Hartford Board Too Hasty On Charter School

The Hartford Courant

The Hartford Board of Education's recent vote to expand a charter outfit with a troubling disciplinary and enrollment record was ill-advised and premature. Shame on the majority who failed to hold Achievement First accountable for well-documented problems at the Hartford Academy before promising them more of the city's scarce education resources.

The good news is that although the school board failed to do its homework, there is time for the city council to do its. Council members should waste no time preparing for an important test next spring. That is when they will be asked to approve a budget that would siphon off resources from struggling neighborhood schools in our community in favor of an additional charter operation.

City officials should begin preparing for that test by studying charter operator Achievement First's results right here in Hartford. There is much to be learned by examining the outfit's recent record when it comes to student suspensions and its discrimination against children with special needs or disabilities.

The suspension rate at the charter's Hartford Academy is not only higher than the rest of the district, but they have the highest rate in the state. The Courant reported in July that almost half the students at the middle school were suspended or expelled at least once during the 2011-2012 school year.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, excessive discipline risks isolating and humiliating students who struggle with behavioral issues. The academy's Committee on School Health has warned that students face greater risks of dropping out permanently and becoming entangled in the courts when they are excluded from school.

Like a growing number of charter operators, Achievement First enrolls students in its Hartford Academy by a lottery system. Rutgers University Graduate School of Education Professor Bruce Baker has researched how charters misuse such a system to set academic, behavior and cultural standards that promote exclusion of certain students.

Parents of students at Hartford Academy in 2012 complained to the federal education department's Office for Civil Rights over the charter's discrimination against children with disabilities. According to the complaint filed by Greater Hartford Legal Aid Inc., Achievement First was failing "to provide accommodations, modifications, and specialized instruction" as required under state and federal law.

The charter reached an agreement with the parents and the civil rights office to settle the complaint three months ago, promising "to improve special education and other services for students with special needs." That's hardly sufficient time for Achievement First to demonstrate it is not using its lottery to cherry-pick students in order to boost standardized test scores.

Considering the agreement was reached over the summer, it is also hard to imagine that Hartford school officials had sufficient time to evaluate progress in this critical area. The Hartford Board of Education should not allow the charter's expansion to proceed without first confirming that Achievement First is no longer putting our children with special needs last.

As we seek to educate the city council on Achievement First's disturbing record, we refuse to let the board of education off the hook for failing to do due diligence. We intend to hold the school board accountable for developing a program for moving all, not just a select few, of our neighborhood schools forward.

To date, a plan for the additional charter school they greenlighted with their vote does not exist. The five members who failed to "think first" before agreeing to expand Achievement First's foothold in our classrooms do not yet know where the kindergartent though eighth grade charter school will be located.

School board members are entrusted with making choices that effect educational opportunities for all of Hartford's students. The price for their failure to make real improvement the next time they are put to the test may be the future for many of our community's struggling schoolchildren and their families.

Andrea Johnson is president of the Hartford Federation of Teachers, AFT Local 1018. Melodie Peters is a former state senator and president of AFT Connecticut.

Copyright © 2018, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad