Hartford’s Board of Education consists of four individuals who are elected by voters and five individuals who are appointed by the mayor. There are currently only four people running for the four open positions this year. Barring a write-in candidate or someone quitting his or her campaign, we know who will be filling those vacancies.
The nature of this campaign season is not reason to tune out. Knowing where candidates are coming from and where they stand on the issues helps residents get a sense of what to expect over the next few years.
One of the tasks before this new school board will be to select a superintendent who will manage the public schools and implement the educational interests and laws of the State of Connecticut. The ongoing clashing between the current superintendent and Board of Education highlights the importance of selecting and electing individuals who can work well with others while upholding their responsibilities and maintaining professionalism.
After the superintendent is chosen, the Board of Education will routinely evaluate the superintendent to ensure she or he is managing the schools as required by law.
The school board will also need to pass a financial budget that complies with state law.
And, what we typically see the Board of Education doing, is fulfilling its responsibility to create and modify policies for the operation of the schools.
To have any measure of success, everyone on the Board has to be on board with meeting these responsibilities.
Real Hartford asked the four Board of Education candidates — Mike Brescia, Robert Cotto, Jr., Beth Parker, and Craig Stallings — a series of questions to gauge their perspectives, experience, and dedication.
In what ways do you support public education?
MB: I was a teacher for a long time, so I was supporting it from the inside. I taught in secondary schools only, though I was certified from k-12. I’m still certified. I taught reading, math, and science. I’m all in favor of public education. One of the reasons I think that you don’t get many teachers on the board is that they can’t teach and be on the board at the same time [for the same district].
RC: Over the past four years, I have been a leading voice on the Hartford Board of Education for equal educational opportunities for all children in our public schools. Our public schools must help children learn to become engaged, productive, and healthy adults. To accomplish that goal, I have used my office to advocate for schools that offer a rich, broad curriculum for all students, sufficient resources for all schools, and collaboration with teachers and parents for school improvement. Across the state, I have protested the inappropriate use of tests to judge schools and award bonuses, excessive disciplinary practices, increasing racial and ethnic isolation, and the privatization of schools.
BP: I believe that a high quality public education system is essential to the health and economic vitality of a municipality. I am a product of public school education and am running for the Hartford Board of Education because I am committed to a rigorous public school education in which resources of parents, community members and corporate partners are directed synergistically to improve, support and enhance public school education.
CS: I believe that all children have a right to an education. The public school system is the only way to make sure children are given that opportunity.
What history do you have of working with budgets?
MB: I haven’t worked with budgets at all except in a very general way. When I was [working] in the adult school, I was the resource teacher and head of the adult school at night.
RC: Each year, the Board of Education is required to pass a budget for the Hartford Public Schools. As an elected member of Hartford’s Board of Education, I reviewed and voted to approve the budget despite some cuts in 2010 and 2011. Most recently, I voted not to approve the budget because I have learned that the “student-based budget” is not a transparent or accurate way of accounting. Also, this type of budgeting does not necessarily provide the public with clear information about spending in the school districts, nor the necessary resources for each school. This is particularly true for schools with a high percentage of children with disabilities and emerging bilingual children.
BP: In my role as a research scientist at Hartford Hospital, I create, manage and report on the budgets of large federally-funded studies of several million dollars. This role requires me to project and oversee spending for equipment, salaries, overhead, patient reimbursement, data analysis, and study procedures. I manage a staff of grant-funded personnel, subcontracts between institutions, and carryover budgets, and this requires me to manage budgets extremely accurately given the current grant funding climate.
CS: I have worked on three different budget processes. The first experience was in the Mayor’s office as an intern. The second experience was at the LOB with the Senator Thirman L. Milner, and I also worked with the Hartford Legislative Delegation on district bonding packages.
How long have you lived in Hartford? Have you lived in urban environments previously?
MB: Over fifty years. Before that, New York City — South Bronx, East 138th Street.
RC: Growing up in Connecticut, I lived in various towns and cities such as Hartford, East Haven, New Haven, Manchester, and Wethersfield. After being the first person in my family to graduate from college, I came home to be a social studies teacher at the Metropolitan Learning Center interdistrict magnet school. At the school, I taught students from Hartford and other towns. Since 2005, I lived in Hartford’s Frog Hollow neighborhood. Last summer, my wife and I bought our first house in the Forster Heights neighborhood in the southwest part of Hartford.
