The Hartford Board of Education this week worked a solution to the Rubik’s cube puzzle that is the Weaver High School renovation project, adjusting to the shrinking State, City, and Board resources – and enrollment. At the same time, community dedication to Weaver – and more broadly to the North End schools – appears to be growing at this difficult time.
The gigantic brick Weaver edifice has been subject to many plans in recent years; today the reconstruction reveals a smaller skeleton, to be modernized with more fresh air and ambient light – and less resemblance to a windowless shopping mall … or prison.
By a 6-1 vote, the Board voted Tuesday night to adjust plans in light of current budget woes, dwindling enrollment, and, more broadly, the facilities conditions that increasingly plague the North End. The latest plan will reconfigure academic programming at Weaver when it reopens for the 2019-20 school year. The details would challenge a Talmudic scholar:
- To save some $3 million annually in leasing costs, Kinsella High School and High School, Inc. will move to Weaver in 2019, replacing a tentatively planned STEAM Academy and the present Culinary Arts Academy (which will be phased out by then).
- The Journalism and Media Magnet Academy (JMA) will relocate from its present Barbour Street facility to become the third component at a new Weaver comprehensive campus. It is slated to be de-magnetized at the Board’s August 16 public meeting.
- The beautifully renovated former Barbour School, now housing JMA, will eventually be repurposed to handle North End neighborhood school needs, which are complicated by the recent closure of Clark School for environmental hazards and the age of the Simpson-Waverly and Wish School facilities. Indeed, northeast Hartford arguably has been the most under-served city neighborhood over the past 30 years, Board Chair Richard Wareing pointed out Tuesday.
In a process probably more inclusive than any he has seen at this Board or any other board on which he has served, Chair Wareing said, dozens of community members, state legislators, the mayor, school officials, and the Blue Hills Civic Association have met and consulted to seek timely solutions. There’s some pressure. The physical Weaver renovation already was under way when the City budget crisis hit the fan this spring – and delays reportedly cost $200,000 per month (see the Courant article and the Tuesday Board meeting video).
From Donuts to Dollars
In its re-analysis of dollars and Dunkin’ Donuts Park, the City could not meet the planned terms of the Weaver renovation, whereby the City would qualify for an 80 percent State reimbursement. A 20 percent City match would still be required. Negotiations leading to the plan approved Tuesday evening led to a doable 5 percent local match for the $100 million Weaver renovation.
There are many pieces to this puzzle. The “split nature” of school funding requires any Board facilities plan to garner mayoral and City Council support – and is further complicated by the requirements for obtaining State support in the Sheff v. O’Neill desegregation case, Board Chair Wareing explained.
As one example, the 95 percent State reimbursement for Weaver reconstruction requires that there be a magnet school in the building (now slated to be Kinsella). Board members have questioned how well the three new schools for Weaver can fit together as a comprehensive high school, but, as Board Member Craig Stallings said, they are between a rock and a hard place right now.
The compromise reached Tuesday was a problem solving effort driven by the new City administration’s re-analysis of the books and enrollment projections that didn’t pan out, Board Chair Wareing told the Board. At the same time, he said, the changes announced this week would be the last facilities decisions prior to the work of the superintendent’s Equity 2020 Advisory Committee, convened to make recommendations regarding facilities, geography, academic alignment and school choice. Here is information about the formation of that advisory committee, which Superintendent Beth Schiavino-Narvaez recently established to help the District develop a plan for school consolidation and quality. The group will be asked to deliver recommendations to the Board of Education.
Board Member Craig Stallings Tuesday vowed that he bleeds green for his beloved school – whose alums have been rising to keep the Weaver name and quality alive. In fact, three Weaver advocates Tuesday spoke in support of the Board’s updated concept for academic programming at two venues. After their construction site press conference earlier Tuesday, the community advocates followed up by reiterating their points at the evening Board meeting:
One Name, One Principal, More Community Input. Precious Ross-Ellis, a North End resident who has worked on the Blue Hills Civic Association’s Weaver project since 2010, called for Weaver to keep its name, have one principal, and create more inclusive community engagement. The current steering committee approach is too exclusive, she explained – and instead needs to convene families, students, former and current educators, Board members, faith-based, corporate, and small business partners, and the community at large.
Heighten Academic Excellence. 1999 Weaver Graduate Jason Farquharson called for emphases on professional development to increase academic rigor for the children bound to attend the new Weaver. “Today is a promise that Weaver High School will be representative of academic excellence and high standards that support student interest,” he said.
Acknowledge the Problem. Business Owner Michele Muhammad called for more public voice, asserting that the community needs to select its own representatives to inform the Weaver process. Moreover, parents and the community expect to be kept fully informed with accurate, complete, and true information, she said. Ms. Muhammad also called attention to what she saw as the root of the problem of children not reaching their potential: high quality performance from all involved. “When we have any child that doesn’t perform … it is notthe child who has failed, but it is us – parents, school system, and community, that has failed them,” she said.
The Bottom Line. It’s true that with all the budget constraints, enrollment challenges, and schools in need of permanent homes, the mix of programming at Weaver is really the result of being stuck between a rock and a hard place. That being said, there exists now an opportunity to make the mix of these three schools into one Weaver turn into something beautiful, something paramount for the North End of Hartford. Imagine a high school campus that, like a college campus (and with a promising University of Hartford collaboration), operates with one identity but with multiple “schools,” where all students who attend the new Weaver “bleed green” again, where both the economies of scale realized and the proud identity of Weaver come together to produce the best high school in the region.