Achievement First – Hartford: A disturbing history of losing students along the way

What is really going on at Achievement First – Hartford?

One of the most serious criticisms of the charter school industry is that they “cherry-pick” their students.  In a world in which poverty, language barriers and the need for special education services are the three greatest factors limiting educational outcomes, charter schools have a lower percentage of poor students, fail to accept and keep their fair share of students who aren’t fluent in English and take far fewer students who need special education services.

Charter schools brag that their students get higher scores on standardized tests, but of course they do, when they fail to take the students who are most likely to need extra help.

The fact is simple and stark; despite a so-called “open enrollment process,” charter schools fail to educate their fair share of students who are not fluent in English, students who go home to households that don’t speak English and students who need special education services.

In addition, a recent review of the public high schools in New Haven versus the two New Haven based charter high schools, both run by Achievement First, revealed that Achievement First HAS AN EVEN WORSE RECORD than the public schools when it came to keeping high school students enrolled.

Now Achievement First is trying to expand in Hartford.

In Hartford, nearly 25 percent of Hartford school students aren’t fluent in English, but when it comes to the students served by Achievement First – Hartford, less than 5 percent face an English fluency problem.

Furthermore, while almost 45 percent of Hartford school students go home to households in which English is not the primary language, less than 5 percent of Achievement First – Hartford’s students go home to non-English speaking households.

And while about 13 percent of Hartford’s students require some sort of special education services, Achievement First – Hartford’s special education population is about half that number, with only 7.5 percent of students requiring special education services.

So how does Achievement First – Hartford manage to duck their responsibility to serve the entire Hartford community?

Part of it is a lottery system that serves to self-select who applies.

What is even more incredible is that Achievement First has an uncanny ability to move out, throw out or drop out significant numbers of students – perhaps it is the students who don’t fit their desired type of student.

According to the most recent report filed with the State Department of Education, as students moved from the 5th grade to the 6th grade to the 7th grade in Hartford, the total number of students increased by 8.9%.  However, during that very same period, the number of students who stayed with Achievement First – Hartford dropped by 10 percent, meaning one out of every ten students left Achievement First – Hartford between the 5th and 7th grades.

Even more disturbing was the drop off at Achievement First from the 2nd to 3rd grade.

Over the past two years, more than 11 percent of the Achievement First –Hartford students left or were pushed out after they began the 2nd grade and before they were able to begin the 3rd grade.

The State Board of Education, the State Department of Education and the Hartford Board of Education should place a moratorium on any charter school expansion in Hartford until an independent analysis of Achievement First – Hartford’s policies and practices can be examined.

Achievement First – Hartford should not be able to use taxpayer dollars, and certainly shouldn’t be able to expand,  as long as they appear to have policies in place that serve to discriminate against students and families who speak Spanish or face language barriers or discriminate against students who have special education needs.

The data could not be any clearer, Achievement First – Hartford and Hartford’s other charter schools are not serving a major segment of portion of Hartford’s population.

Their actions violate the ethics and morality of public education.

It’s time for politicians and policymakers to determine what is truly happening with Hartford’s charter schools.

If you are a parent or family member who has seen Achievement First’s selectivity at work, please send me your story.  The information will be kept completely confidential.  Information can be sent to [email protected].  Thank you.

  • Rob


    You’re right that some A.F. schools don’t serve the exact same
    range of students that district public schools do. At Achievement
    First Hartford Academy, for example, just 5% of students are English
    language learners. In Hartford as a whole, 17% of students are E.L.L.
    This difference is legitimate, and to be totally honest, it probably
    doesn’t hurt A.F.H.A.’s achievement scores. Achievement First doesn’t purposefully enroll fewer E.L.L. students, though. A.F.H.A. is in Hartford’s North End, a predominately African-American and West Indian part of the city. Hartford’s E.L.L. students are concentrated in other areas of the city (specifically in the South End, which has a large Puerto Rican community). Using phrases like “duck responsibility” and “discriminate” implies that A.F.H.A. purposefully denies enrollment to E.L.L. students. It does not. In reality, Achievement First Hartford Academy’s student population mirrors that of the North End, but not necessarily of the whole city. The same fact explains the large discrepancy between the percent of Hartford kids who live in homes where English is not the primary language (43%) and the percent of A.F.H.A. kids who live in such homes (5%). Again, this difference likely provides A.F.H.A. with a distinct advantage on the CMTs, but it’s not a result of enrollment manipulation – it’s just geography. In the first two years that the school was opened, it was limited to enrolling students from the North End.

