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Management in Practice

Leading Hartford Back to School

This week, students in the Hartford Public Schools, one of the largest districts in Connecticut, returned to the classroom for the first time since March. Under the district’s Return to Learn & Accelerate plan—subject to change as conditions evolve—students from kindergarten through 9th grade have the opportunity to attend school in person, with masks and other safety measures, while 10th- through 12th-graders can mix in-person and distance learning; families also have the option of choosing fully remote learning. We talked to Superintendent Leslie Torres-Rodriguez about the challenges she has faced and the possibility of lasting change.

Hartford Public Schools Superintendent Leslie Torres-Rodriguez (bottom right) and other school leaders talk with a family on their second-floor porch in the district in June 2020. AP Photo/Jessica Hill.

Hartford Public Schools Superintendent Leslie Torres-Rodriguez (bottom right) and other school leaders talk with a family in the district in June 2020. AP Photo/Jessica Hill.

Leslie Torres-Rodriguez is a 2018–19 fellow of The Broad Academy, a professional-development program for urban school-system leaders at The Broad Center in Los Angeles. The center is currently being transformed into The Broad Center at Yale SOM, which will continue to offer programs to bolster public education leadership.

In planning the return to school, how do you think about balancing the health risk and what kids lose by not being in school?

That is the dilemma. I know that there is no one perfect plan, for us and also for our families, who have to make a choice. I go back to what we saw in the spring, that remote instruction does not reach all of our students, that the levels of engagement were lower across the board, and especially for students and families that are economically disadvantaged. A plan for remote-only learning, I don’t think, does well by all of our students and our families and their needs.

We continue to be mindful of the external health conditions. There’s a shared responsibility here with regard to keeping the rate of transmission low. There’s a community-wide education effort that has to happen here in Hartford. And because we bring in students from 80 different communities, it goes beyond Hartford.

I don’t think there is a balance. We want to say, “Yes, let’s equalize and let’s have a balance.” And clearly there isn’t. I think it’s actually unfair to think that we’re going to get at that balance. We try to do the best we can with regard to adhering to the safety guidance that is provided while also knowing that there are so many elements at play. We’re working to have our contact tracing protocol. We have added a new position, a contact tracing nurse for Hartford Public Schools, in addition to all the nurses that each of our schools have. We have a person that’s specifically dedicated to working with every school; every school now has a COVID response team that is going to look at the data twice a day. And those teams are going to be connected to our system-level team and the Department of Public Health at the city.

While there’s a lot that we don’t know, there are things that we do know. We know that we took important steps to improve technology access for families and to increase the efficacy of online instruction for this fall. And we know that we owe it to our families to offer an in-person option so that our students can continue to learn, but more importantly, begin to solidify those relationships and those connections so that if we have to pivot and go remote, there is some level of connection and relationship that has already been established.

Equity was a big part of what you were working on before all of this happened. How has it fit into the response to COVID-19?

It was front and center before, and now it is even more relevant. When we closed in March, we distributed over 11,000 laptops in a matter of weeks, distributed mobile hotspots, and did individual outreach in a very short amount of time. It continues to be a concern because of students who are facing familial or community-based challenges, and who are facing multiple barriers like access to healthcare, unemployment, food insecurity, and housing insecurity. We have to think about the plan to return, while also thinking about all the other systems that must be strengthened in a short amount of time.

I would be lying to you if I said that we had it all figured out. Equity work means racial equity, it also means all the other elements of equity. It means inclusion. It means lifting voice. It means equity in the what and it means equity in the how.

That’s the other piece that I continue to be mindful of in my leadership. The “what” can mean the additional resources that we need for our students and to support our staff. But there’s also equity in the how. And that is making sure that when we are planning that we do so not just with the end user in mind, but with the end user as part of that process.

There’s a process aspect that often, I believe, can be missed when we’re trying to achieve equity work.

“When we went remote in the spring, there was a cohort of about 1,500 students that we just couldn’t connect with. It took us about four to six weeks to get that number down to about 200 students.”

Can you give me a sense of how much you were able to connect with students in the spring, and how much the degree of connection was broken down on socioeconomic lines?

