The community steamed at the Board of Education dual meeting and workshop October 18th, with a strong rebuke of the proposed plans to close five or more Hartford schools in the next two-to-three years. The reasonable question, whether Hartford needs as many as 47 schools in nearly as many buildings, was on the menu, though no Board or District official defended that array. The October 19th School Governance Councils’ meeting saw parents and educators demanding more information on how the consolidation proposals would raise the quality of education – and put the equity back into Equity 2020. Thankfully, the mayor weighed in this week, calling for a much-needed pause to rethink this process.
While the problems facing Hartford schools are clear, solutions are not. Hartford school history only complicates matters. Courts have ruled unconstitutional Hartford’s long-harbored system of segregation and racial isolation. State control over the District in the late 1990s was followed by dispiriting, revolving-door leadership. Court-mandated negotiations to fix racial isolation brought a burst of new magnet school building construction … until the 2008 Great Recession took its toll. With mounting fears of bankruptcy and crumbling buildings, nothing in the State’s wallet to save us, and enrollments shrinking in tandem with a growing need for resources, Hartford schools certainly have to be reconfigured.
This past March, the superintendent named an Equity 2020 Advisory Committee to come up with plans for addressing this quandary, with the joint goal of consolidating schools and providing every student a high quality education. Yet the process went off the rails when the consultant’s proposals were trotted out into the community without any real vetting by the committee.
From October 18th, here are the videos of the regular Board meeting and the workshop on school closing and consolidation proposals, containing scathing comments, but, remarkably, little push back to the notion that some schools do need to close.
Since that meeting, data on magnet building capacity (showing over 1,400 empty magnet seats) and district-suburban waitlists have been released. If that information can be followed with sharp insights on financial savings and neighborhood impact, community members could be even more hopeful.
Can We Do Better?
Thankfully, Mayor Luke Bronin wrote a considered, direct letter Tuesday to Board of Education members, urging them to “not to place the Equity 2020 consultant’s recommendations on their December 6th agenda.” While we cannot avoid tough decisions, the mayor advised, “We also cannot rush those decisions without a better planning process.”
According to the mayor, the process needs to allow for significant input by School Governance Councils, parents, and students as well as “the direct involvement and leadership of a Superintendent fully committed to and invested in the future of the Hartford Public Schools.” Superintendent Beth Schiavino-Narvaez is, of course, departing in December to take another job.
In his letter, the mayor also maintained that “There is a universal recognition that we do a disservice to our kids by spreading scarce resources across too many schools with low enrollment and poor facilities.” We agree, and thank the mayor for stepping in when and as he did. Here’s the hard truth: At some point in the past few months, the train driving the process and the outcomes promised by the Equity 2020 Advisory Council went off the rails. Both process and outcomes (however preliminary they were) have failed to get our community to the end destination of equity, as promised by the council’s title.
Despite good intentions, Equity 2020 is failing its purpose of engaging “the community at large to help the district develop a long-term plan that connects facilities, geography, academic alignment and school choice to maximize resources and opportunities for our (Hartford) students.”
Moreover, Equity 2020 is failing to meet its own publicized mission of demonstrating how proposed consolidations and closures will provide “a high quality education for every student.”
There can be no denying that what could have been collaborative community effort has devolved into yet another “us” versus “them” scenario, with students, parents, educators, staff, and community members on Hartford’s North End specifically expressing feelings of being both targeted and neglected. The NAACP of Greater Hartford just announced a meeting where this view will no doubt be well-articulated, given its letter (the Courant coverage is here).
The Bottom Line. Clearly, some schools in Hartford – especially North Hartford – must close. Residents have known this for quite some time. The question now is, what is the right path forward? Do we continue the facilities/enrollment discussion around one or two schools, with urgency, before the school choice process gets into full swing, or do we restart the process to discuss how exactly we will achieve greater equity? Or is it both?
To do the latter, it is imperative that we all truly understand that for Equity 2020 to truly meet its goal, we must bring magnet and charter schools into the discussion. Figuring out how the concentration of need in our neighborhood schools might better be dispersed is the first key to help unlock quality options for all.
The path forward must take into account the latest stipulation, soon to be revealed by Sheff negotiations, and it must bring into account the financial benefits of consolidation and reinvestment. The mayor and Board of Education can still do this right – and put the equity back in Equity 2020.
Additionally, with no funds to renovate the Clark or Dr. Martin Luther King schools, decisions must be made on where to educate those families and employ those educators … next year.