    Student attrition at AF Hartford is a real problem, but it hasn’t occurred because administrators “move out, throw out, or drop out” anyone. Achievement First insists that all students uphold high behavioral standards. When students have chronic behavioral issues, teachers and school leaders call parents and have meetings to solve the problem, and the school doesn’t give up if a parent is unresponsive – they call, call, and call again. For most parents, this is a welcome change from Hartford Public Schools; it ensures that their children regularly experience calm, disruption-free classrooms. For others, AF’s persistence is bothersome. These parents eventually decide that all the detentions and calls for meetings are too much, and they withdraw their child to send them to a different school.

    • Linda174

      Maybe the calling isn’t working. Maybe they should try another approach…do they use a positive behavioral intervention system?

      Not just punishments or isolation or shaming and demerits…many public schools make calls and use other approaches as well.

      Maybe AF can learn from us?

      There was an article about a reorientation room where they get “the culture they need”. That sounded a little odd to me.

    • Linda174


      When the student leaves, for whatever reason, does the money follow him or her back to the public school?

      • Linda174

        Prorated obviously.

      • Charlie Puffers

        Good question. I dont believe the money follows the student until the next school year. Funds are disbursed on Oct 1 for the school year. The HPS that the student enrolls in after AF does not receive additional funds that year.

        • Linda174

          That is absurd and shameful. They lose the kid after a few months or whenever, but they keep the money. So not only does the district get the needy kid back, AF keeps the money and the receiving school gets no funds.

          That should be tracked and legislature should be made aware.

          How can we do this Jon?

        • Linda174

          It would be interesting to get a list of their departure dates. I bet no too many leave before the funds are disbursed…..big exodus after early October? Then, the phone calls start.

    • Suesylvester

      blaming the parents…really again?

    • Sleepless in Bridgeport

      Bull Loney……….. How about a “What’s Left” Charter School like the public schools are rapidly becomming.

  • Charlie Puffers

    Actually, there are large pockets of ELL students in the north end and nearby in Asylum Hill. Wish School, Milner School, Clark School and West Middle School are all close to Achievement First and have large numbers of ELL students.

    • Linda174

      How often did you see charter kids returning to their public school? What time of year?

      • Magister

        I’m guessing October…

      • Charlie Puffers

        All year students return. Mostly when the parent has had enough disruptive phone calls at work and has been threatened with job loss by their boss.

        • Linda174

          Looks like their “welcomed” approach serves its purpose.

      • Charlie Puffers

        The magnets are no longer allowed to dismiss students during the school year. But HPS has no say over how the charters operate. I’d like to see Jumoke Milner educate all of the students that were at Milner when they took over in Sept. They should not have a lottery or be allowed to ask anyone to leave just like Milner was forced to operate before it became Jumoke. I realize that you can also make it miserable for families so they leave of their own accord. A new trick is to expand from a middle school to a high school but only have room for 1/2 the number of students. One middle school added gr 9 last year but only allowed 100 of their 200 gr 8 students.

        • Linda174

          They never run out of charter tricks….that is how you “reform” nowadays…just keep moving the shells around and confuse the parents and the public.

  • Magister

    “What is even more incredible is that Achievement First has an uncanny ability to move out, throw out or drop out significant numbers of students – perhaps it is the students who don’t fit their desired type of student.”

    And if they wait until October before giving them the boot, I’m pretty sure that they get to keep the money.

    • Linda174

      There is no way they should keep the entire per pupil expenditure if they no longer have the student. That is robbery.

  • The fact that this charter chain enrolls fewer ELL students, students in poverty, and students with special needs probably does account for any higher achievement as measured by standardized tests. What would worry me more would be the charters enrolling more students with various special needs and not having the teaching force or the structural capacity to meet these students’ needs. What are the qualifications of the teachers? Do they have advanced degrees in ESL, cultural differences, or special ed?

