As job interviews go, re-appointed Hartford Board of Education Member Richard Wareing and newly appointed Board Members Tiffany Glanville and Karen Taylor nailed it at their City Council vetting February 18.
Especially against the backdrop of the City’s long-term structural deficit, their sound advice and forthright views on school improvement elicited hope that Hartford could be prepared to do the impossible for children and families down the road, that is, actually turn around Hartford’s chronically under-performing schools.
Of course, the Q&As before Council were not actually job interviews, but if they had been, these three appointees were impressive. In fact, they were unanimously approved by Council and then sworn in at the February 23rdBoard of Education meeting (video here).
Taking the Council to School
Board Member Wareing, who was subsequently re-elected by his colleagues to continue as Board chair, delivered his typically trenchant answers to Council questions February 18th, including a forecast that “a series of very hard tactical battles” will be required to address this year’s severe budget issues:
- Hartford cannot continue to run two separate school systems – neighborhood versus magnet, he advised.
- Small schools, those with 350 students or fewer, are unsustainable – and running schools with fewer than 300 students may even be impossible, he said, commenting that it is time for Hartford to look at school consolidation. In that scenario, administration and overhead costs would drop – but class sizes governed by collective bargaining agreements would not be in the offing.
- Asked about proactive measures he might suggest, Chair Wareing reported that the District has done well in reducing central office costs and yet can do more.
- Consolidating District and City Finance – and perhaps Public Works – efforts might not balance the budget, but it could result in progress. “It is something that could be done and is already being discussed,” he said.
- The Hartford legislative delegation will hopefully help the District address the need for stepped-up reimbursements of special education services.
- While he is “generally a fan” of within-District school choice, children in poor neighborhoods tend to be the worst served, he observed. “School choice is great as long as there are good choices … really, honestly, choice works if you have quality,” he told the Council.
The two newly appointed Hartford Board of Education members, Tiffany Glanville and Karen Taylor, also had colloquies with the Council. A mother of three children with number four on the way, Ms. Glanville expressed concern about the complications of school choice for the city’s most disadvantaged students and the need for dialog about housing and other issues that impact education quality.
It is a problem when younger children can’t get into the school of their older siblings – and “we don’t have the perception of an equal playing field in many of our high schools,” she said.
For her part, new Board Member Karen Taylor said she will bring a “social class, race, and inequality” focus to her work. She spoke of “the oddity” of children who attend magnet schools having friends from several towns – but not with kids in their own neighborhood. In reference to school choice, she emphasized, “It is really important to focus on collaborating on behalf of neighborhood kids, instead of competing for them.”
Speaking as a “narrative changer,” she said, she would like to engage parents in a different way, to interact with schools based on their life circumstances – and to change the narrative to English Language Learner and other populations that have much to contribute.
The Difficult Position a Parent Board Member Is In
There are two factors in particular that put the new parent Board of Education members in a tough position, along with the other parent members serving on the board.
First, the high sense of urgency to improve schools felt at the Board and District often times is not perceived in the community. In order to combat the cynicism about whether change is possible and to inspire more people to share responsibility for school improvement, the urgency at the District and Board must be felt far and wide.
When you are at the top of the food chain, where policy is created and money is allocated, you have the opportunity and responsibility to think boldly, talk boldly, and act boldly, and the eyes of Hartford parents will be trained more on you, to see if your urgency matches other parents in the community.
The other factor that puts parent Board members in a tough position is the desire for better responsiveness to problems at the school level, for which Hartford parents regularly ask.
When a parent testified at the last regular Board of Education meeting about her First-Grade child being suspended out of school for three days, only to come back to school and get suspended again for two days out of school, the expectation is that this kind of thing would not happen again. The pressure is now on parent Board members to ensure that these concerns actually get addressd and don’t come back to the Board.
Mayor Bronin committed to appointing parents to the Board and has followed through, even before his fifth and final appointee is announced. In doing so, a new era of communicating urgency and responsiveness to parent concerns, has just been launched. We hope.