Read the article as it originally appeared in the Hartford Courant.
Alex Campbell, a father of two children at Global Communications Academy, left a school district meeting this week with no illusions about the prickly path of school consolidation that Hartford is marching down.
“The stage has been set that there will be turbulence, there will be change,” said Campbell, chairman of Global’s school governance council. “It’s the restart of a conversation that started last year.”
But unlike the hard feelings that sprang from last fall’s Equity 2020 debacle, Hartford leaders do not want parents to feel blindsided when Superintendent Leslie Torres-Rodriguez unveils school closure proposals to the city board of education. That could happen in two months, she said, with the board possibly voting in December on specific consolidation plans for the 2018-19 school year.
So the next several weeks are crucial in convincing families they have a voice in the future of a 46-school district with dwindling enrollment and strained resources.
“We all know that change comes with discomfort,” Torres-Rodriguez told parents who gathered Tuesday at Bulkeley High School for an evening of discussions on the district’s overhaul. “I ask that we approach this work with courage … openness and full transparency as we ask for feedback.”
Nearly a year ago, an attempt at Hartford school consolidation imploded and derailed discussions for months. Under former Superintendent Beth Schiavino-Narvaez, the Hartford schools worked with a consulting firm in 2016 that produced three data-driven “Equity 2020” scenarios that largely targeted underenrolled, North End neighborhood schools for closure. Outraged parents and community members, including those who served on an advisory committee, excoriated the proposals and the process as number-crunching with no feel for the impact on lives and neighborhoods.
This time the school district is using Education Resource Strategies, a Massachusetts-based nonprofit that specializes in working with urban school systems to restructure resources, to analyze data and help collect input. Their focus in October will be compiling school data and perspectives from families and community members on what their biggest priorities are in a redesigned school system.
At Tuesday’s Bulkeley event, billed as a “parent conversation” and co-hosted with the advocacy group Hartford Parent University, Campbell and other parents were asked to rate factors such as academic performance, facility conditions and the impact on a neighborhood if a school closes. Afterward, some parents said they hoped the district would try to limit the disruption to students who will be uprooted from their schools and give families enough time to plan for changes.
And while just a start, they credited the district for attempting a more collaborative approach.
“The foundation of trust in the city of Hartford, between the public school system and the public, is very low, very damaged,” said Abigail Korhonen, a mother of three city students. “So we need this to build it back up.”
“I think it’s really hard,” said New Britain resident Rhona Cohen, whose daughter is a second-grade suburban student at Noah Webster MicroSociety Magnet School in the West End. “God bless the district for trying.”
A smattering of high school students were also surveyed with questions such as, “Do you feel that your school engages your family?” and “What kinds of programs would you like to see more of in your school?”
Bulkeley senior Steven Richardson said the schools possess more potential than they get credit for — but at the same time, the 17-year-old recognizes there could be more efficiency. “Deal with the problem, but deal with it outside the box,” Richardson said.
Gary Lotreck, a Hartford educator for nearly three decades, said he hopes the outcome will be more resources and equity across the landscape of magnet and neighborhood schools. The superintendent has renamed Hartford’s school consolidation the “District Model for Excellence.”
“Families have to be involved, children have to be involved,” said Lotreck, the 2016 Hartford teacher of the year. “It’s not done to them — it’s being done with and for them.”