by Rie Poirier-Campbell
It’s no secret that the Hartford Public Schools are facing severe budget challenges, tied largely to our city’s and state’s grave financial pains. In fact, the magnitude of the problem in the school district is unprecedented, with a gap of as much as $20 million predicted for next school year.
Recently, Aetna, Travelers and The Hartford stepped up to help our city in a big way: pledging a combined $10 million each year for five years to ease the budget crisis, and – equally important – calling on other corporations to join them. This is the kind of fresh, civic-minded, business-smart, public/private approach that can help our community begin to dig out and move forward.
Public/private partnerships aggregate and focus new resources to public needs in a way that a strict reliance on tax dollars never can. They also bring highly creative thinking, enthusiastic teammates and often more cost-effective systems for delivering needed services.
Public/private partnerships are more than just an extra source of revenue. They’re a new way of doing business. Like all partnerships, they may take more work and ramp-up time than going it on your own. And they take ongoing investment on both sides. But the payoffs are far greater.
That’s the idea behind Hartford Performs’ partnership with the Hartford Public Schools. A few years ago, when Hartford students’ test scores were at their lowest, our region’s vibrant arts community asked the school district how it could help. Many arts organizations and teaching artists had done some work in the schools and saw how adding music or theater techniques to a lesson could help children learn. They, along with classroom teachers, knew that when students get up and dance like planets in the solar system, they internalize abstract concepts such as rotation and revolution. When they act out a scene from a book, they better understand the characters’ motives and develop empathy.
What they also knew was that, while some students in Hartford had access to this kind of innovative teaching approach, most did not. What was needed was a system for making sure that every student, regardless of grade or school, have the benefit of arts experiences that would help them learn core subjects.
So the school district and the arts community created a public/private partnership to build that system. Hartford Public Schools invested financial resources; arts organizations invested human resources and innovation; and forward-thinking corporations and foundations created leverage by underwriting the infrastructure to make it all work.
The result is that, today, every Hartford Public School student from prekindergarten through eighth grade has teaching artists visit their classrooms several times a year to help them understand things like fractions, adverbs, the water cycle and the Emancipation Proclamation, by drawing, dancing, drumming and dramatizing. The students are not only learning, they’re enjoying what they’re learning. It’s such a powerful model. I will never forget seeing a student’s eureka moment when he finally figured out what one-eighth meant by coloring it out with a teaching artist.
The numbers bear out how well this approach works. Teachers who participated in a recent independent evaluation said that Hartford Performs programs helped their students develop vocabulary (92%), express themselves verbally (88%), develop active listening skills (96%), work collaboratively with other students (86%), develop problem-solving skills (75%), retain information (93%), develop social skills (89%) and express themselves in writing (65%).
None of this would have been possible without the public/private partnership that developed this broad-reaching and cost-effective system of services for Hartford kids. Further, it’s easy to see how this model can be replicated to serve Hartford students in other areas, such as sports, life skills, civics or vocational/technical learning.
Even – and I would argue especially – in tight budget times, this model is well worth continued investment by all partners, private and public, who are interested in advancing the achievement of Hartford students.
Rie Poirier-Campbell is Executive Director of Hartford Performs