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Hartford Public Schools look ahead to 23-24 year | #schoolsaftey

As Hartford Public Schools Superintendent Leslie Torres-Rodriguez prepares for the 2023-2024 school year, four things are “front and center” in her mind: staffing shortages, community violence, supporting educators and student engagement.

Approximately 10% of Hartford’s certified teaching positions remain unfilled, translating to 156 open spots, 60 of which are for classroom teachers. Last August, the vacancy rate was 16% with 243 openings.

While Torres-Rodriguez said the numbers are an improvement, it is far from ideal.

“We know that with only 13 days to the start of school, that’s a concern,” Torres-Rodriguez said. “The largest impact on student outcomes is derived from having a highly qualified educator in front of our students. And so when that is compromised, it means that it has to spill over into other areas.”

Across the district, the largest number of vacancies are for special education, speech and language therapist and paraeducator positions, according to Torres-Rodriguez.

She said this year, Hartford will place an added emphasis on “making sure that we support educators in the business of what we do, which is delivering quality teaching and learning,” through coaching support, individualized professional development and mentor and leadership opportunities.

Torres-Rodriguez said the district hopes to fill the gaps with long-term substitutes in an effort to avoid teachers picking up extra classes.

“Although they get compensated for doing the extra work, it’s not the ideal situation for anyone, not for our teachers and certainly not for our students because we want teachers to be at their best,” Torres-Rodriguez said. “It also impacts the relationship building that we want students to have with teachers, with trusted adults. And so it becomes a ripple effect.”

Community trauma, with the rise in violence across the city, is also a key concern for Torres-Rodriguez.

“Something else that has me unsettled is just the impact that trauma has on the student experience and by extension, on the culture and the climate of a school,” Torres-Rodriguez said. “There have been several situations in our community that will spill over. When violence in our community happens, that is someone’s brother or parent or extended family member or just someone in their neighborhood.”

Torres-Rodriguez said that the impact of violence shows up differently for students, often presenting as behavioral problems in the classroom. She said the district will continue to expand access to community resources, social workers, behavior management and conflict resolution to support students.

“The work is never done in isolation. And it’s always a moving target if you will because it’s never-ending work,” Torres-Rodriguez said.

At the backdrop of all of these challenges, Torres-Rodriguez said, is the question of financial sustainability once COVID-era funding ends.

After the pandemic hit, Hartford public schools received $154 million in federal funds from the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund.

“We were able to make investments not only in people but in extra time and programs and we know that it’s sunsetting,” Torres-Rodriguez said. “November 2024 for us is a key date and it’s trying to see how we can sustain, not just the people, but the resources — and at this moment, I do not have a plan for sustaining 211 positions that were included in the ESSER application and strategy.”

Torres-Rodriguez said that some of those positions will transition into vacancies but other ESSER-funded programs and positions will no longer be sustainable, like $1,000 recruitment incentives for staff referrals and certain community partnership programs that deliver support services to schools.

When the funding dissolves, Torres-Rodriguez said one program the district plans to maintain is its network of “Student Success Centers” in Hartford’s three comprehensive high schools.

Torres-Rodriguez said that over the last three years, the program has allowed more than 500 students to graduate from the district.

“Without those individualized supports, the social, emotional, mental health and wellness supports, without the extended learning time, that’s 500 young people that would not have graduated and or would have just given up,” Torres-Rodriguez said. “We want to make sure that we let our community know that those supports are going to stay in place for this year and that we are going to prioritize making sure that they are sustained post-ESSER.”

Torres-Rodriguez said the program is part of the district’s broader goal of identifying ways to support students who are disengaged and off track.

She said that Hartford Public Schools will continue its Pathways Program that connects students with career opportunities and real-world experience.

“The one thing that they kept telling us (was), ‘We don’t necessarily get to connect what we’re learning in the classroom to the real world, the world of work,’ ” Torres-Rodriguez said. But, with the pathways program, Torres-Rodriguez said students “can see the relevance.”

Torres-Rodriguez said this fall Hartford will launch a new “Innovation Network” across a cohort of five schools that will work with students and the community to develop new approaches to education.

For Torres-Rodriguez, the most exciting part of the program is that it will task a group of students with designing their own school.

“If you had an opportunity to design, from scratch, a high school, what could it be? What does the schedule need to be? Where does the learning need to happen? Where could the learning happen? Who is going to inform the experiences that you have? What type of industry partners would you like to have exposure to?” Torres-Rodriguez said.

Torres-Rodriguez said participating schools will have an opportunity to learn from one another and visit classrooms beyond the district and the state to see innovation in action.

After engaging with their communities, the schools will ultimately decide what they want to implement or change, whether it’s tweaking social and emotional learning, thinking differently about supporting educators or instituting any number of new features.

Torres-Rodriguez said the district is cognizant of the fact that not all students are meeting standards of success, and leaders want to tackle the issue from new angles.

“We don’t know what they’re going to come up with. But the bottom line is that we’re really thinking hard about ‘how can we respond to what our students are saying to us?’ ” Torres-Rodriguez said. “We don’t want to only assume that we have all the answers. We want to have an opportunity to co-create and co-design.”

“We want to learn from students, from their perspective, what it is that they would innovate and redesign so that their experience is one that is better for them and ultimately for their future.”

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