    • Charlie Puffers

      The traditional schools do not have the resources to meet the students needs. PPT meetings are held to reduce hours. When Romain Dallamund was head of sped in Hartford he closed all self contained classrooms over the summer and it was sheer chaos in Sept with students with varying levels of cognitive functioning placed in regular classrooms with no support. The sped teachers were told to hold ppt meetings to rewrite hours. Since the sped teachers were busy all month holding meetings there was not support in the classrooms. After the meetings were finished there was very little support in classroom because the teachers were spread too thin. A few knowledgeable parents brought in advocates who went after the school staff for not providing services. Dalamund made a name for himself as a reformer and moved off to become a supt in Minnesota.

    • Linda174

      Some charter teachers are teach for a while temps. They have five weeks of summer training at the TFA camp.

  • Rob

    I’ll never stop advocating for Achievement First’s high behavioral standards. Some readers of this blog will call it “blaming the parents,” but when did parents get the right to abdicate all responsibility for their child’s development? If anything, they are a LARGER part of the equation than teachers, not a smaller part. I hate to echo Romney and Gingrich, but parents never get a free pass. Let’s step back from the rhetoric and acknowledge the reality: the majority of Hartford parents work two or more jobs trying to provide for their families. They are senior home care workers, retail clerks, fast food cooks, substitute teachers, whatever. At least at Achievement First Hartford Academy, many parents are immigrants, and they’re doing whatever they can to ensure that their kids go to college and lead successful lives. These parents deserve our respect and support.
    Moreover, they deserve a top-notch school for their kids. Here’s another reality: Darien and Simsbury parents would never tolerate the behavior that occurs daily in some Hartford public schools, so why should Hartford parents be forced to accept it?
    If high behavioral standards lead to a few parents getting upset, that’s fine by me; for every one pissed off parent, there are nine happy ones whose kids are going to college.

    Linda, you’re correct on two levels:

    First, a major, and not wholly illegitimate, criticism of AF’s behavioral systems is that they tend to skew more towards negative reinforcement than positive reinforcement. AF can learn – and has learned – from positive behavioral approaches pioneered in high-achieving, traditional public schools. Individual behavior plans, or
    IBPs, are one of the first interventions teachers make when supporting a student who’s had chronic behavior issues.
    If you’re the same “Linda” I think you are, then you’ll recall my
    previous comments about AFHA’s reorientation room; essentially, it’s a sadly necessary tool, but it should be used rarely.

    Second, the money SHOULD follow the child, wherever they go. As many commenters have mentioned, Connecticut schools are held harmless after October 1st, so they don’t lose any per pupil funding, regardless of attrition. I think we’d all agree that this is wrong. At the very least, per pupil funding should be prorated and sent to the receiving district (or school) if a student transfers mid-year. In
    reality, though, such a system would send school-based budgeting schemes into a tailspin. The merits of school-based budgeting could constitute an entirely different blog post, but right now, Hartford schools can’t accommodate a mid-year, multi-thousand-dollar loss for every transferred student. Is it f*cked up? Sure. Does it need to be changed immediately? Of course. But then again, teachers should make six-figure salaries.

    Lastly, I was a “TeachForAwhile” teacher in Hartford five years ago. I’m still teaching, and living, in Hartford today.

    • Linda174

      Yes, same Linda and same Rob. You are a TFA exception. Most do not stay past their third year despite Wendy’s spin. Twelve out of 16 left New Haven since 2010. I will find the article for you. Some don’t make it through their first year and use this temp job as a stepping stone to more lucrative positions.

      Once again, not you, but that is true for many. There are cities where certified teachers were laid off and TFA took their this case they are scabs only to leave in 2-3 years creating more churn.

      When TFA recognizes the career teacher who is also unionized as being valuable that will be a new beginning for true public/charter collaboration. Her original mission no longer exists. She is busy building up her $300 million surplus and promoting herself and her brand.

    • Linda174

      Everyone should subscribe to EdShyster…..comic relief and informative, too.

      It is annual rite of almost unimaginable cruelty. Thousands of young hopefuls attempting to beat long odds. For the lucky few who win this life lottery, there awaits a coveted seat at a no excuses school known for high expectations and some of the nation’s best teachers. But only a tiny minority will get a shot at a better future. I’m talking, of course, about the huge number of Teach for America alumni who are even now applying to the nation’s top law schools.

      • jonpelto

        I agree – one of the best sites ever!!!!!!!

