School & District Management

Under Amato, Hartford Schools Show Progress

By Jeff Archer — March 01, 2000 11 min read
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It was the kind of promise that could make or break not just a career, but also the hopes of one of the country’s most beleaguered school systems. When he took the reins of the Hartford public schools last spring, Anthony S. Amato pledged that the 24,000-student district would never again be shamed with Connecticut’s worst test scores.

To some, the goal seemed akin to a moon shot. An urban system where more than four out of five children live in poverty, Hartford in 1998 had managed to get only 13 percent of its 4th graders to meet the state goal on Connecticut’s reading test.

Nearly a year later, Mr. Amato himself admits that “I didn’t sleep for a month while waiting for those test scores.”

But when the state released its test results in February, a ranking calculated from the data showed Hartford outperforming four other Connecticut districts. In fact, the district improved more in 1999 in mathematics and reading than in the previous four years combined. As Ron Quagliaroli, an English teacher at Quirk Middle School here, said recently: “I hate to use the Nixon phrase, but you don’t have Hartford to kick around any more.”

Despite the gains, the Amato method has its critics. Some contend that the superintendent has stifled creativity with his use of “codified curricula,” by which educators are often told not just what to teach, but also how. And he has drawn complaints that he pushes educators to teach to the test.

But his many fans say the recent results legitimize his approach, and more importantly, demonstrate to other poor-performing districts that it needn’t take years to turn things around.

An Instructional Leader

Residents of the state capital could be forgiven if they were skeptical when they first heard Mr. Amato’s now-famous pledge. Time after time, earlier hopes of moving forward were dashed by infighting among those in charge of the Hartford district, which has seen nine top administrators come and go over the past decade.

Some of the more drastic attempts at improvement have included the hiring in 1994 of a private management firm to run the system—a deal that collapsed in less than 18 months—and the disbanding in 1997 of the locally elected school board by the state legislature. A state-appointed board now oversees the district.

Adding to the turmoil has been a long-running desegregation lawsuit that in 1996 resulted in a state supreme court order to better integrate the area’s schools.

Into this mire stepped Mr. Amato, the first schools chief hired by Hartford’s state- appointed panel. The 52-year-old native of Puerto Rico had built a reputation for having raised the test scores of New York City’s District 6 from dead last to about the middle of the city’s 32 community districts. During his 12 years as superintendent there, he also won fame for introducing a program that gave laptop computers to thousands of students in some of the country’s poorest neighborhoods.

Given the lethargy that had gripped Hartford for so long, the district’s board of trustees could have hired an accountability czar—someone who said: “I don’t care how you do it, just do it.” But Mr. Amato sees himself as half chief executive officer and half instructional leader. He has set measurable goals, but he also brought with him a toolbox crammed with curricular programs and teaching strategies.

“If you don’t give people the tools,” he said, “then you’re asking them to do a very different job with just a motivational speech.”

His Way

Under Mr. Amato’s approach, students with reading difficulties are now pulled out of class to take part in small-group sessions called Early Success and Soar to Success. Students throughout the district have 40 minutes a day to work on computer-guided tutorials on literacy and numeracy skills. Under a strategy called “test sophistication,” students are gaining more familiarity with the format and content of the state assessments.

Beyond regular school days, students have been offered an extended-day program, called “Power Hour,” as well as summer school geared to the skills covered on the state tests.

“To do this, I’ve had to really lay a heavy hand,” Mr. Amato said. “I said, ‘Here’s our literacy improvement plan, and guess what? We’ve got exactly five months to make it happen.’ ”

Even still, he couldn’t make everything happen by issuing orders. One of the most far-reaching strategies he’s brought to the system is Success for All, the elementary school reading curriculum designed by Johns Hopkins University researcher Robert E. Slavin. The popular school improvement program, which is now used in some 1,550 schools nationwide, requires the approval of at least 80 percent of the teachers in a given school before the approach can be implemented.

In Hartford, the plan was rejected by just one of its 28 elementary schools, and that school already had successfully implemented another school improvement model. The system is now the largest in the country where Success for All is in place in virtually every elementary school class. Students in grades 1-6 are in the program for 90-minutes a day, while kindergartners are in it the entire day.

On the Same Page

A visit to Hartford’s Dwight Elementary School in the city’s working-class south end shows how Mr. Amato’s changes are playing out.

At 9:30 on a Wednesday morning, 19 kindergartners sit on the floor around teacher Josie Costa as she goes over a story about a dog named “Sad Sam.” The teacher reads the narrative, prompting the students—who have their own copies of the book—to chime in with the dialogue. When Ms. Costa reads that the dog’s owner loves Sam, but doesn’t love that he jumps in puddles, they call out: “No, Sam! No!”

An almost-identical scene is unfolding in nearly every one of Hartford’s elementary schools at about the same time. Kindergartners throughout the city are reading today about Sad Sam and his propensity for puddle jumping.

In the front of many classrooms, a laminated poster lists the order of the morning’s Success for All lesson. Items include: “listening comprehension, 15 min.,” “reading together, 55 min.,” and “two-minute edit.” Timers now are commonplace tools for many teachers here.

The “codified” approach shows up not just in elementary school. Middle school math teachers, for example, have “progress schedules” to help them keep their lessons on track with the rest of the system.

Pedagogically, many educators here say, the standardized approach makes sense for a district in which families—many of whom are recent immigrants—move around so frequently. Dwight Elementary is a four-story brick Victorian-era school that today serves students from Puerto Rico, Vietnam, Russia, and, increasingly, Bosnia and Albania.

