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ERS Stories: Redesigning Hartford's School Portfolio to Improve Equity and Excellence

“A great school supports the needs and talents of each individual child.”
“Schools must be an asset and stabilizing force in every Hartford child’s neighborhood.”
“A great school is where children achieve and learn to their potential.”

In the fall of 2017, Hartford Public Schools launched a community-wide conversation about this critical question: What kind of experience do we want our children to have in school? Hartford teachers, parents, school leaders, and community members responded with vision statements like these above.

Like many urban school districts, HPS faced several challenges: deep student need, persistently low student performance, a significant budget deficit, and declining enrollment, which led to under-enrolled schools and further revenue cuts. Additionally, well-intentioned state legislation sought to reduce racial isolation in Hartford by attracting students from the surrounding suburbs to magnet schools. But those efforts exacerbated inequities in funding, facilities, and programming, further deepening concentration of need in neighborhood schools.

In the face of these challenges, school leaders might draw up school consolidation plans. But a simple focus on cutting costs can exacerbate the pain families feel when schools close. The new HPS Superintendent Leslie Torres-Rodriguez called for a different approach, which came to be known as the District Model for Excellence. Rooted in community feedback and an analysis of the district’s current use of resources, this plan would lay out a broad vision of what it takes for schools and students to thrive. The goal was to have an excellent school in every neighborhood, even if it took hard choices to get there. HPS leaders decided to partner with Education Resource Strategies to help develop the District Model for Excellence or DME.

Read HPS’ 2017 presentation “Restructuring Recommendations and Opportunities," which ERS supported the district to create

Phase 1: Community Conversations and Resource Analysis

To kick off the process, the district and ERS solicited feedback from a wide range of stakeholders—families, students, educators, board members, community members, and civic leaders—who shared their aspirations for Hartford students and schools. Participants wanted every child to access rigorous, high-quality instruction; teams of caring, committed teachers; attention to students’ individual needs; support for students’ social and emotional development; connections to the community; and high-quality facilities. Based on this feedback, the district developed four priority areas for the District Model for Excellence:

  • Teaching and Learning
  • Family and Community Partnerships
  • School Culture and Climate
  • Operational Effectiveness

ERS then analyzed current system conditions and practices in these four areas, drawing on quantitative data (e.g. school-level, school choice, financial, enrollment, geographic) as well as qualitative data from staff interviews, surveys and focus groups.


Read more in ERS’ report: “Defining the Path toward a ‘Model for Excellence’ for All Hartford Children”

At a high-level, we found:

  • Teaching and Learning: While HPS has made progress in introducing rigorous curricula aligned with the Common Core state standards, principals reported needing more support for teacher professional learning, including more standards-aligned formative assessments, instructional coaches, and time for teacher collaboration. ERS also noted that small school sizes can make it harder to form teacher teams and cost effectively offer rich programming, including art, music, PE, or diverse electives at the secondary school level.
  • School Culture and Climate Families in many Hartford neighborhoods could not access any schools that showed above average growth in student proficiency. Students in North Hartford must travel significant distances to get to any high school, and both the magnet school policies and HPS’ bus routes (i.e. transportation zones) limited families’ choice for schools.
  • Family and Community Partnerships: HPS schools had many partnerships with local youth and family organizations, but the district could do more to ensure these partnerships were fully realizing the districtwide strategic priorities.
  • Operational Effectiveness: Partially driven by enrollment decline, schools in HPS were 28 percent smaller on average than urban peer districts in Connecticut. While intentionally small schools can have benefits, schools with fewer than 350 students and utilization below 85 percent spend about 16 percent more per pupil on average than large schools with higher utilization. In Hartford, this equates to about $3-4 million - resources that HPS could spend more deliberately on the highest return-on-investment strategies.

Based on these findings, ERS recommended that HPS restructure the district to ensure that all students (especially in the northern part of the city) have access to a high-performing school. This means ensuring all schools operate at-scale (including consolidating the most under-enrolled and under-utilized schools); strategically designing all schools to provide effective teacher professional learning, individualized attention for struggling students, and community partnerships; improving the process for hiring, assigning, and rewarding effective teachers; and re-evaluating transportation and school choice policies.

Phase 2: A New Plan for Hartford’s School Portfolio

Guided by the community feedback and data analysis, ERS created a proposal to restructure HPS to improve equity and instructional excellence. The proposal was based on some programmatic, practice, and operational non-negotiables, such as intense literacy and numeracy instruction in elementary schools, adult learning culture focused on collaboration, and operating schools in a financially healthy and strategic capacity. It was built on four key changes, designed to achieve these ends:

By making these changes:

We support these outcomes:

Convert PK-8 schools into PK-5 and 6-8 schools

  • More enrichment options
  • Better conditions for teacher professional learning

Create an ES, MS, and HS to serve every Hartford community

  • More equitable access to schools
  • Clearer pathways to graduation
  • More students in better facilities

Ensure every school serves its community

  • Deeper community partnerships
  • More services for students
  • Welcoming school environments

Sustainably sized and structured schools

  • More flexibility within schools
  • More resources for programs
  • Improved operational efficiency


Under the plan, 4 schools would close, 12 would reconfigure with different grades, and 8 would change location by 2020. Seventy-eight percent of students would stay in their current program and 96 percent of displaced students move into schools with similar or higher-quality facilities. ERS offered ideas to foster a smooth transition, including summer “bridge” opportunities for families and staff; peer mentors and shadowing for incoming students; and teacher-run transition teams to engage families.

ERS estimated that implementing this plan could release as much as $4 million from the operation of 12 facilities, and $11 million from staffing that could be reallocated toward higher impact assignments. This $15 million could be better invested in options like:

  • Additional non-classroom time for teachers to plan and collaborate
  • Greater breadth of health, wellness, and enrichment offerings
  • Extended school day and year
  • Targeted, small group sizes for struggling students
  • Increased resources and opportunities to earn college credit and participate in career development
  • Advisory time for all students to support social and emotional learning

The plan was geared to lead towards a vision for HPS in 2022, where there are clear pathways from PreK-12 in all neighborhoods, conditions for a stronger grade 6-8 experience, 70 percent of students in schools with greater than 85 percent utilization, and more.

Read more in HPS' District Model for Excellence homepage 

Impact

In January 2018, the HPS Board of Education unanimously approved the final proposal presented by the superintendent (“Restructuring Recommendations and Implications”). It was certainly a difficult decision -- some parents argued strenuously against the closings, and school board members spoke about how tough the situation was, one commenting, “No one here has taken this lightly at all.”

But where past Hartford consolidation plans had failed to get school board, community, and mayoral support, this plan was able to balance tough choices with a vision for improvement. Some parents spoke in favor of the proposal, wearing purple “Equity for All” t-shirts. According to Milly Arciniegas, executive director of Hartford Parent University, “Yes, it is painful to have to shut the doors to your school when it is conveniently just down the street...But what if Hartford, as this plan envisions, gives children brighter futures by making improvements at three dozen high quality schools … instead of sticking with four dozen mediocre ones? We can’t avoid this question anymore.”

Superintendent Leslie Torres-Rodrigues commented, “I want to thank our school community... This has been an intense and challenging process. But we are facing the challenge by making the difficult decisions that have been delayed for far too long. It is time to change. We can do this together.”

Since 2018, HPS has moved forward with the District Model for Excellence plan including the proposed school closures and transitions, an equitable reinvestment of resources to address high levels of student need, and implemented a redesigned school planning and budgeting processes, which incorporated a more collaborative, cross-functional review of budget proposals. The HPS school board renewed Superintendent Torres-Rodriguez’ contract until 2022.

 

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