The paths Leslie Torres-Rodriguez and Madeline Negrón took to lead Connecticut’s Hartford public schools share important similarities—and the end results seemed unlikely when they themselves were students in the state’s schools.
Both were born in Puerto Rico and came to the U.S. mainland as children. Torres-Rodriguez, Hartford’s superintendent, was 9 when she moved to the city, while Negrón, the district’s chief academic officer, was 10 when her family settled in Willimantic, roughly 20 miles away.
But their common history extends beyond geography. While their families provided them with love and support, they struggled financially, and their schools were often sources of significant tension.
A school counselor once told Negrón that, at best, she should aspire to be a secretary. An English-language learner who often felt looked down upon in class, Negrón in turn scorned the idea of ever becoming a teacher. Meanwhile, at one time the only reason Torres-Rodriguez—a self-described “disengaged” student—stayed in high school was so that she could keep her job at a local pharmacy, in a deal she made with her mother, who wanted her to keep going to class.
“In retrospect, boy, were there some glaring inequities in the district that I went to and that I now serve,” Torres-Rodriguez said.
The two leaders’ shared background is the source of a strong professional bond. Those formative experiences are a major influence on their work in a district where about 55 percent of students are Hispanic, like the district leaders. It’s pushed Negrón, 49, and Torres-Rodriguez, 47, to prioritize flexibility and humility when trying to help students and families and establish firm strategies and plans that hold firm—even in the face of a huge, unforeseen challenge as a global pandemic.
They have focused on strengthening the connections between students, families, and schools—from improving basic attendance and keeping students on track to graduate to providing opportunities for them to learn and grow outside traditional school hours.
“What’s great about it is that I know that she’s genuine about her passion for doing right by kids,” Negrón said of Torres-Rodriguez. “I know that’s where my heart is, too. I know that her values are pretty much the same.”
Keeping students engaged and learning
The district’s focus on attendance and absenteeism predates the COVID-19 pandemic but ramped up during the health crisis when remote and hybrid learning and out-of-school commitments increased pressures on students of color and those experiencing poverty, leading many to disconnect or drop out of school.
Although located in the capital of one of the wealthiest states in the country, the district educates students amid significant financial and political challenges. Nearly half of families with children in schools receive federal nutrition benefits, and the median household income of the district’s families was $36,278 in 2019, less than half the state’s.
The school system has also been at the center of a 33-year-long school desegregation battle to offer more academically rigorous schooling options for Black, Hispanic, and low-income students.
Torres-Rodriguez and Negrón started doubling down on absenteeism after an eye-opening 2020 study revealed that while the district’s four-year graduation rate for its 2016 class was 80 percent, just half those students enrolled in postsecondary education, and only 32 percent of the class persisted into their second year at two- and four-year institutions.
Those findings raised alarm bells among Hartford’s K-12 leaders, who eventually created a series of early-warning metrics to identify students at risk of falling off track.
- Embrace Your Story: Proximity matters. Leaders should draw on their lived experiences and challenge biases toward those who are most marginalized—students living in poverty, new arrivals, multilingual—to avoid perpetuating inequity. Honor and share your truth and the truth of others.
- Get Comfortable With Discomfort: Don’t shy away from data and evidence. To lead continuous improvement on a personal and team level, leaders need to use data to continually adapt based on their context and what works.
- Commit to Equity in All Things: Bring an equity lens to the development of processes, resource allocation, inputs, and outputs. Center student needs and stakeholder voice, bringing those who are most impacted into decisionmaking to disrupt historic patterns of inequity.
The district found that 83 percent of students with at least one of those early-warning signs—such as an attendance rate below 90 percent and suspension for at least one day—veered off course, compared with just 37 percent of students without any of those indicators.
Slashing absenteeism became a key priority for Torres-Rodriguez’s team, with the district pledging in its current strategic plan to cut the rate to a maximum of 12 percent.
Over the last two years, Hartford has marshaled its resources to find and reengage students who had disengaged from school during the pandemic.
At the start of this school year, about 2,600 students—or roughly 15 percent of the 17,700 enrolled—were considered “no shows.” They weren’t showing up to school and weren’t accounted for. That number plummeted to 50 by the end of 2021 after an all-hands-on-deck undertaking that included more than 55,000 phone calls and 1,400 home visits, according to the district.
Statistics don’t tell the full story.
Run by the Family and Community Partnerships team, the effort included assistance from student-engagement specialists, behavioral experts, and other district staff.
Hartford’s leaders took nothing for granted. They scrutinized each step and were quick to make changes when necessary. They paid attention to who was making phone calls and visiting students’ homes; which, if any, of the district’s external partners were working with school staff on outreach efforts; and whether students’ families were experiencing food or housing insecurity, and, if so, how the district could deploy resources to help.
The district hosts “attendance incentive” days to encourage students to keep coming to school, and held virtual “Attendance, Culture, and Engagement” learning sessions for families led by its outreach specialists.
'All' for me means 'all.' Are we creating access for English-language learners? Are we creating access for students with disabilities?
One might assume that Torres-Rodriguez recalls her own desire as a teenager to focus on a job and not class as misguided, and that she wants students to shun paid work in the name of focusing on their classes. But her attitude is quite different.
“Some of our students were frankly saying, ‘I don’t know if I want to go back. I don’t know if I want to give up my job,’” Torres-Rodriguez said. “We should never put a student in a situation where they have to choose: Should I go to school or support my family? Because I was that student.”
Negrón also understands that being disconnected from school doesn’t mean that students lack ambition.
