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At Hartford's Burns School, New Principal Looks To Parents To Support Change

By VANESSA DE LA TORRE

August 24, 2012

HARTFORD The DJ blasted Latin tunes on the speakers, the inflatable water slide was hosed up, children got their faces painted and families began lining up for the free cafeteria dinner being served inside.

More than 200 parents and students arrived within the first hour that festivities got underway late Thursday afternoon at the Latino Studies Academy at Burns. Classes at Burns and in most Hartford schools don't start until Tuesday.

But to begin transforming one of the city's lowest-performing schools, the new principal of Burns, Monica Brase, believes engaging parents in their children's education is key.

"We cannot move forward in isolation," Brase told the crowd. Then she reached into a stack of emergency contact forms that the parents filled out to pick a raffle winner.

Brase, 43, is an Oklahoma native who arrived in Connecticut to get her master's degree in public health at Yale University and ultimately stayed. She was a resident principal last school year at Hartford Magnet Trinity College Academy and previously taught science for a decade at Classical Magnet School, Capital Preparatory Magnet and Bulkeley High School.

Brase has worked with difficult students and advocates on behalf of homeless youth in Hartford.

Her new task is immense: At Burns, a prekindergarten to grade 8 community school in Frog Hollow, 39 percent of roughly 600 students are English Language Learners, 12 percent have special needs and virtually all qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.

Among third-graders who took this spring's Connecticut Mastery Test, only 28 percent were deemed proficient in reading, below the citywide average of 50 percent.

The last Burns principal, Lourdes Soto, was dismissed in February and replaced with an interim leader, former Classical Principal Timothy Sullivan Jr., who left the school system this summer for a top administrative post with the Capitol Region Education Council.

"We have had poor student performance," Brase said, "but we also have the potential here... We were able to bring in a lot of good teachers. We have solid staff... They're ready to go. People want change."

Along with a book bag, the school calendar and their children's teacher assignments, parents on Thursday received a blue sheet of "expectations."

The document in Spanish and English outlined student dropoff and pickup times, reminded them that any visitors "will come to school appropriately dressed," and made clear that during school hours, "instructional time will be protected. ...Please schedule visits with teachers before or after school."

Burns is one of five schools in Connecticut chosen for a new K-3 literacy initiative in which each receive about $354,000 in state funding to hire a literacy coach and four reading interventionists, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy announced this week.

The other schools are East Hartford's Norris Elementary, Meriden's Barry Elementary, New Haven's Truman Elementary, and Windham Center Elementary in Windham.

Thursday's three-hour event was organized with Leadership Greater Hartford's Third Age Initiative, a program in which retirees volunteer for a community project, and featured a range of informational booths from Hartford Symphony Orchestra to the Hispanic Health Council.

Standing in the crowd was Thomas Faniel, who quietly observed Brase's interactions with parents.

"I try not to impede on her day," said Faniel, a leadership coach that the city school system hired to work with Brase part-time in her first year. He considered his role as a "critical friend," someone who can offer ideas and "be a conduit of resources."

"It's amazing what a small group of people determined to make a difference can accomplish in a very short period of time," said Carlos Morales, whose daughter Kassandra will be a Burns sixth-grader. He called Brase "a blessing."

Morales played a role in her hiring as the parent chairman of Burns' state-mandated school governance council, which has a voice in staffing interviews and the school budget. About a quarter of the Burns staff is new, including many of the middle school teachers.

"We need to be real: Nothing is going to happen overnight," Morales said. "This year is probably going to be the most difficult because we have to change the culture of the school from students, parents to the administration and everybody else."

In the past, Morales said, many Burns parents have not felt at ease coming to the school, whether because of limited English skills or myriad other reasons. Already, Brase has discussed the possibility of hosting GED and English classes at Burns for parents and establishing a school-based food pantry.

"Today, hopefully, they'll get the message that this is a safe place," Morales said. "Our goal is to make it a true community school."

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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