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District Dialogue

Superintendent seeks harmony in Hartford

District leader steers schools toward equity and academic success 20 years after landmark court case
Superintendent Beth Schiavino-Narvaez's initial spending plan was cut by $3.2 million by the school board.
Superintendent Beth Schiavino-Narvaez's initial spending plan was cut by $3.2 million by the Hartford school board.

Beth Schiavino-Narvaez has led Hartford Public Schools in Connecticut for two years. But it’s been two decades since a landmark state court case—Sheff vs. O’Neill—ruled that Hartford schools had violated the U.S. Constitution by isolating children based on race and socioeconomics.

And despite new budget woes, Schiavino-Narvaez continues to fight for better schools. The school board in June approved a $419 million spending plan that is $3.2 million less than Schiavino-Narvaez’s initial proposal for the 2016-17 year, and overall, a $22 million drop compared with Hartford schools’ current budget.

It eliminates 235 positions, 96 of which are teachers. The superintendent says she will still try to maintain low class sizes, provide students with access to social workers, and preserve the arts and physical education in every school.

Meanwhile, Hartford schools have prospered. The list of successes includes:

  • Graduation numbers at seven high schools outperformed Connecticut’s average rate of 87 percent, according to a state report for academic year 2014-15.
  • Magnet schools pushed forward the desegregation effort under Sheff vs. O’Neill. In 2015, the district’s Breakthrough Magnet School received the Dr. Ronald P. Simpson Distinguished Merit Award, recognized as the best school in the nation by Magnet Schools of America. And Hartford Magnet Middle School, now Hartford Magnet Trinity College Academy, earned it in 2011.
  • And two schools—High School Inc., and Academy of Finance and Pathways Academy of Technology & Design—will receive distinguished status from the NAF network, a national group of leaders working to prepare high school students for college and career.

As for the superintendent’s push for equity, Schiavino-Narvaez spoke about public education funding inequality at a meeting of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights in May, explaining the progress Hartford is making. The commission is a non-partisan, independent federal panel focused on civil rights issues facing the nation.

Managing Editor Angela Pascopella spoke with the superintendent in late May.

What does the latest budget mean?

We need to make up $2.3 million in lost funding. So we’re taking a look at mitigation strategies. We’re going back to our central office for more cuts to our senior team, reducing it by a third. I am also putting a moratorium on any non-essential travel. And that’s a shame because professional learning is a great opportunity for our staff.

And I’m trying to find savings wherever we can before going back to school.

The 96 teacher positions we must cut doesn’t necessarily mean laying them off, but it still means disruption. The teachers are eligible to apply for openings in other schools in the district. And we would place them before opening jobs up to outside candidates. But we will see some layoffs.

Where does desegregation stand in the district? You mentioned that magnet schools have given students more options.

The budget has prevented us from creating more of those programs and prevented us from building renovations that have been so central to magnet schools.

A few years ago, several schools were added to be new magnet schools as part of Sheff vs. O’Neill. They came with no guarantees in terms of funding or spaces for their permanent homes. So the district had to find incubation spaces (temporary locations for schools until a permanent location can be found) and lease spaces in city buildings.

Hartford Public Schools

  • Superintendent Beth Schiavino-Narvaez
  • Students: 25,669
  • Schools: 48, some of which share buildings
  • Staff: 3,437
  • Per-pupil spending: $17,202
  • Yearly budget: $441.5 million (2015-16)

The R.J. Kinsella Magnet School of Performing Arts, for example, started out as a K8 magnet school and expanded to include high school. We recently identified a permanent home for the high school after spending some years in a temporary site.

Will the tight budget mean the potential of going backward, or halting success?

We are not going to go backward. We have put out an ambitious plan. The Strategic Operating Plan is our five-year blueprint for how we will ensure that every student thrives and every school becomes high-performing.

The key strategies involve putting students at the center of their learning through personalized student success plans for each student; infusing all classrooms with strong literacy and language teaching so students can read, write, speak, listen, think and lead well; providing customized education pathways and developing leaders to lead through professional development and collaboration across schools; strengthening family and community partnerships; and use of data and teams.

It is through these strategies we hope to meet our bold goals of reaching a 90 percent graduation rate and 100 percent college acceptance by 2020.

What improvements are you proud of?

I’ve always called it a strong equity agenda.

One, we’ve seen a dramatic reduction in chronic absentees. It was a huge problem. It went from 27 percent in April 2015 to 22 percent in April 2016. We worked very closely with our schools to ensure they had strong teams to review student attendance weekly and to provide supports to chronically absent students.

Two, we’ve had two years in row of dramatic reductions in out-of-school suspensions. Two years ago, we had 6,000 out-of-school suspensions. We were the highest in the state. And it was made up of mostly black and Latino kids. And I said, “We are not going to criminalize our children.”

We started to put restorative justice practices in place. It’s not widespread yet, but we started to run some successful pilots. And the magnet schools certainly contribute to a reduction. As of April 30, out-of-school suspensions were at 2,738 and we’re on pace to improve more.

Three, when I first came here, I saw a huge discrepancy between neighborhood schools and magnet schools and their urgent needs. We have an Acceleration Agenda in six neighborhood schools. It’s a focused action plan to address education equity and achievement by optimizing support for schools and creating consistent practice. It gives additional support to teacher teams, and it supports students through enrichment practices, for example.

I’m really proud of that approach and in the growth we’ve seen in leadership. For example, we have a toolkit for teacher teams that revolves around the Common Core and helps teachers plan lessons around those new standards.

The district also connected teachers to Achievement Network (or ANet, an education nonprofit that helps boost student learning.) ANet provides the toolkit while helping teachers assess what students have learned, and re-teaching in different ways when students haven’t met the standards.

They do that with models of excellent instruction, coaching leadership teams and teachers, and working shoulder to shoulder with teacher teams to match rigorous instruction to needs.

We also have a partnership with City Connects. I love this model and wish I had designed it myself. It’s out of Boston College, with help from Boston Public Schools principals.

It looks at the resources that exist in a community and finds out what is lacking. So it could provide health services, or after-school or enrichment programs. It makes sure kids are present in their learning in a classroom. It gets rid of any obstacles that might be in the way.

The second part of it is having a coordinator, such as a counselor or social worker, on-site who works with families and works on individual student strengths and weaknesses. And they are relentless in follow-through. It’s a great compliment to the community schools model.

Any tips for other administrators?

I focus on the good work that we’ve been able to do. And the people who surround me to help me accomplish that work. Hard challenges face every superintendent every week. I like to move our teaching and learning agenda forward.

I have created three advisory boards—for teachers, principals and parents. We meet once a month. They give me advice on issues and it’s always so positive and so solution-oriented.

For example, the parent advisory is new this year. We launched Family Friendly Schools. We are using the national PTO standards as a way to assess and improve practices.

We are creating a welcoming climate. When families walk into the building, they feel the school is inviting and they are in a place where they “belong.” Families are greeted in their native language by staff, helping to connect them with faculty members who are invested in their children’s education.

Members of parent organizations such as School Governance Councils, PTO and PTA volunteer in the office to support families. Family volunteers from different neighborhoods and backgrounds are trained to serve as mentors for other families, hoping that they become more engaged in school.

And as for teachers and principals, I ask them, “What do you want to focus on in your work?’ They really want to focus on professional learning. So we’ve done some really cool design-thinking around protocols and products. If we could design professional learning, what would it look like?

We are looking for ways to make it more meaningful to educators and to help them grow. These are just conversations; we would like to build on them.