When we looked at the data, the rates of engagement in online learning for our Black and Latinx youth ranged between 60 to 70% compared to, in some of our schools, 80 to 90% engagement. When we went remote in the spring, there was a cohort of students, about 1,500 students, that we just couldn’t connect with. It took us about four to six weeks to get that number down to about 200 students. And still we weren’t able to connect with all of them. Our homeless students, our English learners, and our students with exceptionalities were the three groups that were clearly less engaged, more challenging for us to connect with, less likely to have access to reliable internet.

That brings implications for how we design our return to school and then how we have to pivot—because we know we’re going to have to pivot—with regard to the learning models.

What are the resources that you think are necessary to succeed?

The state and federal funding is certainly needed and welcomed. As we know, the governor recently announced additional COVID relief funding. That’s about $11.9 million for Hartford, and the funds will be going to offset additional staffing costs as it relates to academic and support staff. We are in the process of hiring an additional 15 custodians. There’s PPE. We have the transportation-related costs.

The other support that is needed is with regard to staffing. Both the funding for added staffing and actual staff—having a pipeline of people who are ready to assume these positions is a challenge. It’s not a Hartford-based challenge—it’s across the state, across the country.

The hard-to-fill areas, every year in Hartford, are, for example, our math and science. Speech and language therapists. And it’s still a challenge for us today on top of the additional staffing needs that we have with COVID.

Even though we might have additional funding, we might not be able to fill the positions. And I know that the state has allowed for some certification flexibilities, and that is all helpful, but it’s hard for me not to think about the here and now, needing staff immediately, and then the implications in a year, two years, and beyond.

The other piece that I think about in terms of support as it relates to a system like ours is the partnership piece, the role that our community-based partners can play. I consider Hartford to be an asset-rich community, as it relates to community partnerships. I think that we could do more to expand the partnerships and the role that partners can play in addressing those other needs that families have.

Then there’s the role that government plays here in terms of cross-departmental, cross-agency collaboration and coordination. I see some of that at the state level, but we have to build the muscles at the municipal and school district level, set up a system to continue to improve and sustain those macro-systemic structures.

“COVID forces us to take things apart and re-adjust. Am I already thinking about other possibilities, like designing for school to happen during nontraditional hours? Yes. I want to have those conversations.”

I’m sure you’re just focused on getting through today. But do you think this experience has changed the way you will think about your long-term goals?

Absolutely. I am not thinking just about today. And I’m cautious in even saying this, but that is what I find to be the opportunity, as it relates to my own personal and professional leadership growth. From just a leadership perspective, I am trying to operate on two parallel tracks here, and they’re beginning to merge strategically.

We just culminated the end of a three-year equity-focused consolidation and re-design plan for Hartford Public Schools. Twenty percent of our student population experienced an added level of change due to school closures, co-location, consolidations, or re-configurations. So we have been in this cadence of change, at times painfully, and bringing different communities together. We were just going to pivot to, “Now we stabilize, and we sharpen focus on becoming a stronger learning organization.”

Now there’s COVID—and it forces us to take things apart and re-adjust. Am I already thinking about other possibilities, like designing for school to happen during nontraditional hours? Yes. I want to have those conversations. Based on what I have heard from some our families, of even younger learners, this 7 a.m.-3 p.m., 8:00 a.m.-3:00 p.m. schedule, it just doesn’t work for everyone.

If we are OK as a community and as a state with the current results that we’re getting, as it relates to racial equity and opportunity and access, and if we are OK with the economy as it has been, then maybe we do things as we were doing them before. However, it doesn’t work for everyone. And so to the extent that I can engage the community and work with our Board of Education to look at what could be done differently, I want to leverage that opportunity. That is just one example. We have heard from our constituents and our stakeholders about the possibility of something different.

From a design perspective, and from an operational perspective, I don’t know how we could go back. As I reflect, the COVID-19 challenge we have in front of us is not lost on me, but neither are the growth that I have seen in my team, in my leadership practice, in the entire Hartford Public Schools community, and the opportunity for fundamental changes.