        Sent from my BlackBerry please excuss typos

    • Suesylvester


      First: If schools really wanted parent involvement…they would welcome the parents in not just ask them to fund raise. The sad fact is they really don’t want parents involved except to “back them up” blindly.

      Second: Linda174 is a robo-poster. Linda174’s job is to turn on anyone and rip them apart if they disagree with her, it’s the program.

      Just so you know.

      • Linda174

        Hi Laurie – glad you are back even if you have a new poster name….very creative.

    • Suesylvester

      In addition….the parents are the LARGEST part of a child’s education if the schools welcomed and embraced that truth all our children would be in a better learning environment.

  • Linda174

    A militarized test prep factory with a “culture” of discipline:

    At Democracy Prep Harlem Middle School, a sixth grade math teacher started her class by giving her students exactly four minutes to solve a problem involving ratios. When her watch beeped, homework was collected and all eyes turned to the front of the room.

    “Pencils in the groove and you’re tracking me in three, two, one and zero,” she said, using a term common among charter schools where students are frequently instructed to “track” a speaker with steady eye contact and full attention.

    Almost everything on a recent visit to a Democracy Prep charter was highly disciplined. Students spoke only when their teachers allowed them. They could lose points for talking out of turn, or chatting in the halls between classes.

    Democracy Prep is among several charter networks with a “no excuses” philosophy. Like other charter schools the days are long, running from 7:45 a.m. to 5:15 p.m., and the academics rigorous. But there is also a culture of discipline that can cut both ways. In some schools, and with some families, the tough approach has worked well while for others it has prompted students to leave.

  • Rob


    Forgive me – I haven’t yet figured out how direct comments at specific readers. I saw the NH Independent article you’re referring to, and 75% attrition in the Elm City is definitely a tough statistic. For what it’s worth, one of the profiled teachers is a friend, and after graduate school he’s gonna make a bad-ass principal.

    The “TFA as steppingstone argument” is real. Some professors at Teacher’s College and Harvard GSE even claim that TFA is just a new iteration of 1800s-style cultural imperialism. As a white dude who’s taught just one white student in five years, I don’t really know what to say to that – maybe it IS new imperialism, with young white college grads artificially implanted into majority-minority communities. And maybe TFA teachers are unjustly taking jobs from career educators. I’m really making no effort at all to refute those arguments.

    In the end, it comes down to how I’d feel as a parent. All the armchair philosophizing in the world wouldn’t matter if it were MY kid sitting at the desk in a dysfunctional classroom. All I’d want is for my kid to learn and have a shot at a decent life – to break the cycle of poverty and make something for herself. Ideally, my kid’s teacher would be a unionized, well-compensated, veteran instructor. Really, though, I’d just want my kid LEARNING every day in class.

    To any opponent of AF Hartford who comments on this blog, ask yourself: would you withdraw your kid from their suburban district school and place them in a randomly-chosen Hartford public school tomorrow? If the answer isn’t “yes” – if you’d like to have some say in a decision that impacts your kid’s future perhaps more than anything else – then you MUST sympathize with Hartford parents and support school choice. It’s just NOT FAIR for kids to be stuck in bad schools just because they’re not wealthy.

    • Linda174

      Partially agree, but the poor get tested and the middle class and wealthy get educated ( borrowed from Ravitch). If KIPP is so wonderful, just one example, why aren’t the Kopp/Barth children enrolled….there are several in NYC and a few in DC for Sasha and Malia. If these schools are so great, the wealthy would be attending. I doubt the kids at Sidwell walk in straight lines, slant and chant. I doubt they spend much time on test prep and standardized testing, if at all.

      No, I wouldn’t want my child in a low performing school, but I wouldn’t want then in KIPP or AF either.

      Why can’t your chain create a high performing school that doesn’t rely on test scores and behavior modification as their selling point. There is so much more to a well rounded quality education than test scores… they increase, creativity decreases. College and career ready?….maybe for Walmart or another corporate overlord…they will make good worker bees.

    • Charlie Puffers

      Rob, You have a nearsighted view of the issue. How does looking at it from a parent’s point of view help the child whose parent is unable to participate in educational decisions? Just like local control this type of solution helps a few children but leaves behind the neediest. Do you want all children to learn and have a shot at a decent life or just your own (theoretical?) children?