Burns Latino Studies Academy

Superintendent of Hartford Schools Beth Schiavino-Narvaez (at left) spends time with fifth-graders Carlos Dilone, 10, (center) and Marisol Figueroa, 10, (at right) in their classroom during a tour of Burns Latino Studies Academy on the first day of school on Tuesday. Burns principal Dr. Monica Brase hosted the tour of the community school which serves students in grades Pre-K through 8. (PATRICK RAYCRAFT / August 26, 2014)

HARTFORD — Milner Principal Karen Lott stood beside former Mayor Thirman Milner, the school's namesake, as they welcomed back students and parents on Tuesday's first day of classes.

"There are a lot of changes that have happened," Lott told them, "and I want you to know that we stand here, all of the staff, poised and ready to make sure that your students have a great school year."

Lott noted the school's summer "face lift": fresh paint on the walls, new window blinds and doors that are up to code, for example. Later, she said there will be more project-based learning, a positive behavioral system for students, an hour of daily collaboration between teachers and a "coherent curriculum."

Outside, however, was perhaps an unintentional symbol of the ruptured relationship that Milner is moving on from this year. Leaning against the Milner building was the school's former "Jumoke Academy Honors at MILNER" entrance sign, upside down and split into two pieces.

After two years of being managed by the Jumoke Academy charter school organization — an arrangement through the state Commissioner's Network that had its supporters and critics — Milner's partnership with Jumoke was terminated in late June after district complaints about the charter group.

"We've gone through some changes," said Miriam Yeung, Milner's assistant principal. "But you know, we're survivors ... Most of the staff are back, and that's very important for the consistency. We have a curriculum in place and materials to go along with that."

Yeung offered cheerful greetings to a line of seventh-graders — just some of the roughly 22,000 Hartford public school students that the district estimated were in classrooms Tuesday for the start of the 2014-15 academic year.

New Superintendent Beth Schiavino-Narvaez said she woke up at 4 a.m. to begin a packed morning of media interviews and a bus tour of four schools, starting with Pathways Academy of Technology and Design, an award-winning magnet school on the East Hartford campus of Goodwin College, and Burns Latino Studies Academy in Hartford's Frog Hollow neighborhood, where educators have been working to improve the school climate and raise student attendance.

Narvaez and a group of city dignitaries also stopped by Rawson School in the Blue Hills neighborhood and Clark School. Starting this school year, the Capitol Region Education Council is managing Clark through the Commissioner's Network, a state intervention program that aims to raise achievement at low-performing schools.

"It's always a good day for me when I get to be in schools with students and our staff and parents," Narvaez said during her Rawson visit. "It's just been tremendous."

Rawson is home to a new, state-funded "lighthouse" initiative under the Sheff v. O'Neill desegregation agreement that will provide the school with $2.25 million in extra funding over three years. The lighthouse concept in the long-running Sheff case is to create "natural diversity," officials said — that is, attracting suburban families to an evolving neighborhood with a good prekindergarten to grade 8 school.

With Rawson already making strides in reading and writing, administrators said the major academic push is to build a rigorous science and math program. For Rawson's application, the city also outlined its development plans for northwest Hartford, including long-term plans for "more upscale housing opportunities" and a $28 million project with the state to redesign nearby Albany Avenue.

Rawson and four other city schools were eligible to apply for the funding because they are considered "mid-performing," or several years of progress away from becoming high-performing schools, according to the district. Among Rawson's lighthouse partners are the Blue Hills Civic Association and the Connecticut Business and Industry Association (CBIA) Education Foundation.

Narvaez said the lighthouse grant is the first time that a non-magnet Hartford school has received Sheff funding as part of desegregation goals.

Rawson Principal Gerald Martin recalled moving to the school's neighborhood in 1967, a time when many Jewish families lived in the immediate area, he said. The demographics shifted over the decades — now about 84 percent of Rawson students are identified as black, with most of the others Latino.

Martin said he wants to fulfill the lighthouse vision "so our students are not isolated, racially isolated.... It's very important for our students to have that diversity and see it themselves."

Back at Milner School, named 25 years ago after the city's first black mayor, Thirman Milner kept watch over the first-day activities and observed orderly students who would later receive a free book bag and school supplies from Catholic Charities.

In 2012, frustrated with the school's ranking as one of the worst-performing in the state, Milner admitted at a public forum that it was "disgraceful, unnecessary, as well as embarrassing to me as a living person bearing that school's name."

Now he is proud, said Milner, 80. He credited Jumoke Academy and its role last year in hiring Lott as the principal.

"I think Jumoke came in and set the foundation for the change that's taking place," Milner said.

Elizabeth Nieves, who has a fourth-grader at Milner School, said she "wasn't happy at all" to learn this summer that the school system was essentially firing the charter group. "Let's see what this year brings us without them," Nieves said Tuesday.

But another Milner parent, Stacy Figueroa, said she was relieved with the change: "It's actually great."

As for Lott, who had been immersed in staff training the past two weeks, she said it was difficult to sleep Monday night.

"It's a mixture of excitement and anxiety of bringing all the pieces together," Lott said.