An opportunity to do right by Hartford students

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As a Hartford teacher of 28 years, I’ve seen how inequitable state funding deprives our students of true educational opportunity. Shrinking budgets year after year mean students have few, if any, advanced courses to choose from, and elective courses like art and music, designed to catalyze students’ creativity and ingenuity, are often entirely eliminated.

While it looked as though the Connecticut Supreme Court might ride to our rescue, they’ve since ruled that under our state constitution our kids are entitled to no more than a “minimally adequate education.” There has been talk among legislators for years to finally create a formula that would give students equal access to a quality education, but each new legislation session passes with no more than promises for further research.

In light of these challenges, it’s no wonder that Hartford’s school board has unanimously approved Superintendent Leslie Torres-Rodríguez’s plan to reconfigure our school system, saving our district $15 million dollars a year and streamlining our grade structure. It will also require some of our neighborhood schools to close.

While the plan will allow our district to consolidate our limited resources, it also sparks concerns that these sweeping changes will disrupt student learning and unravel these cash-strapped schools’ most precious resource: their vibrant school communities.

I attended several community and school board meetings regarding Hartford’s consolidation plan, and was impressed by the multitude of voices that spoke up on this issue. Teachers and families expressed fears that school closures might jeopardize the healthy and supportive school climates they’ve worked so hard to create, and offered on-the-ground insight to help guide the plan. In each case, I felt their passion, their collaborative spirits, their community connectedness, and their heart.

Yet I worry that their efforts will be for naught. The board has not explained how, if at all, the public comment will influence the implementation of the plan, particularly as it relates to preserving the positive aspects of the closing schools. However, such consideration is paramount to delivering the educational excellence we seek.

Here are four ways the board could proceed towards that end:

  • Listen to teachers and families: Often left out of the decisions that directly affect them, the students, families, and educators who interact in schools every day deserve a seat at the table to offer their perspectives and insights.
  • Be transparent: As difficult choices emerge, a transparent decision-making process will build trust, allow communities to provide better feedback, and hold the district accountable. This is especially necessary to ensure we prioritize offering a competitive array of courses, repairing facilities, and supporting student success.
  • Maintain and rebuild relationships: As schools are closed, it is not a given that relationships cultivated with the community over generations will grow once again. Creating trusting and collaborative relationships between school stakeholders must be fostered through family outreach, open houses, effective communication, and partnering with neighborhood organizations. The district must start this work immediately to smooth what will be a challenging transition for all parties.
    Students in the closing schools have developed meaningful bonds with their teachers  and classmates. These relationships are what make schools joyful places, and they are critical for students’ academic, social, and emotional development. The district must take steps to preserve these relationships, such as allowing school communities to have a say in deciding where to move students and teachers, and keeping large cohorts of students and their teachers together whenever possible.
  • Create systemic change: After our state’s highest court ruled that the government only needs to provide our students with a “minimally adequate education,” it is clear that our schools will never have the resources they need unless we demand it. Groups like Educators for Excellence are working with communities and local organizations to create a single, equitable funding formula that will allocate funding to prepare all students for college, the workforce, and beyond. The district must join in this effort. We cannot settle for the minimum or the stated goal of excellence will be no more than lip service.

The consolidation plan is an opportunity to mitigate the injustices that have befallen our children because of inequitable school funding. I will continue to fight alongside colleagues for the fair funding our district and our kids truly deserve. In the meantime, all of Hartford must band together to do what is best for our kids in these challenging times.

Carol Gale is a Hartford resident, teaches social studies at Global Communications Academy, and is a member of Educators for Excellence-Connecticut.

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