HARTFORD ——The student populations seem much the same: Minority children from mostly working-class families attending schools in the city's North End.
The school buildings are separated by just a few blocks.
At Jumoke Academy, a charter school on Blue Hills Avenue, 100 percent of the third-graders were proficient in math on this spring's Connecticut Mastery Test. Two-thirds scored high enough to meet the state's goal in math, while 72 percent did so in reading and 77 percent achieved it in writing, all ahead of state averages.
On Ridgefield Street, third-graders at the city's M.L. King School scored at least 30 points below the Jumoke children in math. Only a quarter of the King students met the reading goal and 47 percent reached it in writing.
In a state where billions of dollars have been committed to raising scores and desegregating classrooms under the Sheff agreement, Jumoke Academy stands out.
Only one child at the 490-student, pre-K to grade 8 charter school is white. The vast majority live in the city and four out of five come from families poor enough to receive free or reduced-price meals.
Yet their state test scores rival those from school systems such as Greenwich and West Hartford.
Michael Sharpe, Jumoke's chief executive officer, said he does not want to "berate public schools" and is careful to mention that unionized teachers are just as "passionate" as those on his staff, who routinely work in their classrooms well into the evening at no extra pay.
Sharpe also noted the improvements in city schools over the past five years under former Superintendent Steven Adamowski, one of dozens who have visited Jumoke from as far away as Indiana and China to understand its model.
But courtesies aside, Sharpe presents his school as a beacon in Hartford. He takes pride that Jumoke's enrollment is virtually all minority and wants more city children to join them. When promotional materials about Jumoke highlight the state's "insidious achievement gap," which has plagued the capital city, it is to point out that Jumoke has largely eradicated it.
"If you take Hartford kids from Hartford neighborhoods and put them in a good program of learning and school support, and a safe environment," Sharpe said, "the kids are going to prosper."
'Feeling You Belong'
Jumoke was among the initial group of state-sponsored charter schools that opened in 1997.
There are now 17 charters in Connecticut with almost 6,100 students, according to the state, which is spending $52.8 million on the schools this budget year. They include the Achievement First charter schools in New Haven, Bridgeport and in Hartford, a North End school that is affiliated with the city's school system. The network's flagship, Amistad Academy, opened in 1999.
Stefan Pryor, the new state education commissioner, co-founded Amistad in New Haven, but in recent public comments has avoided sounding like a charter booster. "The question is not how a school is structured," Pryor said last month. "The question is whether the school is providing outstanding student outcomes."
At first, what mattered to Karen Bell of Windsor were the test scores.
She said her son Timothy was behind in reading when he entered Jumoke as a first-grader four years ago. Bell had heard about Jumoke from her mother-in-law who lives in Hartford, she said, and decided to look at its website. She saw the mastery test scores and called the school. Soon, her family was getting the pitch from Sharpe.
"From the day I stepped in the building, what kept me here and drove us to stay here was the community feel, the feeling you belong," said Bell, a real estate agent and past president of Jumoke's parent association.