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Time to Review Policy 5156, with Respect to Child Abuse and Neglect

Against the present backdrop of dire finances, unsustainable facilities, and doubt as to the ability of Hartford to turn around its lowest performing schools, $176,000 District Executive Director of Compliance Eddie Genao allegedly sat next to a 13-year-old girl at a March 19 Bulkeley High School event (designed to combat institutional racism, no less) and later made inappropriate, illegal text-message contact with that minor who resides out of state.  He has now been arrested.  What makes this scandal even more of a scandal is the time it took for the Hartford Public Schools to respond to notice of a child being in danger.

The impact this scandal will have on the already low level of community trust in our schools remains to be seen.

Hartford Board of Education policy 5156, adopted in 1999 and updated in 2005, describes the District’s moral and legal obligation “to protect children whose health and welfare may be adversely affected though injury and neglect and to ensure a safe and nurturing environment”(here is the policy).  The District’s response to finding out about the inappropriate contact with a minor constitutes one question; another concerns District official Genao’s actions, now bound for the court of law.

Following the March 19 community conversation, Dr. Aaron Lewis of the Scribes Institute four days later contacted Hartford school officials, to report alleged inappropriate text-message contact with a 13-year-old attendee.  After he learned of and reported the alleged inappropriate contact with the child, Dr. Lewis complained, his communications with the District and Board drew no personal response.

The Courant’s article earlier this week detailed the situation; the joint announcement by Mayor Luke Bronin and Superintendent Beth Schiavino-Narvaez called for a review of Board policies and procedures related to the reporting of any information that a child may be at risk of harm; and the Courant editorial on the matter punctuated this April 10th Hartford Courant op-ed by HPS Superintendent Beth Schiavino-Narvaez.

In our conversations – consistent with our interest in accountability for school improvement – we spoke with and emailed Dr. Lewis, who maintained that neither he nor the parent involved in the March 19 incident received any personal responses from the District or Board.

“The only ones who reached out to me were the mayor and his chief of staff,” Dr. Lewis said.  ”The handling of the matter by the District and Board, in terms of responsiveness to those reporting the incident, indicates worrisome carelessness in dealing with urgent matters.”

Most everyone would agree with Dr. Lewis here, and indeed, HPS Chief of Staff Gislaine Ngounou issued an apology acknowledging fault in the matter.

Actions, or lack thereof, to safeguard the well-being of any child, to sanction a high-ranking administrator or to communicate with the family, beg the question of whether we as a city are leading from a place of fear and risk – or hope and accountability.

Speaking to parents this morning, following the morning TV news story of Genao’s arrest, they highlighted to us the notion that when there is bad news – even as horrific of this sort – all they want from their school district is to own it with full transparency, sincerely apologize for it, and let people know how it will not happen again.

That’s the only way trust can be gained, regained, and solidified.  And we will need it to procure all the help our city needs from parents, community leaders, philanthropy and business, both now and in the future.  Reviewing policy 5156 is just one step along the road to regain trust.

Trust in School Improvement Has to Be Earned

Community trust in Hartford has been slipping and sliding for generations, largely due to the segregation in our region, partially corrected by the Sheff v. O’Neill case and, unfortunately, mostly correlated to poverty.

Hartford families cannot deny what is before their eyes.  Compared to the outlying areas, they see they are in a regional doughnut hole of disadvantage.

Their neighborhood schools, for the most part, still suffer from too much need and too few resources, and the State has no more answers for Hartford.

If city bankruptcy enters the picture, which could happen, there may be incentive for the City to raid the Hartford Public Schools’ budget by attempting to fund the schools even lower than the current State Minimum Budget Requirement (MBR).

Meanwhile, Hartford educators working in neighborhood schools continue to serve disproportionate numbers of children requiring special expertise for their language learning, disability, or academic recuperation needs.

Moreover, research-based calls for smaller, themed academies, while at one time smart, are running out of financial steam.  The third rail of school closings and consolidation is about to light up.