“I do see students that are in these very challenging economic situations,” she said. “They have dreams and they have goals. When I look at kids that are still struggling and still haven’t found themselves, I say, ‘That could easily have been me.’ ”
Listening to families to meet their needs
Some of Torres-Rodriguez’s earliest work after becoming Hartford’s superintendent in 2017 was to draft plans and oversee the closure of several schools, a painful process that taught her the value of listening to parents and others and showing them how what they said influenced her actions.
That commitment to listen to families and deliver for them has led to, among other things, the Saturday Academy, an initiative to help children whose lives and ability to learn were disrupted by the pandemic and who need support outside normal school hours.
The program is slated to run for 16 Saturdays this school year and provides a mix of academic and enrichment classes led by Hartford educators and local community-based organizations.
More than 400 students signed up shortly after the initiative was announced. The academy, funded by federal COVID-19 relief aid, supports extended learning time, one of the four priorities the district developed to guide how it will spend the windfall. Other priorities build on years of work Torres-Rodriguez has already done, including providing professional development to train all K-2 teachers in the science of reading.
Those “pillars,” as Torres-Rodriguez calls them, grew from some 50 hours of meetings with parents and other key community members about how the school system should use federal aid to address the pandemic and accelerate work the district already considered essential.
We should never put a student in a situation where they have to choose: Should I go to school or support my family?
Karen Hawley Miles, the president and CEO of Massachusetts-based Education Resource Strategies who has worked with Hartford schools for several years, said the superintendent’s approach is an example of what happens when a district leader doesn’t just toss out a few goals and call it a plan. Instead, her approach builds common ground with communities to meet their needs.
“It’s not like she’s building this stuff from scratch,” Hawley Miles said. “It reinforced and helped people better understand her strategy.”
Every time a family takes part in programs like the academy, “that’s now a family that’s a little bit closer to us,” Torres-Rodriguez said. “Oftentimes, our families have had very negative experiences with schools.”
Aldwin Allen, the senior director of community programs at the Village for Families and Children, a Hartford group that participates in the district’s community schools program, said Torres-Rodriguez has also strengthened bonds with the community through the Office of Family Engagement and by partnerships with local groups through the 13 full-service community schools.
“She understands that the central office itself has to facilitate engagement with families” and not just rely on teachers, principals, and individual school leaders to do that job, Allen said. “She’s done a more strategic job of making it the district’s responsibility.”
- Lead With Your Core: A leader often has to arrive at decisions that are not easy to make. Knowing your core values and leading with your core during challenging times will be the reassurance that you are doing what is best.
- Be Clear About the ‘Why': Change is never easy, especially for adults. Rely on the data, face the brutal truth, and communicate clearly about the need for change.
- Invest in People: Take time to get to know the people you serve in order to build strong, positive relationships.
Redesigning schools to reengage students
One of Negrón’s primary responsibilities in Hartford has been to establish Student Success Centers, which help students get back on a path to graduation. The centers emerged from Negrón’s, Torres-Rodriguez’s, and others’ desire to redesign the high school experience for students who were behind in credits to get back on a graduation path.
The first center opened in the 2019-20 school year, and two centers, based at high schools, are serving approximately 280 students this year.
Staff members invite students who may be struggling with chronic absenteeism, course failures, or other hurdles to attend. Those who enroll have access to a variety of supports, including a coordinator, two graduation specialists, a social worker, and either one or two academic interventionists, who develop individualized academic plans for them.
They attend for one period every day or every other day, with instruction in small groups of three to four students, to help them earn the credits they need to get their high school diploma.
Students often use online courses but have staff alongside them to provide what’s ultimately a blended approach. They also work closely with the graduation specialists to check their progress toward individual targets and goals, as well as school counselors to ensure that the students remain engaged with their work.
If a student encounters difficulties or shows signs of falling further behind, counselors and others step in to help and contact families if needed. Students are also publicly celebrated for meeting their targets.
Negrón’s awareness that the school system had simply “lost” students and her search for answers to urgent questions on how to expand access to opportunities to each student were pivotal in the centers’ development and expansion.
“ ‘All’ for me means ‘all,’ ” she said. “Are we creating access for English-language learners? Are we creating access for students with disabilities?”
“We did not have what I call a continuum of supports throughout high school,” Torres-Rodriguez continued. “There was no systemic approach to that.”
In addition to providing academic support, Negrón said it’s important that the employees at the center reflect Hartford’s diversity.
“I’m the chief of academics. But at the end of the day, I need people who can connect with kids, who can pause and get to know a student, somebody who’s going to be genuine,” she said.
Negrón hopes that all high school students—and even those in middle school—will have access to a success center at some point.
It was Negrón’s and Torres-Rodriguez’s commitment to equity and inclusion that inspired Liliana Ballestas-Cuevas, the director of the centers, to work with them.
“They really are practitioners,” she said. “I came here because the superintendent said, ‘I want to create safe havens in our schools.’ Her follow-through has been impeccable.”
For her part, Negrón said the centers would have had less impact without Torres-Rodriguez’ support, especially through a “rocky period” when the first one opened.
“There is no secret sauce here,” Negrón said. “It’s: Let’s build a sustaining relationship with students. It’s probably the first time in years that people have looked at them, and seen them, and shown them with actions that they matter. We have a plan, and yes, it’s difficult, and yes, we’re going to continue to figure it out right alongside them.”
Coverage of leadership, summer learning, social and emotional learning, arts learning, and afterschool is supported in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation, at www.wallacefoundation.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the February 16, 2022 edition of Education Week as Personal Experience Inspires Action On Behalf of Marginalized Students