BP: I have lived in Hartford for approximately 3 years. I’ve lived in a variety of urban, suburban and rural environments: Portland, ME, Buffalo NY, Glastonbury, CT, State College, PA, Ithaca, NY, and Antelope Island, UT.
CS: I have lived in Hartford for my entire life of 40 years. I have always lived in urban environments.
What degrees do you have related to education? How long have you worked in public schools?
MB: Certified K-12. 35 years.
RC: My late paternal grandmother, Carmen Sánchez, was a tobacco worker from Puerto Rico and she could not read or write. My parents—Robert Cotto and Anita Cotto, née Colón—graduated from Hartford Public High School in 1979. Despite my family’s modest background, I had the opportunity to attend college. I have achieved the American Dream because of my family and community’s sacrifice and support.
In 2003, I graduated from Dartmouth College with a bachelor’s degree (B.A.) in Sociology and a minor in Education and Human Development. In 2004, I earned a master’s degree (Ed.M.) in the Teacher Education Program from Harvard University Graduate School of Education.
After graduate school, I came home to teach at a local magnet school for seven years. I came back home to teach to be closer to my family and to give back to the Hartford community that provided me with incredible blessings and opportunities in life. Though I no longer directly work in a public school, as the K-12 Senior Policy Fellow at CT Voices for Children I look carefully at and analyze statewide educational data from the almost 170 public school districts. This information allows me to better understand the challenges that public school systems like Hartford face, as well as better approaches to addressing the needs of our children.
BP: I have a PhD in Kinesiology. I am on faculty at University of Hartford as well as University of Connecticut, and I’ve taught classes at Penn State University as well. At UHart, we have a collaborative research arrangement with Hartford Public Schools (e.g., we are conducting research related to the community schools that we are presenting at the Northeast Educational Research Association this fall) ad we have a teaching obligation with UHSSE. Prior to going back to graduate school, I taught physical education at Breakwater School in Portland, ME.
CS: I do not have a degree related to education, and I have never worked in a public school.
If you do not have experience or degrees in education, why do you believe you are qualified to make decisions related to this field?
RC: All people have something to bring to the conversation about the Hartford Public Schools, particularly people that have a connection with the children, families, and schools in the city. Parents, teachers, staff, students, residents, businesspeople, and others all have important contributions and can be “experts” on different issues. Having degrees in education or other areas is helpful, but life experience is very important too.
BP: I am a research scientist at Hartford Hospital and a tenure-track faculty member as well as Director for the Center of Health, Care and Well-being at University of Hartford. University of Hartford has a collaborative research agreement with the Hartford Public Schools, and consequently I work with administrators in the HPS system to conduct research based on better understanding mediators of educational success within neighborhood and magnet schools. Therefore, as a BOE candidate, I bring professional strengths in pedagogy, data analysis and interpretation, and educational philosophy to the table.
CS: The experience that I believe qualifying me to make decisions related to this field is my twenty years of community organizing. I am a parent that has children within this school system. I have worked on proposals that have become policies already.
Do you believe that tests like the CMT/CAPT and the new Smarter Balanced accurately assess student performance? If not, what alternatives would you propose?
MB: The scores are disappointing. That’s no surprise to anybody. The CMT/CAPT when I was giving it to the students, it was unrealistic. Questions not even relevant to our urban students. The scores were consistently low. Not so much low, but lower than one would expect from a city. Hartford was ranked second from the bottom or at the bottom. Every superintendent vowed we would be on our way up. The tests are a good indication of what the student knows in general. They want standardized testing because they want to standardize the education. The new one, Common Core, isn’t much different. Other approaches might be more subjective. We teach classes and we test on what we teach. No matter what kind of test we give, we want the student at the end of the year to have learned something.
RC: Multiple indicators and types of assessment should be used to evaluate children’s development and well-being. The problem with tests like the “CMT &CAPT” and “SBAC/Common Core” is that they are supposed to be used as a diagnostic tool for individual children. These tests are only a sample of what children know in a particular subject area, not a complete assessment of children’s abilities, talents, or potential.
