Antonio Cruz is the father of a 9-year-old at Hartford’s Batchelder Elementary, one of the city neighborhood schools that the superintendent has proposed shutting down this summer.
“I work for you every single day and I’m proud to do it,” Cruz, a school bus driver, told the Hartford school board at a public hearing this week. “But if it is the money …”
He reached into his pocket and plunked a wallet down on the speaker’s table.
Cruz’s gesture under bright TV lights came at a time of high anxiety for Hartford parents, teachers, and students trying to plead their school’s case. The board is set to vote on a districtwide consolidation plan on January 23, and so Tuesday night in the Bulkeley High School auditorium was a chance to speak up. Among the scores who did, many talked about community and fairness.
For Superintendent Leslie Torres-Rodriguez, the consolidation is a matter of survival. She talks about the Hartford school system in the same way that a doctor might describe a sick patient who is overloaded with stress. To get on a “healthier” path, she said, the city needs fewer schools — and has proposed closing two pre-K-to-grade 8 institutions, Batchelder in the South End and Simpson-Waverly in the North End, after the school year is over.
By 2022, Hartford Public Schools would drop from 48 school programs to 41, Torres-Rodriguez said. The district also plans to shed nearly a dozen facilities. Milner Elementary School on Vine Street, for instance, would be reconfigured into a middle school and move to a district building on Tower Avenue, accepting other middle-schoolers in north Hartford.
“The urgency is here,” Torres-Rodriguez said during an appearance on WNPR’s Where We Live. “It’s now a matter of us, as a community, digging in and saying, ‘This is what we must do … .’ It is painful. These are hard decisions. There’s going to be confusion. We’re going to be in transition. But we have to push through.”
Like other cities and towns, Hartford has not been immune to the rising costs of education. But the pressures in Connecticut’s capital city are magnified.
The city has been on the brink of bankruptcy. There is deep poverty and segregation in the neighborhood schools, and Hartford has high numbers of special education students. As conditions in the neighborhood schools deteriorated over the years, families have sought other options, including charter schools and desegregation programs that bus students across the region. Hartford’s steady decline in enrollment — down to just over 20,000 students — means some city schools sit half-empty.
In the case of Batchelder on New Britain Avenue, parents and school employees said they didn’t think their school would be targeted. Simpson-Waverly enrolls 291 students, according to the district. But at Batchelder, enrollment is 430.
“We are a neighborhood school that has been in the business for a long time,” said Patricia Delaney, an instructional coach at Batchelder and longtime teacher. “We now have some grandparents who are bringing their grandchildren to school, and the grandparents have been there, and now their children are having children, so it’s kind of nice to see a cycle of family come all the way through. And obviously we’re doing something right.”
Parents, students and school staffers said they were by blindsided by the news — arriving just before winter break — that Batchelder would be shuttered under the plan. Students would be dispersed to other schools.
“It was devastating,” said eighth-grader Milani Reyes, 15.
“The teachers were sad,” said Dasia Torres, 13, a seventh-grader and vice president of the school’s student council. “They were explaining we’re a family and they’re going to miss us if it really does close down.”
But rather than shut down the building, the Hartford proposal includes the possibility of Moylan Montessori Magnet School relocating and taking over the facility, located just down the road from the West Hartford town line. The Montessori public school draws a mix of suburban and city students to meet integration standards through the Sheff v. O’Neill case; admission is through a state-run lottery.
Paraeducator Marisol Rodriguez said it feels like the Hartford kids — most of whom are black or Latino — are being kicked out to accommodate students from the suburbs.
“What I want for my children is to feel and be treated as … equal to everyone else,” Rodriguez said at the public hearing. “Suburban children, Hartford children — we are all the same.”
Shirley Aponte, 37, a stay-at-home mother who has two daughters attending Batchelder, said she brought her children there after her brother-in-law gave the school his highest recommendation. He spoke from experience as a former Batchelder Bobcat.
“Students, past or present, love their school,” Aponte told the school board. Now, she said, “they are being forced to leave the safe environment Batchelder has provided for them. They are being forced to relocate and adapt to a different location, and most likely ride a bus.
“Our kids have a voice,” Aponte continued. “Please listen to it. They deserve the same opportunities as the surrounding town kids who will benefit from the magnet school being moved to our neighborhood. We are a ‘Batch’ worth saving.”
Her voice began to quiver. “Please don’t close our school,” she said.
Torres-Rodriguez said downsizing the district would eventually free up $15 million a year that could be used for intervention programs and other school improvement plans.
More public hearings are planned next week at Simpson-Waverly and Batchelder.
This report is part of the public radio collaborative Sharing America, covering the intersection of race, identity and culture. The initiative is funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and includes reporters in Hartford, Conn., Kansas City and St. Louis, Mo., and Portland, Ore.