Did a New and Better School Consolidation Process Just Start?


It appeared that way this past Monday night at the Artists’ Collective, where roughly 200 stakeholders gathered to learn about and discuss school quality and redesign, given Hartford’s declining enrollments and the statewide fiscal crises afoot.  The question of the night:  What makes a great school?


In pursuit of the answer, Superintendent Leslie Torres-Rodriguez led a discussion of the key characteristics of successful schools, which the attendees discussed at small tables (a sort of huge focus group on steroids!).


Attendees weighed 15 characteristics of strong schools and rated the District’s performance in implementing them.  They included these characteristics, as described:


Characteristic Descriptive Statement
1.       Coherence/Alignment Everyone understands and works toward the same priorities.
2.       Effective Leadership The principals and other school officials are effective.
3.       Standards-based Practices What is taught, how it is taught, and how learning is measured meet the standards set by the State.
4.       High Expectations Students are expected to do well in school and extra help is provided to help them succeed.
5.       Effective Teachers The teachers know their material and teach it well.
6.       Culturally-Responsive Teaching The school staff and teachers appreciate the many cultures in the school and teach in ways appropriate in our multi-cultural schools.
7.       Access to Technology Students have the opportunity to use technology in their learning.
8.       Student Engagement Students are actively involved in the learning and encouraged to participate.
9.       Teacher Collaboration Teachers work together and collaborate in planning and implementing learning activities.
10.    Caring Adult Students have personal relationships with caring adults who want to help them succeed.
11.    Family Engagement Parents and other family members are involved and help their children succeed.
12.    Data-informed Decisions Decisions about the school and the classroom are based on data and the facts.
13.    Welcoming Environment Students and their families feel safe and secure.
14.    Needs-based Resources Decisions about funding, staffing and support are based on where they are most needed.
15.    School Size The size of schools is designed so that resources can be distributed in ways that support effective learning.



Even though there was not enough time for discussion outside the scope of the structured “agree or disagree” conversation, the participants at each table did have a chance to each identify their top five characteristics for a strong school from the list.


For what seemed more like a data collection exercise than an in-depth discussion, it will be very interesting to see the ratings when compiled.  Overall, the exercise signified a healthy interest in feedback on the part of HPS.


One clear area of improvement will be to make sure that when residents are engaged in this type of discussion, the materials speak more directly to the urban education experience, as we heard the following four pieces of feedback:


  1. “Teachers know their material and teach it well” must include a reference to how well teachers understand social/emotional learning and how well teachers support students who bring the effects of trauma into the classroom;
  2. “Parents and other family members are involved” must examine how effectively teachers and staff engage families;
  3. “Students and their families feel safe and secure” must take into account whether the school culture and climate are positive (after all, a prison can feel very safe and secure but remain a place where a visiting family member is disrespected, according to a parent at our table); and
  4. Somewhere on the District’s list of characteristics that make a great school, a reference must be made regarding [and action taken to grow] the ability of the school to leverage community partners and resources.



The Bottom Line


Dr. Torres Monday appropriately emphasized that the District needs to do things differently.


Her leadership on display was marked by a deliberative tone and a transparent manner.  Being open to feedback (even when fraught with objections and frustrations) exemplifies strong leadership, from our point of view.


Plainly, trust in the District’s capability to lead varies greatly from school to school, neighborhood to neighborhood, zone to zone, magnet to non-magnet, and parent to parent.


Monday night made a good start toward restoring trust.  While the next steps are not precisely clear, sharing the data collected Monday evening seems like the first thing the District must do, along with holding another forum that engages even more parents from throughout the city.


As Dr. Torres put it, we must do things differently – and that starts with even more grassroots organizations joining the effort to engage even more parents.


Judging by the energy in the room on Albany Avenue Monday, this was a great start to a new process.