Where Does This Leave Us?

If we are to keep our commitments to delivering equity for all students, and to Hartford’s strategy of using the concept of individualized student success plans, under which every student is supported by a caring adult, we must think creatively and boldly in this time of crisis.

First, if we honestly assess the reality of the needs of Hartford children, we must acknowledge that without:

  •  closing more schools;
  •  extending learning deeper into the day and summer for certain schools;
  • shifting our best teachers into our lowest performing schools;
  • allowing more students to advance grades by showing mastery instead of seat time;
  • placing more needy students into magnet schools to decrease the concentration of need in our         neighborhood schools; and
  • helping families build rigorous learning environments at home . . . we are only pretending to do our best.

No constraint on our school system should go untested, just as no needy child should go unserved or under-served.  We must push the status quo in Hartford and ask the question, more vehemently, why not make more radical change in the way we deliver education?

Second, absent superb communications, Hartford’s “trust gap” will widen even further, especially given the central office member’s scandal – and next week’s and year’s crucial budget cuts.

Painful decisions are coming, and we must remember that making undeliverable promises or dropping decisions from the sky endanger Hartford’s reform long term.

Decisions going forward must be collaborative, born of candid consultation with parents, school staff, School Governance Councils, and community and philanthropic leaders. HPS has made moves to communicate more openly under the current Superintendent, but realistic and honest communications have not been a hallmark of the Hartford Public Schools; more work on this is advisable going forward.

Especially in this year’s daunting budget situation, the quality of communications stands to define – or in the worst case, further undermine – community trust.  Without it, Hartford has nothing.

Acceleration Agenda Sails Forward In Choppy Budget Seas

The “acceleration agenda” being piloted at six Hartford schools is taking on family, medical, social and emotional needs at the individual student level, to boost performance.  As the buzz saw of budget cutbacks approaches, this customized, case-management approach is quietly making a difference, student by student.

“The key to individual planning is systematic follow-through on both needs and enrichment for every single child,” Superintendent Beth Schiavino-Narvaez said at a District panel discussion Tuesday evening.  “We can’t focus on teaching and learning in the classroom if we’re not focusing on the whole child.”

Indeed, getting families what they need within an hour is possible by leveraging the assets of the community, she said.

Dr. Narvaez moderated a panel discussion with educators and a parent, to review the acceleration agenda work at Burns Latino Studies Academy and the Burr, Clark, Martin Luther King, Jr., Milner, and Wish Museum Schools.  Here are some of the highlights:

After-School Enrichment.  Burr School and Community Supports Site Coordinator Bobby Casiano emphasized the wraparound family, health, social-emotional, and academic supports that his organization, City Connects, works to deliver with the lead agency, The Village, for each and every student.  For example, parents seeking swimming lessons and sports experiences for their children are no less part of the work.

Time to Dissect Data and Plan.  Burns Latino Studies Academy Teacher Mary LaFountain said the biggest support through the pilot has been release time for teachers to examine “true data” and collaboratively plan for each child.

A Welcoming Attitude.  Since his daughter just transferred to MLK and is shy, Parent Randy Norman said, it has been important that she has been made to feel at home.  “The teachers have asked for suggestions, they have complied, and they have connected,” he said.  “Basically, I just want you to continue on the same path.”

The components of the support for schools include technical assistance from ANet on the use of data for assessing student progress; site coordinators from City Connects to leverage school and community resources for children; and leadership consultations, in which the CT Center for School Change works with HPS associate superintendents of instructional leadership with respect to their professional development activities with school principals.

Here is the brief video describing the acceleration agenda (shown at the panel discussion Tuesday evening).

The Bottom Line.  The work of the acceleration agenda pilot is a major part of the District’s 2015-2020 Strategic Operating Plan.  It is evidence-based, drawing upon turnaround school successes elsewhere and now here.  In the current budget climate, how its best practices can be expanded – not to mention if and when – is a troubling question.

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