When you walk into Burns Latino Studies Academy, you cannot miss the large wall covered with the school’s CMT scores. On the left side of this hallway there is a dental clinic. In between sits the desk that Principal Timothy Sullivan is calling his office.
Due to limited space, Elaine Papas, the Assistant Principal, is using the office they would have shared; Sullivan has used this opportunity to make himself visible and accessible.
This was just one of the changes discussed at Burns on Wednesday night. The meeting to welcome new personnel was held in the auditorium and attended by families, community members, and school employees.
Superintendent Kishimoto provided no details on Dr. Lourdes Soto’s departure from Burns last week, other than to call it an “unexpected leave.”
One parent went so far as to say he did not care about the reasons for why the former principal left; he was primarily concerned with what direction his child’s school was headed in now.
After hearing that Sullivan was only asked to stay at Burns for the next five months, a parent asked why he could not stay there long term. Kishimoto said she “was not going to make a decision for Mr. Sullivan or for the school right now.” Sullivan said he had no plans to remain at Burns for “ten years,” noting that he does “not speak a word of Spanish.”
Before Sullivan arrived to the meeting — he had been speaking with families at Classical Magnet School for “closure,” Kishimoto said — one community member asked if Sullivan speaks Spanish. There had been some concern about the ability for the administration to communicate with parents. Last year, 178 of the 420 students taking the CMTs were identified as English Language Learners; 345 of those 420 were described as Hispanic. Kishimoto responded that Assistant Principal Ayala is remaining at Burns and that the leaders work as a team.
Sources say that the School Governance Council was not involved in the decision to transfer Sullivan and Papas, even though one of the responsibilities of the SGC is to “participate in the hiring process of the school Principal.” Kishimoto emphasized, however, that parents will select a permanent principal for Burns. She said it was her understanding that the parents on the Burns SGC have had inconsistent involvement, and urged those in attendance to get involved in this organization. When several parents and community members voiced concerns about conditions of the building, they were told that such complaints should be taken to the SGC.
One parent described the internal and external building conditions as not being conducive to learning. The auditorium — far from being crowded — was uncomfortably warm with windows cracked open; the windows at Burns have been open every day this winter, including at night and on weekends.
Eddie Genao, the school’s “quality officer,” said the library was recently repainted, bathroom fixtures have been updated, and a new head custodian has been hired, but concerns about the infrequently mowed lawn went virtually unaddressed, with one resident saying, “just because we’re in a poor neighborhood” does not mean the school deserves to be neglected. Kishimoto said there are no major construction plans in the works for the school, though they are putting in a “computer lab, a language lab.”
Parents also wanted to know how the new principal would be working with them on issues that they described as being ignored by the previous leader. Sullivan assured parents that they could walk into the school and ask to speak with him directly.
While there has been speculation that the sudden departure of Dr. Soto is related to the labeling of Burns as a low-performing school, not all parents are eager to see an emphasis placed on standardized testing. One father said, “if I wanted my child to be in a test-taking factory,” he would have kept his child at another school. Kishimoto promised that they were not seeking to “turn the school upside down.”
By the sound of it, changes are already happening at the K-8 school wedged between Putnam St., Russ St., Mortson St., and Park Terrace. Already this week, students who were not in compliance with the dress code were sent to the auditorium where they were given uniforms to wear. Some subsequently refused to return to class. Sullivan reminded parents that if they cannot afford uniforms, the school will provide them, but students are required to wear them, regardless of family income.
Tackling “uniforms, hats, and cellphones” was named as the first item on Sullivan’s list. Second: getting the students to learn in the classroom. Third: getting the students to bring home their homework. This is all part of Sullivan’s agenda to raise the bar. He said these expectations would be elevated for students, staff, and parents, but that he also expects parents to hold him accountable.
Aside from speculation among attendees that this transfer of Sullivan was a way to push him out of the district, families and community members welcomed him and his enthusiasm for serving at this school. He reported that over the weekend he took a bicycle ride around the Burns’ neighborhood to check out where most of his new students live. He mentioned plans to reach out more to the community, suggesting that neighbors use the auditorium stage for plays or the field behind the school for pick-up baseball games. He is also thinking about a Classical Magnet School/Burns Latino Studies Academy baseball team– one school has uniforms and equipment, while the other school has a field.
Sullivan has already invited community members to provide him with a list of names and numbers of those who would be willing to spend part of a Saturday raking the lawn or addressing other mundane, overlooked tasks at the school.
Some in the community are expecting Sullivan and Papas to rescue Burns from the conditions which have contributed to its less than favorable reputation. Others have asked if the timing of this personnel change is related to Governor Malloy’s announcement that he wants the State to take over 25 “low-achieving schools” if they lack a plan for improvement. Low-achieving schools that can prove they are “in the midst of intensive interventions” may be able to ward off State interference.
To date, no press release has been sent by the Hartford Public Schools on this matter and members of the media were allegedly not permitted into Wednesday evening’s community meeting at the public school.
Reprinted with permission of Kerri Provost, author of the blog RealHartford.
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