“Leaders must be close enough to relate to others, but far enough ahead to motivate them.”- John C. Maxwell
On April 24, 2017 students in Professor Joshua Hyman’s class, EDLR 6322: Economics of Education Reform were able to learn about and discuss the characteristics of this kind of servant leadership in education from the first hand account of Superintendent of Hartford Public Schools, Dr. Leslie Torres-Rodriguez, who was recently appointed after having served as interim superintendent since December 9, 2016, and her leadership abilities embody this quote.
Torres-Rodriguez was an ELL, English Language Learner, student in Hartford Public Schools and having worked in the Greater Hartford Area for the past 22 years, has a strong connection with the community. Student Michael Corral commented, “She is invested in the city of Hartford, and is not trying to use it as a stepping stone to some other position or district.” The Superintendent herself expressed how important the success of the Hartford school district is to her personally, and not just as a job. She understands the families and students as she once felt she was a “disenfranchised” student of the school district, and now strives to be an agent for positive change and open ear for the concerns of the community.
Dr. Torres-Rodriguez maintains her relations with her constituents by being transparent, honest, accountable, and using feedback to focus on how policy and school leadership can improve. With an increasing number of ELL students and 20% of students being special education; she is mindful that change for the district is moving towards a more diverse population, and therefore requires policy to accommodate student needs. The superintendent brings an important humanistic element and strong academic qualifications into the field with her background in Human Development (B.S, University of Connecticut), Social Work (M.S., University of Connecticut), and Educational Leadership (Ed.D Central Connecticut State University). She believes that her less traditional path has furthered her skills as a leader in education as she brings an anthropological background to her passion for education.
During her visit, the superintendent gave insight into many of the challenges of her position as well as how she is managing these new challenges. Students in Professor Hyman’s class benefited from this discussion, as they were able to listen to her first hand experiences and see a glimpse of how a large local school district superintendent operates.
Student, Sarah Redlich, commented,
“I found her discussion of the different stakeholders she works with and how she considers the implications of decisions for the operation of the Hartford school system to be very interesting. The perspectives Dr. Leslie Torres-Rodriguez shared helped me explore the important decisions and considerations that are involved with being a school leader.”
This comes from a discussion about the multifaceted nature of being a superintendent. Dr. Torres-Rodriguez, does not just service Hartford Public schools, but she is in charge of overseeing the placement of Hartford students in other districts, a transition that Hartford funds, as well as some oversight over the cities’ magnet and charter schools. Because of this she must have strong community ties and an eye for good policy. She enlightened the class on managing funding, ensuring good relations with these other schools, and how to insure the academic and emotional well-being for a diverse population of students in the cities’ schools. Student. Michael Corral, particularly benefited from her discussion about the complexities of acquiring funding and developing a budget as he noted,
“It was nice to listen about the application of funding models and how they are formulated with the best of intentions but can - at times - perpetuate many of the injustices they are supposed to address.”
It is key to note that the formula for a successful school district is not always easy, but Dr. Torres-Rodriguez shed light on how to weigh issues, remain transparent, and work with other stakeholders to develop good policy, and leave it adaptable as the nature of education is not static.
The class was highly engaged as they asked Dr. Torres-Rodriguez questions about her approach towards fiscal policy, diversifying student needs, maintaining enrollment in schools while respecting parent-school choice, and interacting with key stakeholders, such as the board, school leadership and her constituents. After these in-depth questions about her experience, student, Daron Cyr, asked a very important question, ‘How does she do it all?’
Dr. Torres-Rodriguez said that it was a combination of self-care, having a network of other educational leaders, who see things from the same systemic viewpoints, and her drive to help Hartford schools and students succeed. She emphasized her passion by saying, “If there was a hill I would die on, it would be this.” Meaning she is ready to do everything she can to work for this community. As a product of the system, and as someone, who has worked in Hartford for a long time she admits she has seen the city’s failures, but she also sees great potential, and this is what she is working towards.
This was a high-energy and inspiring conversation that the students actively benefited from. It brought life to the issues and policies the Ph.D students have learned about in professor Hyman’s class, and throughout their education. Professor Hyman commented on this experience,
“While my hope is that my students learn a lot about education policy from the course readings, discussion, and lecture, there is really no substitute for engaging with and learning from a long-time teacher and district administrator serving in disadvantaged communities.”
The Department of Educational Leadership extends a warm thank you to Dr. Torres-Rodriguez for providing insight into the inner workings of developing a budget, editing and adding policies all while maintaining a relationship with the community. This type of hands on experience offers our students an opportunity to engage with a local, yet high profile professional which contributes to their interactive classroom experience that Dr. Hyman works to create.