But in the last decade the test results have been used inappropriately as a way to punish or reward schools. In places like Hartford, schools are inappropriately rewarded and punished based on test results, such as through bonuses for staff and school closures. So many schools have reduced what is taught in school to only what will be on the tests.
Teaching to the test will only lead to a bigger gap in the opportunities to learn new, interesting, and useful academic knowledge and skills. In Hartford and other towns in Connecticut, many children that do well on tests already get a broad, rich curriculum. The children that don’t do well on tests get more test preparation only. This is wrong. This inappropriate use of tests actually decreases the quality of education and reduces opportunities for kids, particularly for Black and Latino children.
The district must use better ways of assessing whether children are learning and getting the education they deserve. Rather than only looking at test results, we should focus on whether each school is offering quality instruction, a safe culture and climate, and the necessary supports and opportunities for children to learn. For example, school accreditation is one way of evaluating whether kids are getting a quality education.
BP: Briefly, a recent article by Thomas Friedman in the NY Times opined that there is no one secret to school performance. Rather, the best schools have strong fundamentals and optimistic cultures, active engagement of families, teachers dedicated to continuous improvement, data-driven administrators and a focus on soft skills such as timeliness, punctuality, resilience and perseverance. Standardized test scores cannot measure all of these aspects, and they ignore the tremendous influence of parents, families, the community, the individual student, health, and the environment on learning. Certainly, test scores and performance provide benchmarks with which a school system can assess global learning and student progress. But, there also comes a point at which improving standardized test performance may actually detract from fostering the creative and exploratory aspects of learning that underlie successful and continuous academic achievement, and I believe we are starting to reach that saturation point.
Therefore, I support a more holistic approach to assessing student learning, where we use additional tools to measure student growth and teacher effectiveness. Also, we need to analyze CMT (or other standardized test scores) much more vigorously, rather than just looking at averages across years. Growth (cohort analyses), cofounders and covariates, and outliers need to be better examined, and I will push this on the BOE.
CS: I don’t believe that any test could accurately assess a student’s performance. I also believe that it is too early to predict how the new standardized test will work. Not every teacher in our district has been trained in the new common core system. I would prefer a system that teachers, principals, and parents create since they are working with students every day.
Which of the Hartford Public Schools have you visited in the past ten years?
MB: I haven’t been to any of the schools. Just at Bulkeley [where he taught].
RC: Over the summer, I reviewed needed building repairs that were in-progress at Martin Luther King, Jr. elementary. Last spring, I was invited to read the book, The Cat in the Hat at Burns Elementary for kindergarten students. Also, I was invited to “judge” a middle school social studies project (Travel to a New Country! Brochures) that student groups created at the Mary Hooker Environmental Studies School. Over the past four years, I have visited all but a few of the Hartford Public Schools for meetings, visits, and other events.
BP: Mary Hooker, Noah Webster, HPHS, Bulkeley, Weaver, UHSSE, Annie Fisher, Burns, Classical, MLK, RJ Kinsella
CS: Over the past ten years I have visited the following schools: Clark, Wish, Waverley, Weaver Culinary and Journalism, Milner, Sand, Capital Prep, Classical Magnet, Breakthrough II, Rawson, and Parkville.
How do you (or plan to) manage criticism?
MB: Everyone has a right to their opinion. If I’m on the Board, I’m elected. I serve at the pleasure of the voters. If they think I made the wrong decision, I would want to know where they think I made the mistake and what they think I should have done in its place. If elected, you’re not going to please everyone.
RC: We must work together for a better education for Hartford children and families. Parents, teachers, board members, students, and other citizens sometimes disagree about how to provide equal educational opportunity. Disagreement and dissent is important in a democratic society. So I welcome positive feedback and constructive criticism to my service on the Board and work with children and families in Hartford. I try to respond publicly either at board of education meetings to agenda items or I speak to people individually to explain my position on particular issues.
