Speaking Frankly: Superintendent Shares Personal Views with the Faith-Based Community

Spotlight on Excellence     Issue 24     March 2013

Speaking Frankly:  Superintendent Shares Personal Views with the Faith-Based Community

by Kent Ashworth (reprinted from the March 7, 2013 edition of the Achieve Hartford! publication.)
The Reverend Ayala speaks to the crowd.
The faith-based community serving Hartford children and families encompasses dozens of diverse clergy, countless volunteers and parishioners, and, interestingly, some suburban “magnet” congregations that attract Hartford residents to services outside the city. What does this dedicated world of faith have to do with the Hartford Public Schools?
A whole lot. Faith-based efforts span a wide range of activities, from volunteers tutoring and mentoring children at particular schools to organizations that are the lifeline both for refugees who arrive from across the globe and the homeless coming down the street.
In the future, the linkages between HPS and local congregations may grow even stronger following a very candid conversation last week between Hartford School Superintendent Christina Kishimoto, members of the clergy, and faith-based volunteers. The meeting, at Hartford Seminary, featured Dr. Kishimoto taking off her public official’s hat and offering personal reflections on how her faith informs her values – as well as what keeps her awake at night. The extraordinary exchange between the superintendent and the audience included:
  • Dr. Kishimoto’s setting of a personal context. “I’m taking liberties today; we’re in church, so I’m sharing who I am,” she said. “Good for you,” replied the Rev. Edwin Ayala, who hosted the meeting. He is executive director of the Christian Activities Council. 
  • The connection to valuing education. Going further, Dr. Kishimoto said her faith was crucial to what her parents taught her – and how she values education. Growing up in the projects in the South Bronx, she said, she learned to pray and as a family, attend church, which played a strong role in the simultaneous college attendance by her mother, her brother, and herself, as they overcame real and perceived obstacles.
  • Fast forward to today. Just as she learned a set of values in the South Bronx, with friends in school, in church, and on the playgrounds, children in Hartford are doing that right now, she said, adding that what keeps her awake at night is when young people do not have someone “who wraps their arms around them.” Recently, she said, she met a child who said she had no friends. Thinking back on being 13 or 14, she reflected, we all thought we were so grown up, even though we were really little squirts. Pre-adolescents “are just these beautiful young beings – the problem is, they don’t have mentors around them … so who do they turn to?”
  • Skin in the game. Dr, Kishimoto said she is now working with Nutmeg Big Brothers Big Sisters President and CEO Andy Fleischmann on a grant to add 40 mentors for Hartford students. She also revealed that she is a Big Sister now to a youth around her middle-school daughter’s age. “Our families have developed relationships; as mothers we compare notes and I serve as a mentor,” she told the group.
The Heart of the Matter
Drawing out discussion from the numerous members of the audience who do volunteer tutoring and mentoring with children in Hartford schools, Dr. Kishimoto asked a rhetorical question: “What is our role to protect our babies – and to help our children become adults?”
From the superintendent’s standpoint, Hartford has been in a state of reform for more than six years, but even with the progress thus far, everyone needs to be impatient because not all of our children are in great schools. “There are no expendable children or families,” she said, hence the non-negotiable responsibility Hartford has to create a college readiness system for its children.
“We need to use our churches to tell stories,” Rev. Ayala said, as a way to spread the word of how volunteers now are making a difference and how more are needed. Indeed, one participant worried, it would be a shame if prospective, faith-based volunteers were waiting eagerly for marketing information on how they could help – and the District at the same time was waiting for an invitation to engage.
Apprised of a speaker’s program at a church fellowship hall, the superintendent said, “You open up your pulpit to me and my staff – we will be there.”
“I’ll do it either way,” she elaborated. “I’ll come with the common core curriculum or I’ll bring my Bible.” After this meeting, members of the superintendent’s Parent Engagement Task Force, NRZs, central office staff, and Dr. Kishimoto stayed to network and share contact information concerning additional collaborations, including some being mapped out in real time that night.
Achieve Hartford! will continue to report on these very positive – and very important – relationships between the District and the faith-based community. The key to sustaining reform is everyone engaged in education playing their unique roles, and last Thursday night was a great effort to increase the relationship between the Hartford Public Schools and the diverse community of faith that exists in Hartford.

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