At First Charter in Hartford, Conn., Achievement is First and Foremost

Monday, September 17, 2012

Even the task of passing around papers is regimented in Adrian Mercado's classroom.

From left to right, freshmen at the new Achievement First Hartford High School distributed their physics worksheets one recent morning with "quick and efficient" motions, just as Mercado instructed. There was no teenage slouching; students leaned forward and appeared as serious as their teacher, a 24-year-old recent Teach For America graduate. Several hands shot up when Mercado posed questions. After the answers came, classmates snapped their fingers, the schoolwide gesture of agreement.

At the city's first charter high school, Principal Claire Shin expects teachers to "sweat the small stuff." She bans staff gossip because it can lead to an erosion of trust and order.

But the bar is also high for the 62 ninth-graders, all but two from Hartford and many from the city's North End, who make up the inaugural group of students that entered in late August. Shin said one graduation requirement, with few exceptions, will be acceptance into a four-year college or university.

The national debate surrounding charter schools has not come up in classes here. The focus: strict discipline, character, college prep and the expectation of an intense academic workload for all students, Shin said, even if their lives at home are difficult.

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