BP: My approach to managing criticism comes from my experience in medicine and science. It is not atypical to be presenting at a big conference and have speakers stand up and publicly denounce one’s research. Therefore, I have found that the best response to criticism is to a) listen to the speaker’s opinion or point of view, b) thoughtfully respond based on that individual’s opinion as well as my own, c) keep emotions out of the exchange, d) not be afraid to say “I don’t know” or “that’s a great point, I’ll need to think about it” or “I’d love to talk more about it afterwards” and e) not take it personally. Therefore, I’d use the same approach on the BOE: listen, try not to let emotions color the exchange, be willing to engage in discourse, be confident enough to support my opinion, yet be humble enough to admit error, confusion, naivety, lack of knowledge, or any other truthful and honest deficit.
CS: Policy makers should never take criticism personally, nor should we engage in personal attacks. I prefer to have problems resolved in private rather than embarrass anyone in public to make myself look good.
How will you make yourself available to input from the general public? Do you check your email and phone messages daily? Will you attend 90% or more of all BOE meetings?
MB: I’m retired. As a result, I’m more accessible.
RC: My e-mail address is available on the Board of Education website and I encourage people to e-mail me if they have concerns, questions, or comments. In my time on the board, I have indeed received numerous emails and phone calls from parents, teachers, and staff. Our constituent policy requires us to forward concerns to the ombudsperson or the Superintendent for a resolution.
Over the past four years on the Board of Education, my attendance has been over 90% for general and committee meetings, in addition to other events. I plan to keep up my attendance at future Board of Education meetings.
BP: I check my email and phone messages hourly and typically respond to all communications within the same business day. I will make myself open to the public by making my cell phone and email public and encouraging people to contact me, as I currently have on my campaign website. My goal as an elected BOE member is to approach the position in the same way I do my employment: as a job in which attendance is obligatory.
CS: I plan to make myself available to the public by having community meetings on a monthly basis. To work on any issues the community may have.
How will you ensure that schools located in areas of concentrated poverty receive the attention they deserve?
MB: They receive the attention they deserve probably through more and better resources. Find out what they’re lacking. In a school or area where poverty is more extant, you most likely have a high absentee and truancy rate. You have to apply yourself to how to get the students to school.
RC: Schools that serve large percentages of children living in poverty do educate children, but they face obstacles that most schools in Connecticut do not. Specifically, children living in poverty start out behind academically before they begin school and play “catch up” for much of their time in school. All children can learn. So many catch up, but some do not.
The evidence suggests that schools can’t solve poverty alone. In addition to educational improvement and reducing racial, ethnic, and economic isolation, economic reform must also provide people with decent jobs that pay people enough to survive. Therefore, we must work together to support children inside and outside of school.
The Board could make a commitment that every school will have quality pre-kindergarten, small class sizes in the lower grades, community collaboration, a decent building that has a caring and nurturing environment, skilled teachers and principals that have a strong professional responsibility to helping children learn, a rich, broad curriculum, and wrap-around services to meet the needs of children and their families. Along with economic reforms, these proven educational policies can help children and families living in poverty have a better future.
BP: I want to see more resources and effort directed towards supporting these community schools and expanding the model. I support the success of high-performing magnet schools, but they are bolstered by factors such as parent selection (the lotto system self-selects the most motivated and involved parents), better funding, and suburban resources. Therefore, I think that the BOE needs to also be working towards directing resources and time towards the lower-performing schools and also determining the biggest obstacles to learning in these schools in order to be able to address them. These schools play a critical role in the neighborhood and contribute to the identity and resources of the families that utilize them, and we need to view these schools as a valuable community resource.
CS: I will ensure that our schools that are located in concentrated poor areas get the attention they need, by working with the administration on the strategic plan, and also engaging the Governance Council and PTO’s.
How will you ensure that the Hartford Public Schools meet the Sheff v. O’Neill mandate?
MB: Find out what they want done. It primarily is a desegregation move. The scheduling, the general population, all the procedures you’re using are not exclusive. If it takes more students to be moved outside like with Open Choice, then you’re going to have to do that.
RC: The Sheff v. O’Neill order and agreement requires that the State of Connecticut create more desegregated education options for children in Hartford. Currently, Hartford has thousands of children in successfully integrated and quality interdistrict magnet schools and the Open Choice program.
