On Again, Off Again?
As if pulling a rabbit out of a hat, the District Tuesday unveiled a plan to put the renovation of the Martin Luther King, Jr. School back on the table, after the City could not come up with a 20 percent match on an earlier $68 million plan. With a new plan to house a magnet school in the building, along with a 400-student middle school, the renovation proposal comes with a broad idea to reconfigure the K-8 elementary school model for nearby schools. As long as the quality of education exceeds the new building quality, this is going to benefit North Hartford. Let’s launch the school design process right after next Tuesday’s vote.
Tuesday, at the Martin Luther King, Jr. School (the original Weaver High School), District and State officials promised that the building’s long-deferred renovation will be completed by the 2020-21 school year. In a Wednesday follow-up letter, Superintendent Dr. Leslie Torres-Rodriguez referred to the coming adjustment as “a fundamental redesign that prioritizes high quality teaching and learning for all, and ensuring student safety within a fiscally sustainable model.”
On May 30, HPS officials will be recommending that the Hartford Board of Education approve the superintendent office’s North Hartford Schools Update plan unveiled earlier this week. This vote is needed to finalize submission to the state by June 30th to obtain the 95% funding for the construction project needed to move the project forward.
State support for the construction aspects of the project includes the deployment of State School Construction Grants Office Director Kosta Diamantis, who Tuesday reiterated what everyone knows: Hartford has more school buildings than it can afford. But he also gave his word that the MLK construction project would be completed if the district can meet the submission deadline with a quality construction proposal.
If the District can meet the June 30th State deadline to submit a proposal, MLK could be restored in similarity with the beautiful, original Bulkeley High School revamp at M.D. Fox on Maple Avenue (and with the promised construction already underway at Weaver High School). And, as noted by Superintendent Dr. Torres-Rodrigues, approval also means that by the 2020-2021 school year the long-neglected North End will have high quality buildings for both middle school (MLK) and high school (Weaver).
With declining HPS enrollments, stagnating student outcomes, flat-lining funding, and ever-rising maintenance costs at nearly 50 sites (all further complicated by Sheff implications impacting the above mentioned areas and beyond), how can the District meet ambitious quality and equity goals for neighborhood children?
More plainly – starting with the redesign and constructions projects for Weaver High School and MLK Middle School in Hartford’s North End – how can the quality of the school buildings (finally) be met or exceeded by the quality of outcomes for the students therein?
Achieve Hartford! believes it is possible (we wouldn’t be here if we didn’t!), and certainly district leaders must also share that belief. But the gap between possibility and reality is potentially wide, and the last decade of history suggests more times than not that our hopes may be misplaced. History more than suggests that results won’t come without a process of greater transparency and partnership in decision-making with a broad spectrum of engaged and informed stakeholders, tapping all the city’s assets.
The Bottom Line
In truth, it won’t be easy (either designing the process or ensuring the results) – and will certainly require decisive action by the Superintendent and Hartford Board of Education. But lest we forget the lessons of the past, we cannot allow our sense of urgency to run roughshod over strong community-informed process.
Fortunately, a model for launching a community-informed design process has already emerged with promise to match the quality of building construction with that of educational outcomes and student opportunity. And we don’t have to look too far from MLK to see it: the Weaver High School redesign process.
Spending the next year engaging people for counsel as to the building construction will be a waste of time unless the District simultaneously plans to solicit community collaboration in determining the vision, standards, partners and resources to make this middle school the best school in Hartford.
That dual approach – of partnership in decision-making through a community design process that informs planning on real time – is one way to mitigate the calculable costs of yet another interminable delay and the far more important incalculable costs of failing yet another generation of students.