A new Montessori magnet school, one of three new schools in Hartford's "Learning Corridor." Also added to the city school system were specialized schools for science and technology and performing arts. Before Robert Furek was appointed chairman of the board of trustees for the school system, Hartford schools were acknowledged to be in trouble.

Nothing, not three decades as a hard-charging corporate climber, including nearly 10 years as president and CEO of Heublein, Inc., prepared Furek for what he found in Hartford. "I have never in any organization seen the level of dysfunction that I saw in the school system. Never,'' said Furek, a man who once directed North, South and Central American operations for International Distillers and Vintners, where he managed assets of $1 billion and 4,500 employees.

When Furek agreed to lead the board of trustees after the still-fresh state takeover of Hartford schools, it was a school system that had seen four superintendents in five years. A private company had failed in its attempt to bring order to the district. Finally the state, spurred by an elected board that couldn't get along--let alone pay the bills or fix leaky roofs--had stepped in.

This was a school system that couldn't accurately count the number of employees it had, where less than 10 percent of fourth graders reached state goals for reading. "I don't think anybody knew how bad it was,'' Furek said recently. "They had measurements of the test scores, but I don't think anybody had a real sense of the incompetence and the lack of leadership and direction. There was a pervasive sense of 'things can't be done' throughout the system."

Soon after firing the superintendent in May 1998, Furek and his colleagues zeroed in on the most basic things: start monitoring spending better, hire more competent administrators, fix the holes in the roofs, balance the budget, negotiate more favorable labor contracts.

"He brought a tremendous vision of how service should be provided,'' said Mathew Borrelli, an interim superintendent brought in during the summer of 1998. The result was a board of trustees that didn't bow to pressure, be it the neighborhood pastor, angry parents or its own employees.

When Furek stepped down from the board after three years, he left Hartford with "a focus and consistency'' that it has not seen in years, said Theodore S. Sergi, commissioner of education for Connecticut.

Of course officials are years from declaring victory in Hartford. Just two in 10 fourth graders are reaching state goals for reading, for example. But Sergi believes what's changed is that Furek and others have shown that success is possible, even if it has to come under state control.

Schools are cleaner. For the first time in as long as anyone can remember, incompetent school principals are being replaced. Textbooks are plentiful. Test scores are up under a renewed emphasis on reading, writing and math. "He was able to tackle the business end of it. A lot of that got cleaned up,'' said Kathy Evans, a parent and one-time board member. She says many questions remain about the future, though, and about whether Hartford can continue to improve. No one really knows what will happen when the state turns control of the district back over to the city in 2003. Sergi, however, believes that the tone set by Furek was invaluable. "It's about saying, 'I stick to what we laid out here and I don't waiver on that,''' he said.

"When people say to me, 'do you think people outside of education can run a school system,' I now say, 'I've met a guy I think can do it,''' Sergi said. "I didn't think so before.''

Now, the nation is focused on school reform, and Furek sees a lot of similarity in his ideas and those of President George W. Bush. "His focus on accountability is very, very important. I agree with it. But I don't believe vouchers [alone] are sufficient,'' he said, referring to one of the president's proposals that would give cash payments to parents who want to send their children to private schools.

The problem, he says, is that vouchers only help a small percentage of students--leaving most students in schools that still need to be reformed. "Real reform, particularly reform of broken urban school systems, does not lend itself to simple one-shot solutions,'' Furek said.


Rick Green is education writer for The Hartford Courant.






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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