regime faces some potentially divisive issues, including a districtwide plan to change school attendance zones. One group of Hartford residents was shaken enough by the power shift to file a lawsuit seeking to extend the state takeover past its legislated deadline.

"I think a lot of parents are really nervous and skeptical," said Hartford parent Tammy Joyner. "They don't know what to expect at this point."

But state and local leaders say they've taken steps to ensure that the Hartford schools don't lapse into old habits. Particularly promising, they say, was the quick decision last month by the state-appointed panel that has overseen the district to name Mr. Amato's chief of staff, Robert Henry, as the new superintendent.

"We have to be careful to make sure that folks do understand that despite how things might appear to be fragile, the system is poised to move ahead," Mr. Henry said in a recent interview. "Everything has happened in a relatively orderly way."

Plenty to Lose

Leadership transition is a growing quandary in urban education. The experience of an increasing number of large districts suggests that who's in charge plays a crucial role in jump-starting improvement. But what happens when the leader who fixed things moves on?

"We've only recently been figuring out how to reform these systems," said Michael D. Casserly, the president of the Washington-based Council of the Great City Schools, which represents 58 large urban districts. "Most big-city districts don't have a lot of experience on how to sustain gains from one administration to another."

Hartford surely would like to stay on its present course. Once the lowest-performing system in Connecticut, its students have, over the past five years, exceeded the state's average increases on statewide assessments by more than 5 percentage points in grades 4, 6, and 8. Gains in achievement at the high school level have been less impressive, but Hartford's graduation rates have begun to rise.

By most accounts, those gains were made possible by two big steps: the 1997 state takeover that disbanded a fractious, locally elected school board, and the decision in 1999 by the state-appointed board of trustees to hire Mr. Amato.

The former superintendent from New York City's Community School District 6 brought to Hartford a relentless new focus on student performance. He ordered that schools spend more time on basic skills, that students learn test-taking techniques, and that children needing remediation get help both during and after school. ("Under Amato, Hartford Schools Show Progress," March 1, 2000.)

A believer in using common instructional programs across the district, Mr. Amato early on won favor from the Hartford Federation of Teachers by getting virtually all elementary schools to use Success for All, a union-endorsed reading program.

"They have seen a lot of success in the last couple years," said Theodore J. Sergi, Connecticut's commissioner of education, whose agency has lent considerable technical support to Hartford over the past five years. "And they know what it takes to keep that up, even though some changes are in store."

Not everyone is convinced that the Hartford schools are ready to strike out on their own. Eight local residents have sought to block the return to local control in a lawsuit filed in a Hartford-based state trial court. A state superior court judge last week heard arguments on a state motion to dismiss their request to keep the new school board from being sworn in as planned on Dec. 3.

"The gains are minuscule, and that's not what the takeover set out to do," said Alyssa Peterson, a plaintiff in the suit. "The powers that the state had are still needed to accomplish the huge changes that are needed."

Safeguards

But the state isn't completely washing its hands of the district. For three more years, monitors from the state education department will continue to visit the Hartford schools and attend key decisionmaking meetings in the system. Commissioner Sergi also will meet monthly with district leaders.

Moreover, the new school board was engineered so as to avoid some of the political pitfalls of the past. The state's takeover legislation set up an interim structure for the panel through 2005, in which four members are elected and three are appointed by the mayor. After that—based on an amendment to the city's charter passed by voters last month— the mayor will appoint a majority of the members of a nine-person school board.

The hope is that the new mix will result in less infighting. The move will also add Hartford to a growing list of cities—including Chicago, Cleveland, and New York—where mayors have gained control over local schools.

"What we're doing here is putting greater accountability for the schools on the Hartford mayor," Mr. Sergi said. "And that appears to have had some success elsewhere."

Still not wanting to leave things to chance, though, Mr. Sergi held an orientation session for 10 of the candidates who ran for the four elected school board seats. Incoming board members also met with the outgoing board of trustees, including Thomas Ritter, a former speaker of the Connecticut House of Representatives who chaired the panel. Hartford Mayor Eddie A. Perez named his three board members last week.

"The important thing," Mr. Ritter said he told them, "is to let the superintendent run the system."

But perhaps the biggest hedge against backsliding is Mr. Henry, the new district chief. Rather than appoint an interim schools chief in the wake of Mr. Amato's Oct. 28 resignation, the state board of trustees immediately gave his second-in-command a three-year contract as superintendent. The move sent a powerful message that although Hartford's turnaround superintendent was gone, the course he had set for the district would continue.

"One of the reasons we let Tony [Amato] explore other options is I felt we had the best backup team in the country," Mr. Ritter said.

A native of Costa Rica, Mr. Henry rose through the ranks in New York City from a bilingual classroom assistant to serve as the superintendent of Community School District 12. In 1999, Mr. Amato hired him away from the Cleveland public schools, where he had worked briefly as a regional administrator. While Mr. Amato focused on Hartford's instructional programs, Mr. Henry managed the district's day-to-day operations.

"The fact that I'm familiar with all of the initiatives that have been put in place makes it a lot easier," said Mr. Henry, who is 54. "I don't have to bring in a whole new set of activities."

Nor must he hire his own management team. Most of the top administrators brought to Hartford in recent years remain. Mr. Henry also notes that half of the district's principals were assigned to their current jobs under Mr. Amato's watch. That, in and of itself, ensures some school-level commitment to the instructional practices put in place in the past 31/2 years.

Different Styles

Regardless, Hartford's new superintendent knows he'll be operating in an environment different from the one his predecessor found. Mr. Henry won't enjoy the political cover afforded by the state board of trustees. And he takes the helm just as some contentious policies must be carried out, including the plan to reduce overcrowding at some schools by redrawing attendance zones.

And as elsewhere, Hartford's budget climate has worsened of late.

Mr. Henry also faces an uncertain relationship with the teachers' union. Over time, the perception among many teachers that Mr. Amato ruled with an iron fist became a liability for Mr. Vargas, the president of the Hartford Federation of Teachers who had backed the superintendent.

In an election this past April, Mr. Vargas was toppled by Tim Murphy, an activist who calls Mr. Amato "authoritarian" and boasts that more labor grievances have been filed since he became union president. Said Mr. Murphy: "The exploitation of teachers is going to stop."

But some who know Mr. Henry say he is well- suited to smooth ruffled feathers while keeping things on track. State and city leaders often describe him as a listener, a label rarely given to Mr. Amato.

"I think [Mr. Amato's] style of operating was right at the time that he was here," said Robert E. Long, one of the newly elected school board members. "Now, I think Robert Henry is the perfect gentleman for leveling us off and making things a little less hectic."

Indeed, critics of Mr. Amato's brusque approach became more vocal in the months leading up to his resignation. He also drew complaints for applying for superintendencies in other cities. In the end, the superintendent resigned after Mayor Perez told him to do some "soul searching," the mayor said.

Mr. Amato said he planned a more inclusive management approach going into "phase two" of Hartford's transformation. But, he added, "I was symbolic of the state takeover, and I accepted that as a reality."

Still living in Hartford and "just weighing options," Mr. Amato said he's confident the district will continue its progress. "There are things that have been institutionalized that are not going to go away, because the infrastructure is there," he said. "You would literally have to blow them out of the school for them to go away."

Vol. 22, Issue 14, Pages 1,16

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