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Hartford Public Schools’ Superintendent Shares Lessons on Designing School Portfolios for Student Equity

Putting the student experience at the center through the ERS-Aspen CFO Strategy Network

Many district leaders know their current portfolio of schools isn’t quite right—there may be schools that are under-enrolled, offer the wrong mix of grade levels or are otherwise misaligned to student needs. Until recently, many district leaders have approached the portfolio challenge by adjusting from what they have now, perhaps merging or closing schools along the way.

But what if there was another approach?

The new superintendent of Hartford Public Schools (an ERS partner), Dr. Leslie Torres-Rodriguez, approached the challenge by asking: What do I want schools to do for kids in my district? That question generated a much more inspiring set of conversations with the Hartford community about the purpose of school design, which ultimately led the school board to vote unanimously in January to approve the Torres-Rodriguez’s plan to dramatically reshape the district’s portfolio of schools.

What do I want schools to do for kids in my district?
— Dr. Leslie Torres-Rodriguez, to the Hartford community

Torres-Rodriguez, who herself is a product of Hartford Public Schools, joined a group of school district chief financial officers from across the country in April 2018 in Boston to share this approach, which she calls school “thrive-ability.” The CFOs had gathered as part of the ERS-Aspen CFO Strategy Network, operated in partnership with the Aspen Institute.

Network CFOs grapple with a "problem of practice" facilitated by Boston Public Schools.

The HPS leadership team, Torres-Rodriguez shared, focused on creating criteria for building and maintaining schools, rather than creating a list for school closures, as Torres-Rodriguez explained on local NPR program Where We Live.

“Our students wanted access to college and career readiness opportunities. Their voice is at the center of this process. We look at all of these complex elements and we put them all together…low enrollment, low use, small grade size, it does create school design challenges for us. And when you pair that with the need that our students have, then we are not creating conditions structurally or programmatically to meet the student needs that we have.”

Torres-Rodriguez leveraged the research about what great schools can and should be with the goal of every school becoming a community school, including the opportunity to have faith-based and corporate leaders play a role in schools, to excite her community.

Because the thrive-ability approach is fundamentally about teaching and learning, and not about facilities and cost-efficiency, Torres-Rodriguez focused on the power of teachers and principals to serve as lead communicators to parents. Every time she had face time with principals, she dedicated time to this role and the concept of thrive-ability.

This session was one of 11 that took place over two days with CFOs from Boston, Cleveland, DC, Denver, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Shelby County, Palm Beach, and Tulsa as part of the twice-yearly, closed-door meetings that make up the CFO-Strategy Network. These meetings are intended to give CFOs and their counterparts in academics, HR, or other areas when it makes sense, an opportunity to wrestle with the most challenging issues district financial leaders must face. The meetings encourage relationship building and learning from each other’s successes and missteps on topics such as ESSA reporting, sustainability for teacher leadership and career pathways, school planning cycles, and developing an effective budget process. Here's what some of that group work looked like:

Network members reflect on what school "thrivability" means for their own district.

Participants talk with peers in other districts about lessons learned and takeways from the retreat.

Hartford Public Schools’ Superintendent Shares Lessons on Designing School Portfolios for Student Equity
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