In my position as a Board of Education member, I have publicly and privately advocated that the Superintendent of Hartford Public Schools must be a partner with CREC and the State in making the “Sheff” strategies of magnet schools and Open Choice sustainable and workable for as many children as possible. Over the last four years, I have participated in activities, meetings, and discussions with members of the “Sheff Coalition” to discuss what has been successful and what have been the challenges in providing quality, integrated education for Hartford children and families.
BP: As reported by the Hartford Courant on April 30, 2013, the one-year extension of the current five-year Sheff plan calls for 41 percent of Hartford’s minority students to be enrolled in integrated schools. The state reached 36.7 percent year. Alternatively, the state can satisfy Sheff if 80 percent of Hartford students who applied to a magnet school or another desegregated option were accepted into that school. Currently about 72 percent of students were able to gain acceptance. Obviously, HPS is not fully meeting the Sheff mandate. The response of the latest round of data and agreement was to open more magnet schools and expand the school choice program (sending students to suburban districts). However, I also believe that these options put a band-aid on one aspect of the problem. Again, we need to focus on improving the lowest-performing schools so that students and parents want to attend their neighborhood school. Many parents report that they want a neighborhood school that brings families and communities together but instead choose a magnet or suburban option because the neighborhood school is not academically rigorous or high-achieving. This gets back to the issue again of how to address the neighborhood schools that aren’t being made into magnets and/or are continuing to struggle with multiple administrative, student and resource-based problems. Do we envision a plan to make them magnets with strong neighborhood preference? Do we close them? Do we expand the community school model? At some level, we need to address how to direct resources and thoughtful planning to these lower-performing schools so that not only are they academically improved but they become a desirable option that improves our ability to comply with the Sheff mandate.
CS: I will work with the Superintendent and the State to make sure the district complies with the mandates. (However before a school is chosen and made into a magnet school a public debate must occur.)
What will you do to make sure that students with learning disabilities and attention disorders are having their needs met, as required by law, in the Hartford Public Schools?
MB: The State would be more involved in that more than I would, but I ran into some of those situations.
RC: The Hartford Public Schools must provide children with disabilities a “free, appropriate public education.” Hartford has some of the highest numbers of highest-need children with disabilities in Connecticut, so providing a “free, appropriate public education” is often a challenge that other districts do not face. Nevertheless, it is our responsibility to fulfill our obligation to all children. When that is not happening, we must listen to parents and students to make sure they get the resources they need.
Advocacy for children with disabilities is important. For example, I wrote an opinion essay in the Hartford Courant that described how the last Superintendent removed children with disabilities from regular testing. This made the test results in Hartford seem to improve faster than they really did. The modified tests may have been appropriate for children with disabilities, but taking credit for inflated test results was not. Even worse, withholding resources from children with disabilities was wrong.
BP: Right now one of the biggest criticisms parents have highlighted to me is that HPS is not meeting the needs of students with learning disabilities and special needs. Parents report two specific complaints: 1) They do not know how to navigate the system (i.e., their rights, who to talk to about assessment, how to identify a student who has special needs) and 2) When they do ask for the mandated services, the school system is very slow in responding, does not take the initiative to respond, does not follow up, and is not providing adequate services. Therefore, it seems to me that there are two problems that need to be addressed: Communication and timely allocation of special needs resources. This is not an area in which I have experience and knowledge on a personal or professional level, so as a BOE member I would like to see this issue studied and addressed by a team of professionals and relevant community members who can assess and report on the current system and provide a list of suggested improvements to target better providing special education and special needs services.
CS: Working with the administration on identifying resources teachers and students will need. Make sure that schools use these resources to empower and educate our students and their parents. By making sure that workshops are provided to parents, so that they are aware of their rights.
What will you do to improve the quality of education for English Language Learners in the Hartford Public Schools?
MB: I was the homeroom teacher for an ESL class.
RC: In the 21st century, children that grow up knowing multiple languages will be at an advantage as adults either at work or in life. Therefore, it is important to build on the language and cultural assets of all children, particularly those that come to our schools knowing two or more languages. Despite what we know works for emerging bilingual children (called “English Language Learners” or ELL), the current direction of educational policy limits emerging bilingual children from maintaining their first language, while learning English in a well-supported, skilled, and caring environment.
