School Reform Live on Where We Live

Nov 15, 2013

Dr. Steve Perry during an earlier visit to WNPR.
Credit Chion Wolf / WNPR
Paul Diego Holzer.
Credit Chion Wolf / WNPR

Today on Where We Live, we're continuing an ongoing conversation about school reform. Dr. Steve Perry, principal of Hartford's Capital Prep Magnet School, joins us to talk about why he calls himself "America's most trusted educator." We'll talk about Dr. Perry's record at Capital Prep, where he says 100 percent of graduates are accepted at four-year universities. We are also joined by Paul Diego Holzer, executive director of Achieve Hartford!, which works to drive "community ownership" of school reform, among other goals. Follow along below as we live blog the conversation.

9:09 am: Dr. Steve Perry joins us today partly because of a conversation that started on Twitter with host John Dankosky. What's an ineffective educator? How many are there? Perry chooses to address the first question. "The word 'teach' means that a student should learn," he says. "When they're assessed at later points and can prove the teacher told them -- they've learned. That's an effective teacher." How much can you learn through standardized assessments? Tests like that shouldn't be the only method we use to measure learning, says Perry. "When we look at state assessments, we need to look at them more globally," he says -- looking at them both objectively and from a "growth perspective."

9:13 am: How can we quantify how well school administrators are doing running a school? "You can tell just by walking into the school," says Perry, looking for a sense of order. Ineffective schools have a sense of chaos. Perry said he recently visited a Hartford school where parents said they felt that sense of chaos, and children "can't learn" in an environment like that. Teachers should have a sense of rigor, just as parents would at home, says Perry.

9:16 am: Caller Rick from Rocky Hill asks Perry how he can say "teaching is not hard," given all the challenges teachers face. "How can you say teaching is not a hard career path given that it's 'just kids'?" Perry answers, "Anything that you love is hard, but hard is not impossible. 'Hard' is treated as if it's something that's never been done before. There are educators taking on the task with less resources than we have here in Connecticut, and making great things happen." Perry says he's pointing out "what a joy it is" to have the opportunity to transform children's lives. "I am excited to come to work, every single day," he adds.

9:18 am: Caller Nate from Simsbury says that Dr. Perry travels a lot. "How do you think you know your school is functioning when you're not there?" he asks. Perry answers that Capital Prep is a year-round school. "Because of the way unions have set the contracts up, I have 112 vacation days that I can't take during the summer. I have 175 sick days that are not used. What you need to be asking about is how is it possible that Capital Prep, every year, makes it possible for children throughout the region to come and outperform even suburban schools? How come more schools are not doing what we do?"

9:23 am: There's an argument about whether anyone should be angry about education, and in what way. Perry asks Dankosky, "What are you angry about? We have a school with no achievement gap. We've had a tough year this past year, but in fact, we still find ourselves at the top of the performers in Hartford, just so we're clear."

9:25 am: What does Perry mean about traditional schools being "over-feminized"? Perry says Latino and African-American boys are most typically expelled, and the difference between their GPAs and white girls' GPAs is the greatest. White females are the least likely to have problems in school, and most teachers are also white females. "The beheavior of the boys is being criminalized," says Perry. "This is all data that we can all check. We have boys who are being suspended for acting like boys, for acting rambunctious. We know that there's a typical difference in the way boys and girls act."

9:27 am: What is the reason why boys of color are most frequently expelled and encounter problems at school?, Perry asks. "I want to change it," says Perry. "Some people are made to feel uncomfortable; that's their problem." 

9:33 am: Paul Diego Holzer of Achieve Hartford! says people don't often drill down on education data. "You've gotta look at the test scores, but you also have to ask deeper questions. Why are kids performing or not performing at a certain school?" Capital Prep has performed very well, says Dankosky, on its CAPT scores. What's the difference between a magnet and a high school? Holzer says High School, Inc. has students all from Hartford, while Capital Prep has students from the city and the region. High School, Inc. is the most successful neighborhood high school in Hartford, says Holzer. 

9:35 am: "We don't look at just the numbers," says Perry, saying the teachers work together with the administration to prepare them to educate students well. Holzer says Perry is creating a special environment where staff want to work in that school, in that culture. High School Inc.'s principal has the same kind of focus and intensity. More of that is needed, he says. Parents want to be able to pick a school and a culture that is right for them. "Ultimately, you don't want to be in a school where not one teacher is saying anything around a table with a principal," says Holzer.

9:39 am: Perry says this conversation seems to be focusing on just one school, and trying to undo the success of it, rather than looking more broadly at the challenges. "What really matters is making sure that our children have access to a quality education," he says. Holzer says, "People like talking about controversies. I feel like we get trapped -- we are either demonizing each other, or we are too nice, and we're not saying anything."

9:42 am: "We work really hard to make sure we are hiring the right person for Capital Prep," says Perry. "We want to be around people who really love being around people. Kids are easy to love but sometimes they're very hard to like. When we begin the interview process, we do so with that in mind. I'm typically the last person, if at all, to determine who works here at Capital Prep." Colleagues make a lot of the decision together, he says. "We speak of Capital Prep as a lifestyle," Perry says. "You're going to work year-round. All we did is look at what had happened in private schools," where teachers coach, teach, and advise. "The more effectively you can build relationships with children, the greater your attendance, and the greater your overall performance." Capital Prep's attendance is very high, just by copying successful models, says Perry.

9:45 am: Sarah Littman says Perry's claim that Capital Prep is outperforming students in Greenwich is not true. "The fact that he is going around making these kind of statements that aren't true, and is defended by reformers like Achieve Hartford!, makes me really furious." Perry responds that his African-American students are outperforming ...not all of them. "When you look at our growth," he says, "most of our students actually start behind the average in Hartford, and then move forward. So the growth of our students is significant."

9:46 am: Caller Trudy from Hartford has a child who attends Capital Prep. The administration is very visible, she says, and the male to female ratio among the staff is impressive. Strict rules are in place, and her son goes to school with no chiding or convincing. "What Dr. Perry is doing is amazing," she says. "I'm a big supporter. I want to thank him for everything he's doing."

9:50 am: Why hasn't Hartford applied the model of success to all Hartford schools? Holzer suggests people come to the November 19 board meeting to hear a proposal along those lines. "Rumor has it that it is SAND," says Holzer, in Hartford, to take on a Capital Prep type model. 

9:52 am: "We have been asked," says Perry, to consider replication "in a number of schools, by parents in those schools. It's by no means driven by me, but by a team of educators."

9:54 am: Perry understands why a lot of people might be afraid of the Common Core standards, as it will be "a beast." Holzer adds the change will allow a lot of schools not to take accountability for the next few years. "We have got to find a way to have a normal conversation about how our schools are doing," Holzer says. "Folks are going to have to not just depend on Common Core and state tests" to determine how students are performing. Perry says testing is done in one block of time that isn't all that useful to the schools, as the assessments are done toward the end of the school year. Tests should be more frequent and less time-consuming, he says.

9:57 am: What happens to the neighborhood schools that are not magnets? Why don't all schools work the way the most successful ones do? Holzer says there isn't an area school district that has figured out how to do this. "The focus of a school district needs to be not so much how our magnet schools are doing, but how our neighborhood schools are doing." He says that's a hard nut to crack, and Hartford is trying to crack it. Holzer says it's not about making comparisons -- if we could afford to do all magnet schools, we would.