The Hartford Public School system has been quietly innovating its school models in order to help students catch up and/or balance life responsibilities. Its Hope Academy is just one example. 

Two years ago, working with the Boys & Girls Clubs of Hartford, HPS established the Hope Academy at the Club’s Asylum Hill location; HPS expanded this past year to open a Hope Academy at the South End Club. Hope Academies serve 11th and 12th graders who need support to stay on track for graduation. In small classes taught by HPS teachers, students learn English language arts, math, science and social studies through project-based learning. 

“These students are juggling school and family and finances at the same time. Many of our kids are working for Amazon trying to help their parents pay for bills,” says Diana Laracuente, assistant principal, Hope Academy. Amazon shifts are 12 hours long, so Hope Academy tries to accommodate the seniors’ schedules to allow students working those jobs to attend school, she says. Out of necessity, school is often not these students’ first priority, she says. “It’s about being evicted or not being evicted.”

Laracuente know all 57 students’ personally, she says. “I always wanted to be an administrator who ran a program like a family,” the veteran educator says. A majority of the students had disciplinary issues before attending the academy, but there haven’t been any incidents at the Academy, she says. She credits the staff’s commitment to serving this population of students. 

“I have the best staff in the world. They’re flexible,” she says. “You have to think outside of the box with this population of students.” Students still show up late to school or miss school all together, but she and the staff work with the students to help them understand the importance of punctuality and attendance. Out of 14 seniors from the Class of 2021, 13 graduated, she says.

Students say having no more than 14 peers in the class allows them to stay focused on their learning without distractions. Jared Cintron, who graduated in 2021, said in a videotaped interview posted on the HPS website he really appreciates that there’s “no misbehaving” and the academy feels welcoming and warm. 

Class of 2021 graduate Harding Tarley said if a student is struggling, teachers will see that and help the student one-on-one. “I’ve asked more questions and I’ve been more productive” than ever before in school, he said in a videotaped interview with Justin Taylor, now Hartford Public High School assistant principal. The small environment allows students to get to know each other and their teachers, making it easier to build friendships, he said.

Students check in on each other if someone is absent, said recent graduate Anita Walker. In her videotaped interview, she said she learned better with the hands-on, project-based learning and students were able to help each other finish a project so they could all graduate. 

When the school day ends, students can participate in their school’s extracurricular activities and a host of Boys & Girls Clubs programs, including homework help, workforce readiness, help with resumes, cover letters and mock interviews, and internships. 

HPS is also offering students two other free options to get their education: the Hartford Public Schools Evening School for 11th and 12th graders to take virtual ELA, math, science and social studies courses, beginning Jan. 31; and, for grades K-12, the Saturday Academy, which began Dec. 4, 2021 and runs for 16 weeks.