There are policies we can change to better support emerging bilingual children. First, resources and capacity to teach and help emerging bilingual children must keep pace with the increase in the number of children needing bilingual education. Second, emerging bilingual children should have the accommodations on standardized tests that they need and that are required by law. Last, establishing dual-language interdistrict magnet programs, particularly for a Spanish-English program, is one way of addressing the challenge of including bilingual children in our school choice programs.
Last year, Dr. Christina Kishimoto agreed to raise a number of these issues at the legislature. I thank her for her advocacy for better ways to serve bilingual children in our schools and providing the resources and accommodations they deserve by law.
This report highlights the original complaint against the city by the Center for Children’s Advocacy, as well as the resolution by proposed by Superintendent Kishimoto in February 2013. It outlines the steps that HPS has stated they will make in terms of improving ELL services and providing a methodology for identifying, providing services to, and monitoring the progress of ESL students. Certainly, the first step to improve ELL education is to monitor the implementation and progress of this resolution and require reporting by the administration on ELL services. Moreover, though, the Trinity College article also raised the concern that the majority of ELL services are still targeted towards Spanish speaking students, whereas there are increasing numbers of students from non-Spanish speaking countries in HPS (e.g., Somalia and Liberia). Therefore, I believe that the Board needs to require reporting on the services provided to these students and continually assess the needs of the student body as demographics change in the upcoming years.
CS: I will try to improve the quality of education for English language learners by strengthening the existing policy; working with the administration and teachers to identify resources and programs that would service the entire family.
How will you eradicate wasteful spending in the Hartford Public Schools?
MB: When I was teaching I could see some of the waste. It was done in the name of education, of course. They were putting some programs in that were not viable and were hard to justify.
RC: The Board of Education approves a budget, but does not entirely control spending for the Hartford Public Schools. Once the budget is passed, the Superintendent spends the money according to the budget passed by the Board of Education. The ways that we can eradicate wasteful spending include: hiring a well-trained, qualified Superintendent and evaluating them each year to assess their operations of the school district, reviewing the budget carefully, and advocating for responsible spending and policies.
BP: A recent report by the Connecticut Council for Education Reform gave CT as a whole 1 out of 3 points in the category entitled “Find Cost Efficiencies Such as Consolidation and Shared Services.” I believe that in Hartford this is one solution to eradicate wasteful spending: focus on a systematic analysis of the budget that can identify meaningful savings through consolidation, collaboration, and shared services. Moreover, I believe that the HPS administration should be held accountable to providing thorough support and documentation for proposed plans that involve internal and external partners and entities (e.g., subcontractors and independent contractors). Fiscal decision-making in the public sector should be transparent, well-planned, thoughtful and conscientious. Part of this approach is projecting the costs and benefits of any proposed expansion, construction, contract or agreement to the school board such that fiscal oversight is more rigorous.
CS: I plan to eradicate wasteful spending by eliminating programs that do not work, or haven’t produced any results. I would like to end the practice of awarding contracts based on relationships instead of merit.
What role should the public have in vetting the next superintendent?
MB: The public is really not too much involved in the selection of the superintendent. They don’t have like a voice or a vote. Hartford’s going to have a national search. The search committee will narrow it down to five or three, but the public doesn’t know who they are. I think the Board will make the selection. You want a superintendent who has shown a good track record in being at successful schools and not jumping from school-to-school every three years. Somebody who has a positive attitude toward some of these educational problems that we have. You might have someone inside Hartford instead of outside Hartford qualified.
RC: The public should be involved with vetting the next Superintendent, as well as both elected and appointed Board of Education members. I recently voted with a majority of the Board to conduct an outside search of candidates for the position rather than hand picking a successor to the Superintendent. Once the Board has several finalists, it would be best if people in the community can be invited to ask the finalists questions in public before the Board makes a decision.
BP:I believe the public’s role should be to a) help define these characteristics through a series of town-hall meetings and/or public input opportunities and b) the public should be able to meet the candidates and participate in the interview process once the finalists have been named.
CS: The public should have a huge role in choosing the next Superintendent. All finalists should attend public forums and interviews with community and civic organizations.
Some candidate responses were edited for length.