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Renewed Warnings For Hartford High Schools

Ohanian Comment: Notice how concern for the arts gets buried in the last paragraph, just an afterthought. Across the country, we are destroying what it means to be educated.

Nearly one-fourth of the state's 180 public high schools landed on an academic warning list Wednesday, many of them because their sophomores got low mathematics scores on a statewide exam.

Although the list was shorter than last year's - when nearly half the state's high schools failed to make sufficient academic progress as required by the federal No Child Left Behind Act - state officials said 11 of the 42 schools cited this year face new sanctions.

Among them are all the major high schools in Hartford, Waterbury and New Britain.

Because those schools receive federal Title I funds and have been on the list at least two years in a row, the law requires them to allow students to transfer to a better school or an alternative program in the same district. However, the transfer option is limited because no other qualified high schools are available in most cases.

"This is one of those requirements that hadn't been thought through very well," state Education Commissioner Betty J. Sternberg said.

Four schools that receive Title I support are on the list for the third consecutive year and, under the federal law, also must offer private tutoring to students who request it. Those schools are Weaver High School in Hartford and state technical high schools in Hartford, New Britain and Stamford.

Schools that don't receive Title I funds and have been on the list two or more years are required to submit improvement plans to the state but are not subject to federal sanctions.

Many high schools that were cited a year ago escaped the list this year because they raised participation above the required 95 percent level in the Connecticut Academic Performance Test, which is used to judge high schools under the provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act. Last year, 34 high schools were cited only because too many sophomores skipped the test, but just six schools fell into that category this year.

More than 40,000 10th-graders took the annual exam last spring, and scores were generally up across the state. Educators believe many sophomores took the test more seriously this year because, under a new state law, the scores can be used as one means of meeting new statewide graduation requirements.

Sternberg said schools "should be very proud of the progress made in just one year."

Nevertheless, most schools in the state's largest cities, including all three of Hartford's large high schools, failed to make sufficient improvement on this year's test. One common problem was on the math portion of the test.

"We are aware that we are struggling with math," said Mark Zito, principal of Hartford Public High School.

He said that changes have been in the works for math instruction for more than a year and that the city's high schools have begun changing the math curriculum in grades 6-9 and administering exit exams to math classes.

At the high school level, the goal is to increase the number of students who complete algebra II before they graduate, Zito said.

In Waterbury, "a lot of students haven't been exposed to algebra and geometry, even as sophomores," said veteran teacher Dennis Briand, math department chairman at Kennedy High School. He said the school system has begun changing the math curriculum and has bought new textbooks that are more in line with the state tests.

State education department officials acknowledged that student performance in mathematics, especially in high school, should be improved. "There needs to be more rigor" in the curriculum, said Barbara Westwater, chief of the department's bureau of curriculum and instruction.

The department Wednesday introduced a draft of state curriculum guidelines to shape mathematics teaching throughout the state, including more emphasis on solving complex problems.

The No Child Left Behind Act, signed by President Bush two years ago, is designed to close the achievement gap that finds some groups lagging behind others in both reading and mathematics.

Under the law, a school can be cited even if only a single category of children - such as special education students, non-English speaking children or members of minority groups - fails to meet standards.

In several cases, schools raised their test scores enough to be removed from the academic warning list. West Hartford's Conard and Hall high schools were cited last year for low math scores among special education students but were not singled out this year.

"Of course we're thrilled they are not on the list," said West Hartford Assistant Superintendent Karen List. "We've been very focused at looking at our instruction to change that."

The law has forced educators to focus on helping all groups of students to perform better in basic skills, but List said she is concerned that schools might lose sight of other goals.

"I worry about the arts," she said, "about developing the imaginative thinking of our students, making sure we take them beyond reading, writing and mathematics."

Courant Staff Writers Rachel Gottlieb, Anica Butler and Jim Farrell contributed to this story.

— Robert A. Frahm
Hartford Courant


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