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Back to basics: Reading, writing and some rules

By Dick Ahles

Publication: The Day

Published September 09. 2013 4:00AM

When Kelt Cooper, New Britain's new superintendent, made his first visit to one of the city's schools last year, he noticed a student wearing his trousers so low, he was revealing a part of his body usually on display only in the locker room. When Mr. Cooper admonished the student, he was greeted with an expletive, telling the superintendent what he could do with his sartorial criticism.

Later, in the principal's office, the student admitted he had made a mistake. He didn't realize he was addressing the superintendent. He thought he was just cursing a teacher, a common practice.

Cooper uses that experience to explain why the New Britain schools now respond to students who curse at teachers or janitors or each other with five- to 10-day suspensions and why repeat offenders could face long-term suspensions.

Now, there are studies that show students suspended even once are more likely to repeat a grade or end up in the juvenile justice system or in jail. But what happens to students who are allowed to tell teachers and classmates to expletive themselves and get away with it?

This isn't the first out-of-fashion reform carried out by Cooper, who came to New Britain from Del Rio, Texas, in part because Del Rio, like New Britain, has a large Spanish-speaking student population. It also has large numbers of students who can't read very well after several years of being educated in New Britain.

Upon seeing student performance data, Mr. Cooper questioned the wisdom of having them attend classes only four and a half days a week. It seems that in New Britain, students had been sent home at noon on Thursdays so that teachers could have what were known as planning sessions. Now they have classes instead. There are undoubtedly studies that show students who are deprived Thursday afternoons off do badly in graduate school, but Mr. Cooper took the chance.

The new superintendent also found dismal attendance records, beginning in kindergarten where 30 percent of the students had been absent an average of 18 days a year. He employed two truant officers, with a more contemporary title, to visit 400 kindergarten homes last year and talk about the problems that kept these children home and the absentee rate dropped 12 percent.

Mr. Cooper is also putting a stop to social promotions, the practice of promoting students who fail because - once again - studies show students held back are more likely to drop out. He believes students promoted without learning ultimately pay a higher price than even the dropouts, so social promotion is ending in New Britain.

By far the most discussed of Cooper's back-to-basics reforms has been in teaching English to the large number of students who start school speaking only Spanish. He replaced programs that had students attending classes taught in English one week and Spanish the next with an immersion in English and an emphasis on, of all things, grammar. He had little to lose. New Britain's third grade reading scores, a key measurement of a student's ability to not only read, but to learn, had been dead last in the state for some time.

But now, there are signs of improvement. The Connecticut Mastery Test scores, released last month, showed New Britain's third graders moving out of last place, ahead of Bridgeport and New Haven. Even better, scores rose for grades three to eight in nearly every content area, including fifth-grade reading, which rose from 40 percent of students at or above the proficient level to 50 percent.

There have been the usual complaints that Cooper's English-only approach devalues the Spanish culture by rejecting the student's first language, but Cooper insists his job is to "teach them English as rapidly as possible so that they can get math, science and social studies content as early as possible."

I've often vowed I'd never become one of those old guys who claim things were better back then, but with so many of our schools failing their students, there may be some virtue in trying something old for a change.

Dick Ahles is a retired journalist from Simsbury.

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