The Hartford school board and Mayor Pedro Segarra are faced with an important decision concerning Hartford public schools:
Should they change leadership, thereby potentially disrupting progress made to date? Or should they renew the contract of Superintendent Christina M. Kishimoto and continue her progress in a seven-year program for education reform in the capital city?
The mayor and board of education should renew Dr. Kishimoto’s contract.
For decades, the Hartford community, stakeholders in Connecticut education policy and state leaders have been aware of the challenges facing Hartford’s public education system.
The turmoil associated with revolving-door leadership, crumbling facilities and dismal test scores was exacerbated by a failed attempt at privatization of the school system in 1995-96 and finally eased with a state takeover of the city’s board of education in 1997. The schools returned to local control in 2003.
But too many students were lost in those years to a dysfunctional system that had been an unfortunate leader in all the wrong statistics: high drop-out rates, high rates of teen pregnancy, low test scores and plenty of youth crime.
Under former Superintendent Steven Adamowski’s leadership starting in 2006 and continuing under Dr. Kishimoto in 2011, Hartford has seen progress.
Dr. Adamowski first introduced the “portfolio strategy” to Hartford schools, with Dr. Kishimoto then serving as his assistant superintendent. This model provides students and parents with a portfolio of school options aimed at producing uniformly high levels of achievement throughout the district.
That’s a tall order. It’s the type of plan for change that needs to be carried out over a long period of time. At the end of Dr. Adamowski’s five-year tenure, through a leadership succession policy set by the board, Dr. Kishimoto was selected as his successor to continue the long-term portfolio plan.
And indeed, progress has been made. Since the portfolio plan was initiated in 2006, Hartford has increased the number of innovative schools in the district, increased families’ choices in schools and begun redesigning chronically low-performing schools.
According to a study by the Center for Reinventing Public Education, under the portfolio strategy, the performance gap between Hartford students and their peers statewide has been narrowed by one-third; Hartford students have made significant increases in reading scores in grades 4, 5, 7 and 8; and the district has substantially increased the number of students taking the SAT (89 percent).
However, as much as the district’s performance has improved, much work still needs to be done before we can declare victory over the district’s pervasive achievement gaps.
Dr. Kishimoto has headed up the district for two years now, and she is committed to continuing this promising portfolio strategy — an approach that has brought Hartford national recognition and significant private investment.
The strategy has received wide corporate and community financial support — including $15 million to support the school system’s reform efforts during the 2011-12 year, as well as a three-year Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation grant of $5 million.
Hartford estimates it has gotten about $25 million in private and competitive grants for the 2012-13 year. These investments represent community and national support for the strategy that was initiated by Dr. Adamowski and that has been continued under Dr. Kishimoto.
There is still so much work to be done in Hartford Public Schools. We still need to narrow achievement gaps, increase graduation rates and accelerate achievement in reading and math. Hartford’s progress in math, in particular, has been anemic.
The manner in which education reform is handled in the Hartford will impact the future of its children and the success of the Greater Hartford community in immeasurable ways.
These issues are both moral and economic. These are job issues, workforce development issues and quality-of-life issues. But we are lucky because the best decision for Hartford’s economy will also be the one that prioritizes the interests of Hartford students. We need to pick a path that will provide every child with an exceptional education — without exception.
It is going to take consistency, rather than disruption, for the Hartford public school district to tackle these problems. That is why we need to make sure that our city leaders sustain the reform effort under stable leadership.
Ramani Ayer is former CEO and chairman of the Hartford. He vice chairman of the board of the Connecticut Council on Education Reform, a group of business and philanthropic leaders that works to close the achievement gap.