This week’s superintendent forums – both held on Wednesday March 29th – offered superintendent candidate finalists two chances to make public closing arguments stating why they are best to lead HPS, concluding a very intense and high-stakes superintendent search process.
Plainly, both Tim Sullivan and Dr. Leslie Torres-Rodriguez are poised leaders who exude competence. Each has a deep affinity for Hartford, soulful understandings that go deep into the fabric of the city, and, based on those understandings, admirable willingness to fight for what is best for kids. All of this is good. The chance to choose from among two good options for what is best for Hartford … is even better.
Not surprisingly, the finalists have strikingly different styles.
- Recognizing the importance of prioritizing Hartford students and families, Dr. Leslie Torres-Rodriguez personally connected her candidacy to her own immigrant story, coming from Puerto Rico, and to that the fact that, even at this late date, making sure no child in HPS (particularly special needs students) endures conditions like her own nine-year-old son not having someone at his school whom he can go to as a caring adult even after three years there.
- Measured against a need for bold leadership and transformative institutional change, Tim Sullivan took a risk to advance a dramatic school system redesign concept focused on anchoring a network of community- and business-supported neighborhood schools, while emphasizing his deep personal commitment to Hartford schools and family roots in the city – including invoking the former Mayor Mike Peters, Sullivan’s uncle.
Both brought an A-game to their job interviews Wednesday, leaving attendees impressed: Sullivan won the room at one point with his knowledge of neighborhoods. In turn, Dr. Torres-Rodriguez then won the room another way, walking all the way down the center aisle to the back wall, looking into people’s eyes as she spoke.
Forum Focus: Differentiating the Candidates to Identify a Top Selection
Given 30 minutes to answer six questions in the morning session – and coming back for nine questions plus a few from the audience over 45 minutes at the evening session – Mr. Sullivan and Dr. Torres-Rodriguez revealed very different delivery styles that signal distinct visions and management styles.
HPS Board of Education and selection committee members in attendance gained additional insights into what each candidate offers and how the strengths and weaknesses of each might align with future needs and challenges. If those making the decision understand what Hartford needs most right now, then hopefully the fact that the candidates are so different makes for an easier decision. Still, no one envies those in charge of making this very important decision.
Passionate residents also made their voices heard on issues, ranging from special education concerns, cultural competency and language access , as well as community representation and input into the superintendent selection process. While the search process has had a few stumbles, and the evening forum itself was a bit unruly, we must remember that participatory democracy is often messy, and clearly Hartford resident remain very engaged on the issue of education.
We urge you to view the full videos of the sessions but offer these additional perspectives on their presentations:
- Both candidates came to the forums with an emphasis on overcoming chronic student absence.
- Both prepared well. Dr. Torres-Rodriguez offered theory-backed approaches and real-world experience to support calls for improvements to curriculum, student and family engagement, and support services; Mr. Sullivan suggested pre-prepared budget cuts to central office to back up plans to realign resources at the school level.
- Torres-Rodriguez focused deeply on students’ engagement in learning and resources for them, including the books to which she did not have access as a child; how students must learn to present themselves in preparation for an adult world; the importance of their skills at communicating in writing; and getting eighth-grade students ready early so they don’t fall off the tracks. Interesting view: “Change happens at the speed of trust. Think about that.”
- Sullivan told the audience he hopes to retire after serving as Hartford’s superintendent for 10 years, as this is his “dream job”. Interesting view: “Closure and consolidation has to start like charity, at home” in central office, where staff has risen from 288 under former Superintendent Adamowski to 346, according to Mr. Sullivan, who estimated that “cutting 59 central office positions could send $8.5 million directly to the schools.”
- Torres Rodriguez noted that 75 positions have the address of central office but are stationed in the schools. Referencing the State Office of Child Advocate report on child abuse and neglect in city schools that arrived on her desk just after she became acting superintendent: “You have to have belief in the people you serve – and understand where they come from.” High expectations, cultural responsiveness, organizational effectiveness, and foregoing the blame game are key, she said.
- Sullivan proposed 12 “viable, mini-school-district neighborhoods,” each with a strong neighborhood school; each supported by an NRZ, a community group, a Baptist church, a synagogue, and then, six schools supported by each of Hartford’s two mosques. He advocated family-style dinners at round tables and re-opening the schools to the community.
- Torres-Rodriguez referenced her 105 days as acting superintendent and warned against having too many initiatives going at once, as they frustrate focus on the work. “The bills still have to be paid, the buses still have to run, and the lunches still have to be heated up,” she said in a colloquy on central office staffing cuts.
- Sullivan vowed that there is nobody he respects more than teachers – “Being a teacher is the hardest job in the world,” he said, “other than being a parent.”
- The candidates got hearty applause from both audiences, morning and evening. Dr. Torres-Rodriguez answered a couple of questions in Spanish, and speaking as a Hartford Public High School graduate, allowed that “You Weaver people were no joke, I must say that!” Mr. Sullivan gave out his cell phone number, noted where he lives (Oxford Street), and offered a number of new ideas, including that he would like to hire a cadre of retired special education teachers to attend the PPT meetings for children with disabilities.
The Bottom Line
Wednesday’s public forums allowed superintendent candidate finalists Dr. Torres-Rodriguez and Mr. Sullivan to present closing arguments on why, individually, each is best prepared to lead now based on their visions for the District and our students.
Not surprisingly, Mr. Sullivan and Dr. Torres-Rodriguez have very different styles; distinct ways of conveying their thinking about Hartford’s distressing equity/excellence issues. The Board of Education will vote for one or the other this coming Tuesday night.
Both promise a stable tenure (a good thing given the churn of the past however-many decades). Neither shied away from the audience; both vowed to stay not just for stability’s sake but because they love this city. Importantly, both bring an inspiring account of their family’s presence in Hartford and their growth there from. Hartford is fortunate to have two such candidates with so much to offer.
Ultimately, the selection of a superintendent is just the first step in building a governance team that can really turn the Hartford school system around. The new superintendent will need to come together with leaders (Mayor Luke Bronin, Board of Education Chair Craig Stallings, and the State legislative delegation) to set a bold, collective vision for Hartford and work hand-in-hand to make it a reality for all Hartford students, families, educators, and community members.