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At Hartford's Classical Magnet, Frustration Over Leadership Change

By VANESSA DE LA TORRE

February 14, 2012

HARTFORD Classical Magnet School parents, students and faculty met with Superintendent Christina Kishimoto Monday night to air their frustrations over the mid-year transfer of their principal.

A week earlier, Kishimoto announced she was assigning Timothy Sullivan Jr. to lead the struggling Latino Studies Academy at Burns for the rest of the school year. Joining him is Classical Assistant Principal Elaine Papas.

The move has roiled families and staff of the grade 6-12 magnet school, and on Monday, at least 60 people packed into a room at Classical to hear Kishimoto's explanation. She also absorbed criticism during a lengthy Q&A, according to those who attended.

Student leaders such as junior Azeem Suhaimi, 16, called the abruptness of the leadership change "inconsiderate" in a letter they read to Kishimoto. Students pointed to a lack of communication over the decision and described Sullivan as an inspirational figure.

"While all of the students understand that Burns Latino Academy is a school that needs a new leader, foundation and structure, we were very disappointed by the way the process was completed," the letter read. "You would have gained the student body's respect if you addressed us as a whole."

Administrators say Sullivan and Papas' transfer to Burns is temporary until a permanent principal is hired. But Sullivan, who competed with Kishimoto for the superintendent's job last winter, has told parents that a new Classical principal also will be hired signaling an end to his 7 1/2-year tenure at the magnet school.

The interim leader at Classical is James Fagan, a retired Hartford principal.

Reporters were blocked from attending Monday's gathering at Classical. "This is a meeting with parents and I want the parents to be able to tell me what's on their minds, and so that's why it was a closed-door meeting," Kishimoto said later.

School officials also barred a Courant reporter from entering a community meeting last week at Burns in which Kishimoto discussed the changes at that school. Former Burns Principal Lourdes Soto was dismissed in the shakeup.

Meetings are presumed to be open under the state's Freedom of Information law, unless specifically exempted. School spokesman David Medina said Monday night that the corporation counsel would provide a legal citation justifying the exclusion of the media. By Tuesday evening, none had been provided.

Among those attending the Classical meeting were about 10 school staffers and several students, according to a participant. Also allowed inside the room was board of education member Robert Cotto Jr., who posted items to Twitter.

Cotto wrote that one parent told Kishimoto, "You have tarnished your reputation." He later quoted a man, apparently a school employee, as saying, "You gave us hours notice that this was happening, that you [were] wrecking the school."

After the meeting, parent Teodoro Anderson Diaz said he was "confident that the foundation Mr. Sullivan laid here will continue.... We love this school. So, we'll be fine."

Kathy Marek-Bissonnette, who has two daughters attending Classical, also believed in the foundation but added, "I still feel nervous about the future." Her husband, Mark Bissonnette, said parents should have more say in major decisions involving school leaders: "I shouldn't be reacting to something; I should be part of the change."

In a brief interview, Kishimoto acknowledged "the process was absolutely not ideal."

"I'm certainly standing by my decision to put the best principal in a school that needs leadership right now in the middle of the year," Kishimoto said. "The timing was difficult; the lack of time available to meet with every group, so we've done that now as quickly as possible."

The education reform group Achieve Hartford! defended the "much-needed intervention" for Burns and argued that "with this drastic measure, the district is demonstrating strong accountability for results."

A proposal from Gov.Dannel P. Malloywould create a $24.8 million "Commissioner's Network" to assist up to 25 of the state's lowest-performing schools, and during a press conference with the governor last week, Kishimoto identified Burns and Milner elementary schools as in most need of help.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
     
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