By Ken Krayeske • 8:06 AM EST
Kids who want to learn get chewed up in the public school system, said Patrick Moore, the head of the new Covenant Preparatory School in Hartford.
Covenant, a private, rigorous middle school, will begin operations this week, on the corner of Farmington and Broad streets in the old YWCA facility.
A year ago, Moore had a vision to start an intensive academic experience for high-performing yet at-risk Hartford students. He had no building, no money.
“No nothing,” Moore said. Moore hails from Canton. He attended Holy Cross College in Worcester, and considered law school. But then he spent a year volunteering as a teacher in a Covenant Prep School in New Bedford, Massachusetts.
That year turned into four, and those four years stoked the fire for Moore to replicate the successful Covenant model in Hartford. Jesuit brothers in the lower east side of New York City started the Covenant model 37 years ago, and now more than 65 Covenant Schools dot the American urban landscape.
“I’ll never be able to give back what this school has given me,” Moore said. “This is my passion. I had it pretty good. I was fortunate to grow up in Canton.”
So Moore is trying to give back, and he is not worried that 15 students fifth and sixth grades that will start this week won’t trust him, a white idealistic suburbanite.
“These students are smarter than we give them credit for,” Moore said. “They know I am here to work for them.”
The opening of Covenant is just the beginning. Moore still has additional students to recruit for incoming classes, because Covenant will ramp up to having seventh and eighth grades in the next two years.
And I should mention that kids who go to Covenant pay no tuition. It’s free, as Moore and his board of directors raise the operating funds to pay teacher salaries. And that’s key, because the most important part of the educational experience at Covenant is the teachers, Moore said.
Most of them are newly minted college graduates taking a year or two off in between undergrad and law or med schools.
“Teachers are the engine of the school,” he said. “We provide teachers with room, board, health insurance and a small stipend. They instill a sense of giving back to the kids.”
The school will have a four-to-one student-teacher ratio, and the teachers themselves have mentors. Moore didn’t have to work very hard to convince Chris Doucot of the Hartford Catholic Worker to put his new Yale Divinity School master’s degree to work teaching religion.
On a tour of the refurbished YWCA facility, every time Moore pointed to a furnishing, the word volunteer or donate crossed his lips. His family helped paint the ceilings.
The dividers came from Aetna, the hand-made cherry bookshelves from a local carpenter, the cataloguing of books from a volunteer librarian, the layout from a local interior designer.
Moore boasted of desks from Kingswood-Oxford school, computers from Renbrook, tables from Miss Porters, and microscopes from Loomis-Chafee.
“There has been an outpouring of support from the community,” Moore said. “There is no money from the government or church. We have a great board of trustees.”
It helps that some of his board members also sit on the boards at blue-blood prep schools like Kingswood-Oxford, Watkinson and Loomis Chafee.
“These schools need minority students who can cut the mustard,” Moore said. “This isn’t a feel good place. We’re not patting them on the head.”
Discipline is paramount, and students will be expelled for fighting.
“We have no time to mess around,” Moore said. “These kids have to catch up in four years so they can go to Loomis and K-O. They leave us and go to schools that have 99 percent college placement rates. They leave us socially and academically prepared.”
Covenant presents in-coming students with a rigorous schedule. Students arrive at 7:30 am, and clean the schools before class. That might not happen in a school system with a unionized janitorial staff. Although, I’ve heard it is standard in China.
From 8 to 3, students sit through class. From 3 to 5 in the afternoon, the children engage in sports.
“We have a gym here,” Moore said of the space at the YWCA they are renting. Moore is currently looking to raise a few million dollars to buy the old Hartford Medical Society building on the corner of Scarborough and Albany.
“We’re trying to convince the neighborhood that it is okay to have kids there,” Moore said. It is almost perfect for a small 60-student school, with four acres of land.
In the meantime, Covenant students will also have access to the soccer fields at Loomis Chaffee and the golf course at Wampanaug Country Club. In full disclosure, I gave Patrick three sets of golf clubs from when I used to caddy, and a stack of Shakespeare and other assorted books.
After sports, Covenant students then go home at 5 p.m. for dinner, and return from 6:30 to 8:30 for supervised study sessions. As for transportation, Moore said parents carpool.
More than 90 percent of his students will graduate from high school, if Covenant’s statistical trends from similar areas come to bear in Hartford. But is Covenant taking the best kids and leaders into a private enclave, and thus hurting Hartford’s public system?
“Sometimes people say we are creaming,” Moore said. “It is not fair to those kids to keep them from this opportunity.”
And perhaps Covenant’s success, like that of charter schools, endangers the existence of the complacent fail one in every two students public school model.
“The superintendent won’t talk to us,” Moore said. “I’m taking 30 students out of a system with 22,000 kids. We’ve met the mayor, members of the city council, the Archbishop. We know this model works. The results speak for themselves.”
David Medina, formerly of the Hartford Courant editorial staff, is now the director of external communications for the Hartford Public Schools. Medina had never heard of Covenant Prep. He said he didn’t think that Superintendent Dr. Steven J. Adamowski even knew that Covenant Prep existed, or that Adamowski would comment.
I told him of Moore’s attempt to reach out to Adamowski, and Medina emailed me back a canned quote allegedly from Kelvin Roldán, Acting Director of Strategic Partnerships for Hartford Public Schools.
“We are supportive of quality education options for Hartford’s children. We look forward to seeing the results.”
Sarah Barr, press spokesperson for Mayor Perez, had never heard of Covenant Prep either. She emailed me a quote about a school called Nativity Prep.
"Nativity Prep will provide more Hartford students and their families with additional educational choices," Barr's email said. "It is one of several effective models that will be available. The school will provide another opportunity for our young people to achieve the education they will need to succeed in school and in life. This is a private school effort that is no different than other parochial schools. It is groundbreaking and the city is supportive. Mayor Perez wishes Mr. Moore and his 60 students much success in the new school year."