Concern Expressed Over Hartford School Leadership Instability
By JENNA CARLESSO
June 23, 2013
HARTFORD —— Not long after the board of education rejected Superintendent Christina Kishimoto's bid for a contract extension, board members pledged their commitment to the city's ambitious education reform plan.
But school advocates and state and local officials have expressed concern over the leadership change, saying it could delay reform efforts as a new superintendent gets up to speed.
"Any change at the top brings with it inevitable changes in how the district operates, and often times that level of disruption forces things to slow down," said Paul Holzer, executive director of Achieve Hartford!, a reform advocacy group. "It becomes a distraction for those on the ground and creates a certain level of uncertainty among all those poised to support the district."
"The big losers in this are the children in Hartford who finally had some hope," said Joe Cirasuolo, head of the Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents. "It's a shame to see that compromised."
The school board on Tuesday voted down Kishimoto's request for a two-year contract extension, which would have kept her in charge through 2016. Her current contract expires on June 30, 2014.
Board members said the pace of reform isn't moving fast enough, and the district needs a change in leadership.
Kishimoto was appointed schools chief in 2011 after working as a top deputy to former Superintendent Steven Adamowski. The board of education at the time sought a leader who would continue Adamowski's reform strategies, specifically student-based budgeting and principal autonomy.
Kishimoto, 44, orchestrated the redesign of low-performing schools into specialized academies. A key element of Hartford's reform strategy has been its smaller, career-oriented schools, regional magnet programs and traditional neighborhood schools.
The superintendent, who makes $231,000 a year, also helped put in place the citywide school choice program that allows parents to apply to have their children attend an institution outside their immediate neighborhood.
Education advocates said Kishimoto's close working relationship with Adamowski was an asset to the district, ensuring a seamless transition. The board may have a hard time finding that again, it said.
"The potential disruption in leadership continuity is particularly concerning, especially while Hartford is in the middle of a decade-long initiative to reform its public education system," said Ramani Ayer, acting executive director of the Connecticut Council for Education Reform. "Dr. Kishimoto has been continuing a reform agenda, originally initiated under Dr. Adamowski, that combined a portfolio approach with principled reform initiatives.
"The parents and over 20,000 students who attend Hartford public schools are depending on Hartford's mayor and board to continue the important reform efforts that are now at risk."
Board members have defended their decision, saying they want to bring in a new superintendent that will accelerate the pace of reform. In the meantime, they said, Kishimoto is committed to working with the next leader so that no disruption occurs.
A teary Kishimoto said Tuesday, after the board's vote, that she would work to make sure the reform efforts don't slow down.
"We will be able to move forward without reform being stopped," said Matthew K. Poland, chairman of the city's school board. "A sign of a good leader is that they have left something behind that can sustain itself if that leader should leave. If the organization falls apart after its leader has left, it means we're counting too much on that leader and not on the organization. I don't see why that has to stop because we're looking for someone new."
Poland said he and others are concerned that not enough attention has been paid to the non-magnet schools. Some of the magnet schools created under the reform strategy have exceeded expectations. But only about 3,000 Hartford children attend those schools (and another 3,000 attend schools outside the city), leaving 16,000 kids in institutions of varying quality. Some of the neighborhood schools are among the lowest-performing in the state.
The board is seeking a superintendent who can work with district leaders to "improve the entire system," instead of making incremental gains, Poland said.
"It's not OK to just settle for isolated success, as significant as some of those smaller successes may be," he said. "We need someone who sees that picture in a much bigger way and articulates urgency, keeping the pace of reform accelerated in a way that makes us all feel that the clock is running out and we've got to do something about it."
Poland said the board will begin the selection process for a new superintendent as early as next month.
Mayor Pedro Segarra, who last year appointed himself to the school board, said he is committed to continuing reform efforts, though some of them will have to be evaluated to determine what's actually working.
He said he hopes to be more involved once a new superintendent takes over, particularly in leveraging resources from his Opportunities Hartford program — which identifies opportunities in employment, income and education, and expands upon them — to help reduce city poverty.
Board members said the district will also welcome more parent engagement — something that has been lacking under Kishimoto. Poland called parent involvement "one of the primary principles of reform."
But some parents have said they're worried about how the change in leadership will affect the schools their children attend.
"We are so far into this reform that we really just can't afford to stop and start all over again," said Shay Teal, who has six children, one of whom is in the school system now. "We've made so much progress. I can't see how they would wait so far into the reform to make this decision."
"It's very disappointing and it's very scary," she continued. "We don't know where they are going with this. They aren't communicating with the parents."
Samariya Smith, co-chairwoman of the district's task force on family and community engagement, said parents "didn't have a say in the matter."
Though she acknowledged that Kishimoto was "not perfect," Smith said her contract still should have been extended.
"I'm afraid now because we have to go through this entire process of looking for a superintendent and who knows," she said. "The person may come in with great ideas and have the interests of Hartford children at heart, but they are not going to be perfect [either].
"A lot of strides have been made to help put this reform into place and we're afraid that it's going to get undone — that a new person will come in and want to change everything."
Kishimoto was appointed superintendent by the previous board of education, which was stacked with appointees of former Mayor Eddie Perez. When their terms expired and Segarra appointed five new members in 2012, observers wondered about Kishimoto's long-term job security. Segarra initially had delayed Kishimoto's appointment by calling for a national search, which was rebuffed.
City Councilman David MacDonald, a prior school board chairman, said the new members have not worked diligently to create policies that enhance student achievement; instead, they have placed all the blame on a single individual — Kishimoto.
"I have seen no evidence of this board doing the work of reform," he said. "When I was on the board, we were very active and very busy developing strategies to impact student achievement. It seems they are trying to push all the responsibility on the superintendent."
Poland and Segarra both dismissed the assertion.
"Our policy committees have worked tirelessly on many, many issues that Christina and the district brought to our attention," Poland said. "I think we have done a good job under circumstances where we weren't getting the information or leadership we needed."
When the search begins for a new superintendent, education advocates said they hope the board will look for candidates that preserve and build on the reform efforts already in place.
Douglas McCrory, a Democratic state representative serving as vice chairman of the legislature's education committee, said regardless of whom the new superintendent is, reform will take time.
"It took us a long time to get into the mess we're in," said McCrory, a former vice principal and teacher. "I think it can be turned around faster than what they were projecting, but it's going to take them time."
Cirasuolo, head of the superintendents' association, said the system could benefit from more collaboration between the board and schools chief. But the mayor should be careful not to take on too great of a leadership role, he said.
"The mayor being on the school board is not a problem as long as the mayor realizes the leadership of the schools lies with the superintendent and doesn't try to control things from city hall," Cirasuolo said. "If the mayor is committed to controlling the school system, it's going to be tough to get a strong leader to come in. The schools need a strong leader."
Adamowski, the previous superintendent, said the board should look for a replacement with similar goals and qualities as Kishimoto, including a strong knowledge of school design and new school creation.
"It would be very hard to turn back the clock on the reform efforts," he said. "You have new schools that are doing better, parents that are enthusiastic about them. It would be very difficult, even if one wanted to, to turn back the clock on that. I think that is one of Christina's lasting contributions."
Staff Writers Kathy Megan and Vanessa de la Torre contributed to this report.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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