July 1, 2013

Promise or peril: CEO transition at Hartford public schools

Paul Diego Holzer
Eric Daniels

We often think of CEO-level leadership change and the impact it has on employee productivity, talent retention and the bottom line as something unique to the for-profit sector. But what about CEO changes in the K-12 education sector?

The Hartford Public School District has an operating budget of over $400 million, employs over 3,300 people, and serves on an annual basis over 21,000 students and their families — transporting 14,000 students each day to 48 schools. The CEO-level talent needed to produce an urban education product that customers are satisfied with is notoriously hard — especially when the customers include all of Hartford's companies in need of local talent, families in need of economically-stable households, and an entire geographic region in need of a larger consumer base.

Achieve Hartford! and the companies that support us have been driving accountability for producing college and career ready students within the Hartford Public Schools for the past five years, and we have been pleased by the results so far: The achievement gap between Hartford and the rest of the state has closed by one-third; the four-year graduation rate has jumped from 33 percent in 2007 to 64 percent in 2012; and almost 20 new and more relevant schools have been created. This success — and the fact that we still have so much more work to do — is why every Hartford family and every Hartford business must focus on what's happening in the Hartford schools right now.

Less than two weeks ago on June 18, the Hartford Board of Education decided not to renew the current superintendent's contract and to instead embark on a search for a new leader — one who can more aggressively achieve the goal of having every Hartford school, and every Hartford student, high-performing. The superintendent, Dr. Christina Kishimoto, is two years into her three-year contract, and will remain for some portion of her third year until an interim or permanent superintendent is put in place.

The context to the board's decision is important because it highlights the risk inherent in that decision. Prior to 2006, when then Superintendent Dr. Steven Adamowski launched Hartford's current (and most would say successful) education reform strategy, there had been eight superintendents in a little over 13 years. Hartford, in 2005, had hit education rock bottom. Since then, our city has been clawing its way out from the clutches of education failure, and it has not been easy.

While going from the worst-performing school district in the state to the second-worst-performing school district may seem like no achievement at all to the average Hartford businessperson, what is being accomplished in our city is quite uncommon. The eyes of educators and policymakers nationwide are trained on the performance of our local school district. Indeed, if Hartford can continue the current trend and close its achievement gap over the next decade, it will have demonstrated that turning around a failing school system is possible.

The board of education — of which the mayor appoints the majority of seats and personally sits on — has made their standard known, and left the city wondering what the impact will be on employee productivity, talent retention and on the bottom line in Hartford schools. Their job in the weeks and months ahead will be to minimize the disruption of a CEO-level transition. Our job, as the independent driver of accountability for results, will be to closely monitor the impact of this decision and to represent the interests of Hartford's education customers: both the business and residential communities, whose ultimate interests are perfectly aligned.

Now, more than ever, leadership matters. It is great CEO-level leadership within the Hartford Public Schools that will be essential to drive the better outcomes needed for Hartford's students, and the related long-term economic viability of Hartford and its surrounding communities.

We expect the mayor and the board of education to work hard to reassure the community of their unequivocal commitment to keeping Hartford's reform on track, and we will keep the business community abreast of their progress.

Paul Diego Holzer is the executive director of Achieve Hartford!, an education reform advocacy group. Eric Daniels is Achieve Hartford!'s board chair and a partner at Robinson & Cole.

Most Popular on Facebook
Copyright 2017 New England Business Media