“Why would you have one school handling things differently from another?” Principal Sandra Baker said. “If a child leaves and goes elsewhere in the city, they can just call up their old teacher here and say, ‘What level is he at?’”

Teacher Support

Another of Mr. Amato’s accomplishments has been to win the favor of the local teachers’ union.

It helps that Success for All is strongly endorsed by the American Federation of Teachers, the parent organization of the Hartford Federation of Teachers. But the superintendent has also agreed to pay educators for much of the additional work he asks of them.

“It’s very unusual,” said HFT President Cheryl Daniels. “I’ve worked with seven superintendents in seven years, and he’s the first one I’ve dealt with who has come to the union leadership and actually bounced ideas off of us.”

Hartford teachers say the use of similar programs throughout the system also means they get materials on time. Many used to put in book orders in the summer and were lucky if they arrived by January.

And though some educators criticize Hartford’s more prescriptive methods as a misguided attempt at “teacher proof” instruction, many teachers here say they appreciate the guidance.

“Before, you were pretty much on your own, and I struggled at every turn,” said Kathy Greider, the Success for All facilitator at Dwight Elementary School. “Teaching reading is such a phenomenal task. If I was given this program coming out of college, I would have been so thankful.”

Not everyone is so thrilled. In his focus on the basics, Mr. Amato has decreed that all elementary and middle school students receive at least an hour of reading instruction each day, and an hour of math. For students who are to take the state test the next fall, he also has required teachers to spend weeks at a time focused almost exclusively on the mathematics, reading, and writing skills on the assessment. The concern is that the intense focus discourages innovation while squeezing out important areas not on the tests, such as social studies.

“I don’t think anyone should criticize what he wants to do,” said Lynda George, a social studies teacher at Quirk Middle School. “But there are some wonderfully creative teachers who just feel trapped in a box.”

When Mr. Quagliaroli, the English teacher, began giving students their “test sophistication” training last spring, “everything else stopped,” he recalled. Still, he believes that as teachers become more adept at imbedding the test preparation into their routines, they’ll regain some flexibility in lesson planning.

“The rigidity will become structure,” Mr. Quagliaroli said. “And then they’ll see it as a structure that’s really supportive.”

To those who accuse Hartford of teaching to the test, Mr. Amato has a standard response: Focusing to a great extent on a test is only a problem when the test is flawed. But the Connecticut Mastery Tests are widely recognized as among the country’s most rigorous.

“There’s teaching to the test, and then there’s teaching to the literacy and numeracy skills on the test,” Mr. Amato said.

The way the superintendent articulated his hopes for Hartford’s test scores in the beginning, however, grated even on state education officials. The point is not for districts to boost their rankings against other districts’, Connecticut officials have said, but to improve on their own past performance. Hartford did both, but the fixation on district rankings this year prompted the education department to stop issuing a composite index of scores which in the past had allowed for easier comparisons among systems. Instead, a ranking was calculated and published last month by the local newspaper, the Hartford Courant, using the state data.

The sheer size of Hartford’s gains has fueled speculation about their validity. Along with word of the district’s improved placement came news that from 17 percent to 21 percent of Hartford’s students had been exempted from taking the Connecticut assessments last fall. That news comes at a time of heightened national scrutiny of schools’ testing practices, following reported incidents such as a cheating scandal involving educators in 32 New York City schools, including three in Mr. Amato’s former district.

Connecticut education department officials say, however, that Hartford’s exemption rates for most of the tests were not significantly higher than in previous years. Mr. Amato points out that Hartford has higher-than-average numbers of students in legally exemptible categories, such as special education or limited English proficiency.

“If our kids did well, I want them to do well because they really did,” he said. “I don’t need anybody to cheat.”

Out on Another Limb

Now that the school system has shown some dramatic gains, one of Mr. Amato’s biggest challenges is reminding the community and the state that, by any measure, Hartford remains a district in crisis. Reading scores may be better than they were, but four out of five 4th graders there last fall still didn’t reach the basic level on the state test.

This year, the superintendent has turned more of his attention to the district’s high schools.

One new intervention program—designed for Hartford by Vermont’s Landmark College, which specializes in serving students with learning disabilities—aims to take 9th graders who are reading years below grade level and turn them into college-bound students. Hartford also began passing out laptops to its freshmen three weeks ago, an effort Mr. Amato is betting will have a host of effects—from lowering the dropout rate to increasing parent involvement.

“It’s not about the box,” said the superintendent, who can speak from experience about giving students computers. “It’s about the service the box offers you, in terms of having a reason and an excuse for you and your family to have a computer in a high-poverty neighborhood. All of a sudden, you have access and connectivity you never could have dreamed of.”

He is about to go out on a limb again. Next fall, the Hartford chief plans to stake his reputation on another pledge: that all Hartford students will be able to get a job, go on to college, or go into the military when they graduate. “We will not let you fall through the cracks,” he said.

In a kind of dry run this year, Mr. Amato has had one of his administrators start tracking what happens to each member of the class of 2000. The same person has been charged with uncovering unused college scholarships, starting job-training programs in the schools, and encouraging businesses to create more positions geared to Hartford’s graduates.

To help keep the goal always in mind, Mr. Amato has hung a chart listing the names of all 786 seniors on his office wall. “This,” he said, “to me, is the ultimate outcome of everything else we do.”

Coverage of urban education is supported in part by a grant from the George Gund Foundation.

A version of this article appeared in the March 01, 2000 edition of Education Week as Under Amato, Hartford Schools Show Progress


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