Category: Education Matters
Ever Wonder How Every Student Will Benefit from a Caring Adult?

Some call it a morning huddle; it used to be just a drowsy homeroom check-in.  Now, the platform for student-adult relationships to form in Hartford schools is a daily advisory group meeting.  As this is so crucial to student-centered learning, it was good that Hartford Board of Education members had a chance to experience it firsthand – with a group of Eighth Graders who do it every day.

At this week’s Kinsella Magnet School of the Performing Arts workshop, seven Board members had a chance to see what it means to test wits on their most important values, declare their best character traits, and hear what is important in other people’s lives; to experience what a daily advisory can bring.  It’s that memorable conversation at the coffee pot, on the bus, at the counter; a good daily exercise for everyone.

Environmental Sciences Magnet School at Mary Hooker Spanish Teacher Elizabeth Wilson has been busy, as the school’s advisory coordinator and student representative mentor – not to mention, but also to consider, being a new mom to her own child.  Tuesday evening, she masterfully put the Board members through their paces with some of her Eighth-Grade students, also masterful!

The exercise was very instructive, illuminating a foundational part of the District’s Strategic Operating Plan: Student Success Plans are one of its six high-leverage strategies … and they rely on the caring adults who serve as mentors or conveners of advisory groups.

“Advisory is just one way of connecting with a caring adult,” Superintendent Beth Schiavino-Narvaez said Tuesday evening, as she and Board Chair Richard Wareing and Board Members José Colón-Rivas, Robert Cotto, Jr., Tiffany Glanville, Craig Stallings, Beth Taylor, and Karen Taylor came to the tables with Ms. Wilson’s 12-year-olds.

“It’s easy for students to just check out,” Ms. Wilson said in a follow-up interview, by way of shedding light on why the advisories, and the intimacy of their small groups, is so invaluable.  When children get a chance to air their views, they tend to reciprocate later when they have to take on complex tasks, like reading and interpreting complex text.

“It is understood that we are all in this together … it’s an agreement, not a battle,” she explained.  Students get an entrée into speaking up instead of hanging back – but also know they must deliver in the classroom.  Another benefit of the advisory relationship-building exercise: “It kind of gets adults off their high horse!”

Here’s Tuesday’s video, which proves not only that a picture is worth a thousand words, but also that slowing down to think … and have conversations without a device in hand … might not be such a bad thing.

For Eighth Graders, as Ms. Wilson put it, “Their specialty is talking about themselves!”

In advisories, however, growth comes from exposure to a broader spectrum of ideas, rather than simply being confined to one’s own.

It is noteworthy that Tuesday’s Board of Education session – and several other recent workshops – have moved toward person-to-person dialogues, in which Board members and District leaders in small groups probe key issues.

In past years, Board workshop meetings were characterized by lecture-style presentations; this new participatory approach by the District is distinctly different … and a positive development.


Board Members Sworn In; Committee Assignments Reconfigured

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.

Here is the link to the February 23rd Hartford Board of Education meeting video, at which the new Board Members and were sworn in and the officers elected. New committee assignments are here.

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.


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.


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