Amato: Master of the turnaround
But success, critics say, comes at a price, that of openness to other ideas
It was a promise that reverberated throughout the troubled Hartford, Conn., district.
When Anthony Amato, a former math and science teacher who for a dozen years had been superintendent of one of New York City's school districts, came to Hartford in 1999, he made this promise: 'We will never be last again.'
The Hartford district had been mired in problems for years. Four in five of its students live in poverty, and the state of Connecticut had taken over the system two years before Amato's arrival. The district had standardized test scores that routinely ranked last among Connecticut's 163 school systems.
But in his first year, Amato delivered on his promise.
In 2000, the Hartford district's scores improved more in mathematics and reading than in the previous four years combined.
Those test scores rose in the ensuing two years as well, and many credit Amato with allowing Hartford to begin to believe in its school system again.
'He's a very hardworking, dedicated person who really turned the system around,' said Thomas Ritter, chairman of the state board of trustees that runs the district.
Amato's supporters credit him with standardizing the curriculum throughout the 22,000-student system and on ensuring the schools focus on teaching reading and math. He also established a good relationship with the leadership of the Hartford teachers' union, once considered the most militant teachers' union in the state.
Edwin Vargas, head of the union, praises Amato's leadership during the last three years.
'He's a nuts and bolts guy,' Vargas said. 'I think he's done a very good job.'
But Amato Ñ a native of Puerto Rico and the son of a single mother who was a professional flamenco dancer Ñ has generated criticism as well.
Critics say his standardized curriculum is too structured, and leaves little or no room for creative learning or almost any learning other than reading or math. They also say he is autocratic, isn't interested in debating ideas and can be vindictive toward people who publicly disagree with him or question him.
Hyacinth Yennie, a parent and Hartford community activist, was among those appointed to a community advisory committee to the superintendent early in Amato's tenure. But the advisory committee was soon disbanded, she says. She thinks it was because Amato did not like the questions some members were raising about district policies.
'The man is the greatest speaker there is,' Yennie said. 'You'll get to feeling that this man is the greatest. But when you get to know him, you get to know that this man is a control freak. If you have an idea and put it in front of him, and it's not his idea É trust me. He'll get rid of you.
'I'll be honest, I like him. But I don't like most of the things he does,' Yennie says. 'He's not willing to say, 'OK, maybe I'm wrong.' He's not going to say that. Because he's always right.'
Some teachers suggest that attitude has stifled discussion and ideas Ñ from administrators, teachers and others Ñ throughout the system.
'That whole philosophy of 'don't speak out' pervades the district,' said Tim Murphy, a Hartford high school teacher and former teachers' union head. 'He's the most autocratic administrator I've ever met.'
Amato was not returning Portland reporters' phone calls before his visit to Portland on Tuesday and Wednesday, and then participated in a news conference for only about 15 minutes Tuesday night.
But speaking in part about public criticism, he told the Hartford Courant shortly after he came to Hartford that he thinks all school employees should be barred from publicly criticizing his initiatives, once they are adopted, because 'there should be loyalty to the organization.'
Meanwhile, Amato's supporters suggest that a leader who needs to make significant changes sometimes has to be driven and focused in doing it.
'Sometimes he steps on toes and sometimes he's not as tolerant as other people might be,' Ritter said. 'But his style has certainly done well for us.'
'For what Hartford needed, Tony was a perfect match,' said Marie Spivey, a former member of the board of trustees. 'Hartford needed to be taken by storm.
'I do think that he is the kind of person that listens to people's concerns and acts accordingly. But yes, when you hire you hire him for a reason. And he has a focus and he has a direction Ñ and he's going to do the best thing for children.'