Hartford's public schools have been improving. In the past five years, no city has made more progress. But Mayor Pedro Segarra and the school board have pushed out reform leader Christina Kishimoto.
No one wants Hartford schools to give back the progress that they have made. But the school board — and local voters — needs to understand how the improvements to date came about, and make sure the district doesn't waver from its reform strategy.
Hartford was one of the first cities to embrace the "portfolio strategy," offering families a choice among schools; giving principals authority to make the right decisions for their schools and holding them accountable for the results; implementing student-based budgeting, where the money follows the children to the school they attend; recruiting the best and most motivated teachers and principals; finding outside sources of financial support; closing and redesigning the lowest performing schools; and making sure the public understands what has and hasn't been accomplished.
The portfolio strategy is based on a mixture of humility and determination. No one in the district central office thinks they know enough to run effective schools in the city by remote control. They know that the best educators avoid districts and schools where they can't make decisions that fit the needs of the students they serve. At the same time, the district accepts responsibility for protecting children from schools that don't work.
This is a strategy of continuous improvement. It recognizes that a city in which many children come to school unprepared and only two-thirds of the children finish high school can't solve its all its problems in one simple leap.
Superintendent Kishimoto, and her predecessor Stephen Adamowski, committed to the portfolio strategy and made it work. She will be hard, but not impossible, to replace. Ms. Kishimoto is a go-getter who won the trust of educators, parents and the business community. She also worked to make Hartford a place where college entrance and success would be the norm. Unlike many other urban districts, Hartford is not resigned to low performance.
No one would say that this improvement process has gone on long enough to ensure an excellent school for every child. Though schools have improved overall there are still some schools that haven't found the right mix of instructional methods and student motivators. There are still some school staffs that haven't jelled.
Whether Ms. Kishimoto's strategy continues depends on the school board. If it understands what she was doing and why it worked, it will make sure the next CEO sustains her strategy. The board needs to say, we are looking for a CEO who will continue attracting the best educators by providing real autonomy — someone who will not flood schools with new rules but hold them accountable for performance.
The board should also be clear that the next CEO will be evaluated on how well he or she executes the strategy, and whether the district is working hardest to create good new schools for the children most in need.
This will not be easy. Many potential superintendents will profess a different vision of a district, where every school follows the same method, uses time and money in the same way, and trains all teachers to do the same things. The district central office will make sure everything is neat and uniform. This is an approach for a city where everything is basically OK, not for a district that needs to be open to any good idea and to attract educators who believe they can make a difference.
Hartford may be losing Ms. Kishimoto, but it doesn't need to lose her contributions. It needs to make sure that next CEO will press ahead with the portfolio strategy, not abandon it for something easier but weaker.
Paul T. Hill is founder of the Center on Reinventing Public Education and research professor at the University of Washington Bothell. He developed the portfolio school district management strategy being used in Hartford and other school systems nationally.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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