In the capital city, public school teachers can often be counted on to preach perseverance when students encounter the unpredictability of life.
On Monday, the eve of the new school year in Hartford, it was Superintendent Leslie Torres-Rodriguez’s turn to be that messenger as she acknowledged local budget turmoil, the looming consolidation of city schools, and unrelenting national unease in her first speech to the entire district staff.
“There are challenges around our school system’s budget, and uncertainty about our district consolidation,” Torres-Rodriguez told more than a thousand educators and support staffers who descended on Dunkin’ Donuts Park for the city schools’ annual convocation. “Challenging times like these can bring about fear and insecurity, and in times like these our children will be watching.”
Hartford schools were preparing to welcome more than 20,500 students Tuesday. “I know that achieving difficult tasks and goals is very hard work,” Torres-Rodriguez said. “But look at all of you: You are resilient, you are brilliant and you are dedicated.”
As the new superintendent spoke on a makeshift platform on the infield dirt, a beach ball was batted around in the seats behind home plate. The stadium seats along the first base side were a kaleidoscope of school colors, from Rawson STEAM’s maroon T-shirts to the pointy, royal blue wizard hats atop the heads of Simpson-Waverly School staff. M.D. Fox School’s mascot — someone dressed as a benevolent red fox adorned in a Carolina blue M.D. Fox basketball jersey — also made an appearance in the stands.
Over the past few years, the back-to-school pep rally for Hartford teachers was held inside a city school, such as the Bulkeley High auditorium. This time, with the new minor-league ballpark open north of downtown, student performers took their talents to the stadium grass and the schools chief used her sporty surroundings to set up a “One team, our team” slogan to kick off the year.
For the first time in recent memory, leaders from the Capitol Region Education Council, a Hartford-based magnet school operator that has been one of the city school system’s chief rivals, sat alongside district and city brass Monday in a show of solidarity.
Hartford teachers are no strangers to the city’s political and everyday dramas, but this year could be exceptional for its uncertainty. Torres-Rodriguez, appointed to the top job this spring after several months as the interim leader, says that school consolidation talks will ramp up this fall, a source of anxiety for staffers concerned about their schools and livelihoods. Meanwhile, the city remains on the brink of bankruptcy and politicians still haven’t approved a state budget, throwing districts across Connecticut into a lurch as the school year gets underway.
Although Gov. Dannel P. Malloy has pledged to preserve education-cost sharing funds for the neediest districts, including Hartford, Torres-Rodriguez told The Courant that she is concerned about the fate of a $5.17 million Priority School District grant from the state that covers salaries and benefits for numerous certified and part-time staff in Hartford schools, including teachers and behavioral workers.
In addition, Mayor Luke Bronin alluded to racial tensions in the nation after the spectacle and violence of a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va., earlier this month.
“At this time when the floodwaters of hate seem to be rising around the country,” Bronin said, “your voice, more than any others, can help make sure that all of our students know that this country continues to recognize the value that they have … and the fact that their strengths and their successes is our country’s strength and success.”
Reggie Tucker, a middle-school history teacher and varsity basketball coach at Classical Magnet School, said he saw the new school year as hitting the “refresh button,” a time to filter out negativity and “control what you can control.”
“How much time is wasted over things you can’t control?” Tucker said in the stadium concourse, the beats of a student drum line ricocheting off the concrete. “As far as the budget is concerned, that’s beyond my paycheck. As long as my kids are learning and I’m preparing them for the future, to go to college ... we’re good.”
“We have a job to do, we’re going to do it regardless,” said Victor Cristofaro, principal of Burns Latino Studies Academy, after the speeches were over. Burns planned to host a back-to-school party for families later that day with ice cream and bounce houses.
Hartford Teacher of the Year Sonia Turner, who teaches sixth-graders at Annie Fisher STEM Magnet School, recalled the peaks and valleys over 19 years as a city educator in a shifting educational landscape, when “students became a score instead of being Sam Smith.”
But it was the kids — vulnerable, strong, talented and impressionable — who always crystallized her focus, Turner said in a speech that drew a standing ovation. “The question that I pose to you today is: Are you ready to change a life?”