New Reorganization Plan Would Close Hartford Schools, Consolidate Programs

A new plan to consolidate city schools would create larger schools and close 10 buildings while reconfiguring many programs and moving them into new quarters.

Hartford Superintendent Leslie Torres-Rodriguez, who presented her plan to the Hartford Board of Education Tuesday night before an attentive crowd of about 500 at Bulkeley High School, said the program aims to improve the quality of all schools in the city by concentrating more students in fewer schools, allowing more resources to be available to every student in a more affordable way.

“This really is about reconfiguring the entire way we do business,” Torres-Rodriguez said. “Savings is not the major goal. It’s about freeing up resources to be reinvested.”

She said, however, that $15 million would be saved annually at the end of the three years, by measures such as reducing utility and facility expenses, reducing the cost of administrative staff and by staffing larger schools more efficiently.

While promoting the plan, Torres-Rodriguez said she wanted to “call out the skepticism and the mistrust” among those who have heard similar promises for change in the past. “I know it’s real,” she said.

“I want to also validate the acute pain that families and neighborhoods affected by closures and reconfigurations will experience,” she continued. “That is undeniable. Losing your child’s school can feel like a loss of family, a loss of comfort, loss of familiarity, friendship, support … so I want to acknowledge that.”

But Torres-Rodriguez said she wouldn’t propose the change “if I did not believe that it is my responsibility as the superintendent and the responsibility of the school system to take a path that will lead to better programs and higher achievement over time. While I cannot speak for previous leaders and why their change efforts did or didn’t work, I can think of reasons why this redesign will be successful.” Her line drew one of the only rounds of applause of the evening.

This is the second major school reorganization plan under Mayor Luke Bronin. A previous plan to consolidate city schools was abandoned in late 2016.

The first schools to close under the plan would be Simpson-Waverly in the North End and Batchelder in the South End — both targeted to close in June 2018. The younger students at Simpson-Waverly would move to SAND Elementary, while grades three through eight would move to Wish Elementary.

Batchelder students would move into Kennelly, Moylan, and Sanchez elementary schools, with the students in grades six through eight moving to McDonough School, which would continue as a middle school.

The other major school buildings to be closed include Milner School in 2019 and the Mark Twain and Dwight schools in June 2020, though the programs in those buildings, as with others at additional school locations slated to close, would be continued at other sites.

The plan also calls for moving the central office for the Hartford Board of Education from 960 Main St., where the rent is $88,000 a month, into Bulkeley High School in 2021.

Bronin said Tuesday that school consolidation “has to be part of a comprehensive plan.”

“With significant under-enrollment at many neighborhood schools, we all know that consolidation has to be one part of a comprehensive plan to focus resources, as much as possible, on high-quality teaching and learning,” Bronin said. “Over the next few weeks, the superintendent and the board will continue to engage extensively with school communities to discuss this proposal, and I encourage all stakeholders to participate in that process.”

Torres-Rodriguez said she wanted to create clear pathways for families so they would know which schools their children would be attending.

With some school enrollments at less than 200, Torres-Rodriguez said she also aimed to create schools with about 400 students in them, to ensure the most effective use of resources and staffing.

Torres-Rodriguez said the city’s middle schools are running with only about 120 to 150 students.

She said she expects to hold community meetings on the plan in January, with the school board expected to vote on whether to go forward with it at its Jan. 23 meeting.

Hyacinth Yennie, a neighborhood activist from Hartford’s South End, said school closures shouldn’t be concentrated in one area of the city.

“Nobody wants school closures, but the point is that if you don’t have enough kids in some of these schools, you’re going to have to do that,” she said. “But you can’t just concentrate them on one area of town. You have to make sure it’s equal.”

Under the plan, 78 percent of students would remain in their current programs, while 9 percent — 1,822 — would move with their program into a new location, and 13 percent — 2,487 — would move into new programs.

While past efforts have been designed primarily to consolidate schools because of low enrollment, Torres-Rodriguez said, her proposal, which she developed with the help of Education Resource Strategies, a Massachusetts consultant, puts a priority on neighborhood schools in an effort to ensure excellence across the system.

Pedro Zayas, spokesman for the school system said, “It’s about reallocating the resources to improve all the remaining schools.”

Right now, Zayas said, the school system is “too spread out and we’re paying way too much for buildings that are way under capacity.”

A few parents interviewed after Torres-Rodriguez’s presentation seemed to be generally positive about the plan, though they felt some anxiety about it.

Sekienna Ellis said the complexity and scope of the plan was “tough, really tough” to absorb and understand. She said that, for her children, who attend Breakthrough North Magnet School, the news is good because they would move into Martin Luther King School when it is renovated — targeted to be finished in 2020.

“The end result will be everything new and exciting and it’s literally two minutes way from where they are currently are now,” Ellis said. “Unfortunately, though, our story is not shared by many others in the districts... so it’s overwhelming to be here tonight to hear about all of the other parts of the district that need change and I know that it's going to be hard for everyone involved, but it's necessary.”

City leaders and educators have long talked about the need to consolidate schools. They also have been concerned for years that the Sheff desegregation suit has resulted in a two-tiered educational system, with state-funded magnet schools that offer excellent opportunities for students who win a lottery, and neighborhood schools floundering, many with low enrollment and inadequate resources.

The last effort at consolidation was made in October 2016, when former Superintendent Beth Schiavano-Narvaez, with the help of Hartford’s Equity 2020 committee, proposed three possible scenarios for consolidating the city’s schools. But Mayor Luke Bronin torpedoed those plans. With Schiavano-Narvaez’s plan to leave in December 2016, Bronin asked that the school board wait on any consolidation plan until her replacement was hired.

Clark School in the North End, which has been closed because of PCB contamination, would be closed permanently under the plan.

In general, the plan converts most of the city’s elementary schools from pre-kindergarten through grade 8 to pre-kindergarten through grade 5, and creates new pathways in every community, with an elementary school leading to a middle school.

Only three schools would serve students in kindergarten through grade 8, including Global Communications, which has an International Baccalaureate program, M.D. Fox which would become the city’s first dual language school, and Kennelly, which eventually will be given a theme.

The plan also co-locates five magnet schools in school buildings with neighborhood schools, Torres-Rodriguez said,explaining, “We want to leverage our resources. We want to increase collaboration between our neighborhood schools and our magnet schools.”

As part of the plan to reconfigure schools, Milner would close in June 2019 and would become a new Milner Middle School at the current Journalism & Media Academy at 150 Tower Ave. The Journalism & Media Academy, meanwhile, would be moved into the newly renovated Weaver Campus in the fall of 2019.

The Kinsella Magnet School of Performing Arts also would move to the Weaver Campus in the fall of 2019.

Along with Milner, Martin Luther King, Burr and McDonough all would serve as middle schools.

Under the plan, Martin Luther King School would close for renovation in June 2018, with its students in grades six through eight moved to Rawson during construction. Its students in pre-kindergarten through grade 5 would be consolidated into Rawson.

Students from Breakthrough North Magnet, now at the Mark Twain School would be moved to the new Martin Luther King School when construction is completed — now targeted for 2020. The Mark Twain school building would close in 2020.

Courant reporter Jenna Carlesso contributed to this story.

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