Timing matters. And, for our time right now, Hartford schools may have just found the right leader. All signs are positive early in her tenure, as new Hartford Superintendent Dr. Torres-Rodriguez has received a welcoming and unified reception from the Board and much of the community. That is a really good sign for Hartford’s future, but what about when the honeymoon ends? What should we expect from Dr. Torres-Rodriguez’s leadership? We sat down with her to find out.
Dr. Torres-Rodriguez was very open to discussing theory, practice, leadership style, culture, values, and a whole lot more regarding what the District and City need to turn things around. Our summary of that conversation is below.
When folks look at the Hartford School District, there is so much great work going on from so many talented people. What’s missing, according to the new superintendent, is a focus on organizational excellence. The lack of strong systems in place, where everyone is on the same page as to how to respond to problems as they arrive, is obvious, she noted, referencing the OCA report on the abuse and neglect of children in the Hartford schools.
Unless there are shared understandings from her office right down to every principal and teacher as to what HPS must do in order to be an effective organization, any discussion of improvements may again be more rhetoric than reality. That cannot suffice.
And shared understandings must be supported by strong structures, which she contends are currently missing. Effective data teams have to be in place, systemically, as right now telling the story of progress is not a main part of the culture at central office – let alone bringing those data on a road show out into the community, which is what Dr. Torres-Rodriguez wants to do.
In addition, an advisory structure should be looked at as a way to redefine the way engagement happens, along with rethinking the structures in place for family and community engagement.
When asked about how her social work background adds value to her ability to carry out this role, Dr. Torres-Rodriguez noted the training she received to see the inter-relationships between problems and solutions in schools, in the community, in homes, and everywhere. “Seeing the inter-dependency between programs, departments, partners – and thus the opportunities – is something I always bring to the table,” she said.
Much Deeper Relationships
If the Board and District can work together as a high-functioning team aligned and in agreement – even if that alignment starts off around just one initiative – Dr. Torres-Rodriguez told us, all things are possible. She stressed the need for the Board to become a strong team, on its own, and with her as part of it.
She noted real opportunity to strengthen corporate partnerships by trying to be much more intentional about what support is sought – and about building personal relationships with partners. “Some corporations sit in Hartford as experts, for example, in organizational health, and we can tap their expertise, as that is an immediate need we have,” she said, in addition to noting how all voices can help drive the standard for college and career ready skills.
Arguably, Hartford lives in a defeatist culture. We have mentioned this many times. During our interview, new Superintendent Torres-Rodriguez reflected on the reaction, from some parents, that the PCB-ridden Clark School should be re-opened despite the negative impact on student health. “Think about how oppressive that is,” she remarked, noting the parents’ desire as one borne out of feeling no better options exist.
With respect to the recent Office of the Child Advocate report detailing Boston-Archdiocese-style shunting aside of horrific child abuse and neglect incidents, Dr. Torres-Rodriguez got on the issue fast; as a newly appointed acting superintendent on her eighth day at the helm, the pattern of abuse and neglect in the most disgusting terms suddenly became the narrative for Hartford schools. She cited her desire to have tough conversations as being a hallmark of her leadership, noting not just the OCA conversations that have started, but also the forums on budget adequacy that she thinks should be the topic of for discussion this coming school year.
Focus on Teaching
Hartford Board of Education members have lamented that they don’t know how best to fight for Hartford children, given all the financial and legal constraints put on the system. When we asked Dr. Torres-Rodriguez how to best fight for Hartford children, she reflected, “The magic, to me, happens in the classroom.
“So I have to ensure teachers are supported.”
The Bottom Line
Transparency, the superintendent told us, could be her downfall as a leader.
That’s possible, but we don’t think so.
Her views, that “the principal drives the bus” and that a culture of continuous improvement will build individual and broader futures in Hartford, seem like pertinent lessons learned for this city.
Imagine going to a new country at the age of nine. Imagine being a social worker and then having responsibility for almost 50 schools, inevitably to be co-located, consolidated, and re-used, so that children don’t just grow up … but grow into jobs and livelihoods they are good at. As Dr. Torres-Rodriguez put it, Hartford schools have a relationship with the future – in the workforce. “We are going to produce what they have,” the superintendent told us. That is what all of us have.