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Shakeup of Technical High Schools in Conn. Pays Off

By Jessica L. Tonn — October 10, 2006 3 min read
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Administrators who have been shaking up Connecticut’s system of technical schools for the past several years scored a victory last month when two of the schools were taken off the state’s watch list for low performance under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

The announcement came 1½ years after the union that represents teachers in the technical schools, upset over the dramatic changes being made, announced a vote of no confidence in the system’s administration. Bullard-Havens Technical High School in Bridgeport and Wilcox Technical High School in Meriden were removed from the list after making adequate yearly progress, or AYP, for two consecutive years.

In February 2004, after reporting required by the federal law revealed that many of the technical schools were not meeting its requirements, the Connecticut Department of Education, which oversees the 17-school system, hired Abigail L. Hughes to revive the struggling schools. Ms. Hughes was then an associate commissioner at the department and the agency’s point person on the federal law.

At the time she was hired as the superintendent of the technical school system, “the data and results weren’t looking good,” she said in an interview last week.

Following recommendations set out by a governor’s task force, Ms. Hughes ruffled the feathers of some teachers by implementing broad changes, which included taking “vocational” out of the system’s name and changing its mission statement to reflect the need to prepare technical students for both work and college.

She also adopted more-rigorous entrance criteria, instituted a mandatory college-preparatory course load, and eliminated the grouping of students based on their academic performance. (“Conn. Polishes Image of ‘Technical’ Schools,” Sept. 22, 2004.)

After the 2002-03 school year, seven of the system’s schools were on the state’s list of schools not making AYP, the chief measure of improvement under the law. Two schools remained on that list after the 2005-06 school year.

“Our technical high school system is becoming a model for school improvement,” interim Commissioner of Education George A. Coleman said in an Aug. 30 press release announcing the 10,000-student system’s standardized-test scores for 2006.

‘Model System’

Mr. Coleman’s words are music to the ears of Ms. Hughes, whose goal, she said, was to create “a model high school system in the state of Connecticut.”

Not only has her administration faced opposition from the teachers’ union, but it has also had to overcome the perception held by some that the system is merely an alternative for struggling high school students.

Since 2001, the proportion of 10th grade students in the system meeting the state’s goals on standardized tests has gone up 15 percentage points, from 14 percent to 29 percent, in mathematics; 16 percentage points, from 8 percent to 24 percent, in reading; and 21 percentage points, from 11 percent to 32 percent, in writing.

“These increases are among the largest in Connecticut,” Mr. Coleman said.

This year’s state test scores also reveal that most of the schools are now outperforming the regular public schools in their communities in both reading and math. Eleven of the 17 technical high schools scored higher than the high schools in their host districts in reading, and 14 in math.

Aaron Silvia, the president of Connecticut’s State Vocational Federation of Teachers, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers, told Education Week in 2004 that he worried that some of the academic changes in the system would cause the schools to lose their trade-oriented focus.

Mr. Silvia did not respond to several requests to be interviewed last week.

Students in the technical schools have 91 days of academic instruction per year, compared with 180 days for students in regular public schools. They spend the rest of their time in career or technical training.

Ms. Hughes credits some of the students’ academic gains to better cooperation between academic and career teachers. Bringing the two groups of teachers together helps them to craft strategies for reinforcing the academic material, such as geometry and physics, in the trade programs, and vice versa, she said.

“In retrospect, it’s difficult to have so much change so fast—it puts a lot on the teachers’ plate,” said Thomas Murphy, a spokesman for the technical system.

But, he said, the changes “wouldn’t have been successful if the teachers weren’t on board.”

A version of this article appeared in the October 11, 2006 edition of Education Week as Shakeup of Technical High Schools in Conn. Pays Off

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