How could there be so much buzz about a new school option when it doesn’t even exist yet? How can the founders of this neighborhood school feel so much hope, when already so much effort toward neighborhood schools in Hartford continues to come up short?  And what’s the meaning of a school called “Community First” when there is already a set of charter schools called “Achievement First?”  In the narrative below, we examine a movement building around a group of advocates hoping to be awarded a charter from the State in order to open a school in North Hartford called Community First.


LaTroya Blue’s son was struggling in a Hartford public school, and the staff said he was manipulating the system so they would have to send him to a special education school.  He was four years old.


Lashawn Robinson’s child was suspended 60 times in a single year – as a second-grader.


These mothers are among several parents and community members serving on the board of the planned Community First Charter School.  Founder and educator Tim Goodwin, who has worked with children in Hartford for more than 20 years, launched the concept of the school with the underlying belief that: “In order to teach the child, you first have to reach the child.”


Community First school will have a no suspension policy.  Learning will be hands-on and project-based, similar to Montessori and other progressive school models.  Teacher evaluations will not be punitive, but rather designed to help teachers grow and improve.  Parents will be invited and welcomed into the school to attend events and meetings and participate as volunteers.


By design, Community First school has been seeking suggestions from parents, the community and more than a dozen community partners.  These include established nonprofits working with Hartford children to provide arts, academic, athletic, technological, social and emotional enrichment and support, as well as experts in the areas of child development, child psychology and education.


“It’s important for our community to have a say in how a school is run,” says Robinson, who lives in the North End with her five children, ages 5 to 18.  “So many other schools have come into our community and we’re not part of the process.”


Not only will parents and students contribute to how the school is formed and run, says Goodwin, so will teachers. “Generally, when teachers have a voice and a say in curriculum, they’re more engaged,” he says.


First and foremost, the school believes in each child’s potential. They don’t want to train a generation of robots.


“Unfortunately, what we often notice in education – when a student is moving a lot or is active, we label them or we remove them.  I like to say [in public schools] we teach the compliant few and we remove the brilliant majority,” Goodwin says. “A day should not go by where a student doesn’t have a chance to move.”



Falling in Love with a School, before It Exists


Anthony Byers, co-executive director of the Hartford Youth Scholars Foundation, credits Goodwin, his former history teacher and basketball coach, with keeping him from going down the wrong path while growing up in Hartford.  Byers believes in Goodwin and his commitment to the children of Hartford.


He has personally seen kids who benefit from multiple groups, such as RiseUP, The Artists Collective, and Hartford Youth Scholars, working together to help them find their passion and talents. It’s counterproductive to punish students by taking them out of the classroom, he said, and more effective to tap into the expertise in community groups to find what motivates each child.


Parents appreciate the fact that school leaders have held meetings to seek their input and invited them to serve on the board.


“Half the schools in Hartford are failing. The board knows it and they’re not doing anything about it.  I began to wonder why,” says Blue, a mother of three Hartford Public School students and a nursing student. “Why aren’t parents stepping up? It’s not that they don’t care, but when it’s them against the Board of Ed, it’s like them against the army.  With Community First School, we don’t have a board of education. We have our community.  Our community is what is building the school.  We’re building the school around what parents want. They need a place where their children can feel that it’s safe for them. They can’t take in what’s given to them if they don’t feel you care if they succeed or not.”


If the school staff knows every student and builds relationships with them, they’ll have “a plan for each student, so we can meet them where they are,” Byers says. Students will be told why their behavior wasn’t OK, not that they’re not OK. “We will try to bring out the greatness of every single student, by introducing them into the different opportunities in the community.”


The community respects Goodwin, former Hartford Youth Scholars Foundation director, former Weaver High School Culinary Arts principal, Byers says, because he has proven himself.


“He’s a guy who genuinely cares about the issues surrounding education within the inner city,” Byers says. “He has dedicated his life to that.”


Plans call for hiring a diverse teaching staff and for giving extra points in hiring to teachers who come from a background similar to the students’ as well as to those who have experience with project-based learning, Goodwin says.


The teachers will not be unionized, and the salaries for all staff will be lower than those typically paid in the public school system.  All new staff will undergo a four-to-six-week training program that will include instruction on the school’s philosophy, behavioral management strategies, youth development and cultural competency.


In return, teachers will be encouraged to shape the school. “Our plan is to provide teacher autonomy and teacher voice,” he says. “We want to provide the training so teachers can do their own thing. The reward is when the students succeed.”


“The culture of fear that exists in the public sector is something we are going to avoid at all costs,” he says.


Community First School Board Member Trudi Lebron, a youth development expert, has volunteered for more than a year to help design the school.  Lebron, founder of the company ScriptFlip, said children’s needs are much more likely to be met at a school built on an understanding of child development.


Hiring teachers who buy into the school’s philosophy, who want to engage with students and families, improves the odds of success, says Lebron, an HPS drop-out now working on her doctorate.



Becoming a Real School


Leaders hope to open Community First Charter School in August 2018, tentatively to children in grades K-3, and exclusively from the three federally designated promise zone neighborhoods – Clay Arsenal, Upper Albany and Northeast – in Hartford’s North End.


Goodwin and other leaders are preparing their plan for the school and plan to submit it to the State Department of Education before a summer deadline.  If they receive approval to seek state funding as a charter school, they will proceed to the State legislature in the spring of 2018.  With State approval, says Jeremiah L. Grace of the Northeast Charter School Network, the school’s founders then can apply for a charter certificate.


They also are seeking funding from private individuals and foundations.  Even if the school becomes a charter school, supporters must continue to advocate for it  with legislators, says Grace, who is advising Community First’s founders.


Northeast Charter School Network has worked with the city’s other charter schools. “Out of the six schools that have opened since 2013,” Grace says, “this is the only school I’m aware of founded by folks who are currently working in the District or who have worked prior in the same district.”



The Bottom Line


From Achieve Hartford!’s perspective, it is inspiring to witness the amount of energy being put into creating something that strives to address the very concerns our community spends so much time complaining about:


  1. The lack of student, parent, and teacher voice;
  2. The missed partnership opportunities that can be gamechangers for kids – both in terms of serving their needs and cultivating their yet unknown aspirations;
  3. The lack of accountability to the community for results; and
  4. The lack of student centered learning that, frankly, makes Montessori and other progressive schools’ parents wonder honestly, “Why aren’t all public schools helping students learn through self-discovery and at their own pace?”


While education advocates across the country spent the first decade of the 21st Century building a charter school movement focused on high expectations, no excuses and accountability for achievement, education advocates since then have pushed for community buy-in and holistic support of students.  Clearly, there is a pendulum swing at play in our country (one noted by many researchers in the field) and that pendulum is hitting Hartford right now with Community First.


While this school model comes at a time when the District and Board need stronger neighborhood models from which to learn, it also comes as enrollment in all schools – magnet, neighborhood, and charter – is dropping.  In an ideal world – one where a school’s governance model and any one person’s ideology would matter much less than quality – the rise of Community First would coincide nicely with imminent District consolidation efforts.


But that’s not the world we live in, and it’s going to take even more support to make sure this school can open in Hartford with the conditions necessary for success.  Similarly, it may take more support to attract teachers who pine for the type of teaching and learning environment being designed at Community First, but who also need to get paid what they’re worth.


We will keep an eye on – and be supportive of – the movement building behind this school, and behind its founder, Tim Goodwin, who currently serves as executive director of the local faith-based nonprofit in North Hartford, Hartford City Mission, providing quality education programming to kids.