Spotlight

Case Study: How a Compact Works in Hartford

by VICKI PHILLIPS

More than 90 percent of students in Hartford Public Schools are low-income, and many come from homes where English is not the first language. A few years ago, Hartford was the worst-performing district in Connecticut, a state with the highest achievement gap in the nation.

In 2006-07, the school district began a long-term strategy to dramatically improve student achievement. The plan was based on the portfolio approach, where a district oversees an array of school options, including public charter schools.

Impressed with the success of Achievement First’s Amistad Academy in New Haven, Hartford Superintendent Steven Adamowski invited the high-performing charter school network to open up the first district-affiliated charter school in the state. Hartford knew it would be paving the way and setting the standard for others to follow.

To secure widespread support for the introduction of a charter school in the state’s capital, district officials arranged parent and community visits to Amistad Academy, so they could see firsthand the quality of the school. They worked to address the concerns of other stakeholders, including teachers’ unions.

Since the opening of that school, the district has developed a strong relationship with Achievement First and is in the process of planning a high school as a continuation of that elementary/middle school.

Then, in 2010, with the support of the Gates Foundation, Hartford and Achievement First strengthened their relationship by signing a district-charter compact to memorialize their commitment to finding even more concrete ways of working together. Now, the city’s other charter school, Jumoke Academy, also has signed a compact with the district.

Staff Exchanges
The compact has fostered far greater collaboration. For example, the district includes charter schools in its plans for everything from busing to security to trash pickup and works hard to ensure charters have the resources they need to operate. They also include charters in their district performance reports and, perhaps most importantly, include them in the districtwide lottery for students. This means that charter schools are as available to Hartford students as any other district school.

Both Achievement First and the Hartford district conduct principal training programs to recruit and develop strong school leaders. With the compact in place, Achievement First now hosts one of the district principal trainees, who benefits from Achievement First’s professional development and coaching. District and charter teachers participate in each other’s professional development.

The compact also encourages the district and charters to share best practices. For example, the district implemented a K-2 reading program based on an Achievement First model, while the charter school network has adopted parts of the district’s rigorous curriculum. And the district hopes to learn from Jumoke Academy’s strong experience with the middle grades.

In thinking strategically about its long-term goals, charter leaders now are trying to identify the aspects of their success that can be shared and implemented more broadly. Their long-term goal is to share their lessons learned with an audience beyond charter schools, while also adopting the district’s most successful ideas.

Hartford’s overarching goal is to raise student achievement. To do so, the district realized that it needed to create as many great schools for students as possible. From this perspective, charter schools are not competition for district schools, but are an opportunity to expand the number of high-quality options for students and their families. They also are a partner in developing best practices for all Hartford students.

This is what makes the compacts so exciting — they codify cooperation. And Hartford education leaders are demonstrating that when schools collaborate, students win.

— Vicki Phillips