Armed state troopers standing by his side, an ashen-faced Robert Furek '64 waded carefully through the jeering crowd lining the hallway of the ornate Hartford city hall.
"Racists and fascists!'' some yelled. Furek, chairman of the board of trustees running the Hartford, Conn., public schools, quickly left the building, the taunts and finger-pointing. Furek and his colleagues had just voted to remove the district's superintendent of schools, an African-American woman some in this downtrodden community saw as a source of hope and inspiration.
Looking back, it might be hard to find a lower point in this affable chief executive officer's long career. For Furek, this tense moment in May of 1998 made it frighteningly clear that directing a troubled urban school district made the cutthroat spirits industry seem almost low-pressure.
A year after the state of Connecticut voted to replace the local board of education and take over the Hartford schools, it appeared that events were spinning further out of control. Furek had been tapped by the governor to lead a group of no-nonsense executives and community leaders to straighten out the problem. With impeccable business credentials honed during a 25-year career in the wine and spirits business, Furek appeared to be going the way of everyone else who had tried to run this multi-headed beast known as the Hartford schools: down in flames.
Within months, a criminal investigation would begin into mismanaged school board finances. Yet another interim superintendent would abruptly leave. A top administrator would resign in disgrace. Long-forgotten bills--unpaid, of course--would be discovered. And most depressing of all, there were still no signs that the worst-in-the-state test scores of Hartford's 23,000 students would improve any time soon.
This chaotic scene seemed a long way from the hopeful expectations of just a year before, when Furek and six others stood beside Gov. John G. Rowland in the state capitol as they were appointed to run city schools. After years of mismanagement, the state had stepped in to bring order in a first-ever takeover of a public school district in Connecticut, installing Furek as chairman of a hand-picked board of trustees.
Today, Furek's outlook is very different, and so is the prognosis for the Hartford schools. He left the board of trustees late in 2000, completing a three-year term that brought stability to Connecticut's largest and poorest school district.
What happened in Hartford, a city of 1.2 million people with a school system that is 95-percent minority and where nine out of 10 children come from families below the poverty line, is fairly simple. Furek and his board stayed focused, even when it appeared things were not improving. "I spent a lot of time in business turnarounds. Things almost always get worse. You will be doing the right things but it doesn't show up,'' he recalled recently. "If we did one thing, we just stayed on course, and even through the tough times we continued to try to pursue those priorities.''
It helped, of course, that state lawmakers were committing millions of dollars in new funds to the city. Furek's board of trustees, meanwhile, used the ample powers given them by the state to remove incompetent administrators while also upgrading the curriculum and facilities.
Now, for the first time in years the district is focused on improving student achievement. In 1999, a permanent superintendent, Anthony Amato, was hired. He brought a disciplined new curriculum for elementary school students--and striking progress on standardized tests.
Bills are being paid and spending monitored. Nearly two-thirds of top managers have been replaced. And most revealing: more often media reports are about things that are working in the Hartford schools. These days, the district marches to a new mantra: "we will never be last again.''
And Furek, a suburban executive with all the right social and charitable connections, has an outlook one doesn't associate with a boardroom guy. "I think that an inadequate education is a primary cause in the racial differences that exist in the United States,'' he said. "Very few people are really comprehensively addressing trying to fix it.''
"We are telling thousands and thousands of teenagers that their life is over at sixteen,'' said Furek, 58. "They have none of the opportunities that [middle-class] kids have. It is stunning to me and scary to me that thousands of African-American children and Hispanics are treated as disposable, cast-off kids.''
HOW SHOULD WE TEACH?
Small Triumphs: Alex Quigley '99 finds reason for both hope and despair in the Mississippi Delta
A Ray of Hope: Brittany Ray '93 inspires where she found her inspiration
An Education CEO: Robert Furek '65 brings accountability to Hartford public schools
Charting Success: James Verrilli '83 directs charter school turn-around in Newark
Perspectives on Reform: Colby experts discuss reform and the purpose of education
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