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The Clark School Plan Puts School Consolidation Squarely on the Table

At Clark School, air-duct contamination prompted temporary closure of the building in January 2015.  Initial plans for re-opening have changed: Higher-than-expected costs for environmental remediation have led to a very tough decision by the Superintendent and Mayor to tear down and rebuild Clark School.  What’s the big picture?

It’s unclear at the moment.  Given the structural City budget gap that Mayor Luke Bronin has identified as a fiscal crisis, decisions to come may prove to be even more important.  A comprehensive consolidation plan has been suggested by Council President T.J. Clarke (see our article, here).

The factors at play include:

Shrinking enrollment specifically in North Hartford schools, which raises questions about the wisdom – and practicality – of running four significantly under-enrolled for their capacity schools within close proximity [Wish, 303; Simpson-Waverly, 293; Clark, 247; Martin Luther King, 356, according to the October 2015 data provided by the district].

Hartford Board of Education Chair Richard Wareing’s advice to City Council that schools with enrollments of fewer than 350 students are unsustainable – and those with under 300 test the limits of what is possible [see this article on the City Council Q&A].

All of this being said, planned construction of a brand new school at the site of the old Clark building is just one piece of the larger North End puzzle.

There is no question that having to close the school, after promising to reopen it this fall, is disappointing to the Clark community.  While needing to make that community whole is a priority for the mayor and superintendent,the entire North End will need to be made whole, in addition to other lingering building concerns city wide.

The Bottom Line.  Multiple calls by multiple leaders for a comprehensive solution to the school enrollment issues facing Hartford – particularly North Hartford – make now the perfect time to engage the community in the decision-making process.  Given the particularly low enrollments in some Zone 1 and Zone 2 schools of North Hartford, and the upcoming school building renovation projects already on the calendar, many questions need to be answered, such as these:

  •  How will MLK fill its school building after its $68 million renovation?

 

  • How will lower-than-capacity student populations in Wish and Simpson-Waverly be affected  when Clark gets its recommended new building?

 

  • How will potential environmental problems at other old school buildings be assessed and then addressed?

Families’ concerns relating to school building renovation and location are already starting to heat up. At the February 23rd Hartford Board of Education meeting, for example, it was distressing to hear teachers and parents from the Martin Luther King School pleading to receive answers about its renovations … and their implications.  As one teacher put it, rather than having to live in limbo or sorting through hearsay, “We need to be told the truth.”

Stakeholders in North Hartford can handle the truth, and any effort to engage parents and residents in an open dialogue about school renovation and consolidation we anticipate will be welcomed.  The political courage to have that conversation publicly without having all the answers – as opposed to making decisions behind closed doors – would be noteworthy.


Taking a Strategic Approach to Hartford’s Education Priorities

In addition to making sure the District is funded at half the City budget, Mr. Clarke said in a recent interview, his priority will be to call for a consolidation plan to be put in place.  “We can weigh in on school consolidation,” he said.  “Everybody knows about the issue and won’t deal with it.”

Given the growing recognition that not enough attention has been focused on neighborhood schools, it is time for the City to leverage resources to improve schools – especially in North Hartford, he maintained.

“I’m about leveraging resources so all of our neighborhoods receive the resources they need to make them more livable and sustainable,” he added, citing the need to couple educational improvements with increased home ownership and neighborhood quality of life.

While City Council certainly will leave educational matters to the Board of Education, he said, it does offer a pulpit for leadership on finances and unified support for children.

As well intentioned as they are, he reflected, community organizations and factions in the city “could be perceived sometimes as crabs in a barrel,” competing on adult issues.  “Instead, we have to think about what’s best for the children,” he said, emphasizing that operating in silos is a mistake – and collaborating more efficiently is a game changer.

Here is the MetroHartford Alliance Hartford Young Professionals and Entrepreneurs (HYPE) profile of Mr. Clarke.

Note: Education Matters will feature additional voices from our City leaders in the future.


Family Friendly Schools: How Many and by When?

The Hartford Public Schools launched a Family-Friendly Schools Initiative at a very well-attended meeting this past December, leading to a pilot effort under way at six schools to determine best practice.  As crucial as the effort is, the pace of implementation to make it stick has raised very good questions from parents and leaders we speak with often.

Before a full auditorium December 5th, Hartford Board of Education and District leaders received a keynote from Boston family engagement leader Michele Brooks – a parent complainant turned administrator there – who delved into how a welcoming culture could be customized for every school.  Here’s the link to our coverage.

Following up just last week on February 9th at the HBOE Parent and Community Engagement Committee meeting, District officials said feedback information from the hundreds of December 5 meeting attendees is being finalized – and that the Family-Friendly Initiative is being piloted at six Hartford schools: SAND Elementary, the Expeditionary Learning Academy at Moylan, Breakthrough South, the Asian Studies Academy, Milner, and Betances Early Reading Lab.

 

The pilot approach raised a number of questions at the meeting, including these three:

  • Board Member Craig Stallings, saying “They’re trying to establish things we’re not even debating,” wondered why the District would go so slowly.  “I just hope we don’t lose time planning the plan,” he said, adding, “As a parent, I need systemic change and support now.”  Each Hartford school, within a year, ought to set goals for making its environment more family friendly, he said.  Referring to the District’s restorative justice approach, he said it would be a perfect way to empower School Governance Councils as well as to make schools more family friendly (by reducing student suspensions and replacing them with penalties that satisfy the victims of offenses and thereby forgive perpetrators).  Here is our coverage of that restorative justice approach.
  • Tauheedah Jackson, HPS Director of the Hartford Partnership for Student Success, agreed that the volunteer, pilot, so-called pioneer schools should be scaled up from six – but wanted to know what capacity schools have – and how their resources currently are used.
  • The reflective comments of the one parent at the meeting are below.

 

Another Country Heard From

One Hartford parent was present at the committee meeting: Deborah Bigelow, who grew up in Charter Oak Terrace and is now program coordinator for the Hartford Parent University.

“Why do you have to pilot something that should be common sense?” asks Ms. Bigelow, whose son came through Betances and graduated from Prince Tech years ago and now owns his own business in Pennsylvania.  Her daughter is now a UConn freshman via Pathways to Technology High School.

As the one unofficial parent present at the committee meeting, Ms. Bigelow was on the same wave length as Mr. Stallings.  “I’m just curious about what the criteria are for a family friendly school,” she said Tuesday.

At the committee meeting, she recalled, it blew her mind that there were no parents there … except for her.  With respect to family friendly schools, she said, “I don’t understand why you have to pilot this. They keep inventing – it’s time to get the hamster off the wheel.”

The Bottom Line.  Task force and pilot fatigue among parents and community members has been Hartford’s baggage for a long time now.  With something as important as making schools family friendly, it’s hard to understand why that effort would be treated as an initiative or project, instead of more of an expectation at all schools.

It sounds to us like explaining exactly why a pilot project is necessary in this situation is the next step for HPS.  If parents (and even a current HBOE member) don’t understand the need for a pilot, then it’s going to be that much harder for families to support it, which will be necessary down the line.

Communications challenges at the school level are constant. Achieve Hartford! is proud to see the District focus on this super-important issue, but would love to see more information distributed with details on the pilots – and the thinking behind the format.


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