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Superintendent Beth Schiavino-Narvaez

Stepping down as the city's schools chief to take a new job

By Vanessa de la Torre and Jenna Carlesso, Hartford Courant
Published: September 8, 2016

Superintendent Beth Schiavino-Narvaez said Thursday that she was stepping down as the city's schools chief to take a new job that will relocate her to Okinawa, Japan.

Narvaez's stunning resignation — just nine days after Hartford's first day of school and with nearly two years to go on her contract — left colleagues speechless and then hastening to limit the disruption to a 21,000-student system with a turnstile of a dozen superintendents in the past 25 years.

Mayor Luke Bronin and school board Chairman Richard Wareing said the board expected to name an interim superintendent soon. Narvaez's last day in Hartford has not been decided, but in a phone interview Narvaez said it was possible that she would leave in a month, at the earliest.

It was the job offer that led her to leave, she said, not Hartford's immense challenges.

"I wish this opportunity had come a little later, but it's such a unique opportunity that I couldn't say no," said Narvaez, 44, who accepted a job as chief of instructional leadership development for schools that are operated by the U.S. Department of Defense.

Bronin Comments On Schiavino-Narvaez Departure

Mayor Luke Bronin talks about the departure of Superintendent Beth Schiavino- Narvaez.

Narvaez said she began her career 22 years ago as a teacher on a Fulbright scholarship in South Korea. Both her husband and their young daughter are Korean, she said, and the federal job will include working with districts in Korea, Japan and Guam.

"I couldn't turn it down. ... It's hard for me," said Narvaez, a Harvard-educated, first-time superintendent who began leading Hartford schools in July 2014. "I'm still in shock. I'm having mixed feelings and a heavy heart."

Just two weeks ago, Narvaez denied that she had a job offer when The Courant asked why she had put her Hartford home on the market. And on Aug. 29, in a speech to the city's teachers and school staffers before the first day of school, Narvaez talked about her excitement for the new academic year, outlined priorities despite the schools' budget cuts, and asked them all to "embrace our work with urgency."

Outgoing Hartford Superintendent Beth Schiavino-Narvaez Addresses Faculty and Staff on Aug. 29

Outgoing Hartford Superintendent Beth Schiavino-Narvaez addresses Hartford Public Schools faculty and staff at Convocation 2016 on Aug. 29, 2016 at Bulkeley High School. Schiavino-Narvaez resigned as the city's school chief on Sept. 8.

"It was, 'we, we, we,'" said Andrea Johnson, president of the Hartford Federation of Teachers. Johnson said she met with Narvaez for more than an hour Wednesday for their usual meeting to discuss union issues and had no clue that Narvaez planned to resign.

Johnson learned of the resignation Thursday afternoon when a worker in the union office got a news organization's text alert on her phone.

"I'm trying to process this," Johnson said. "It's like, what?"

Longtime observers of the city schools figured it would be awhile before another leadership shakeup in the district spanning nearly 50 schools and 3,270 employees, including 1,721 teachers. Certainly not less than two weeks after the superintendent led a bus tour of three Hartford schools on opening day.

Wareing, who works closely with Narvaez as board chairman, said she sat him down Wednesday for a talk.

"And I said, 'Well, are you going to tell me you're quitting?'" Wareing recalled. "And she goes, 'How do you know?' And I said, 'cause nobody ever says, 'Can I talk to you, sit down in my office,' unless that's what they're about to say to you."

"The board and the community is going to really have to pull together to figure out how to move forward," said board member Robert Cotto Jr. "It's the beginning of the school year and I didn't have any indication that there would be a change."

Narvaez is also in the middle of "Equity 2020," a crucial review of the district's school facilities and declining enrollment as Hartford moves toward school consolidation. And looming over it all is the city's fiscal crisis — a "financial earthquake," as Narvaez has called it, which came as she advocated for more resources for needy neighborhood schools.

Narvaez told a federal civil rights panel earlier this year that Hartford's bleak finances are weakening efforts to give a quality education to all students.

"For a city that's mired in a whole host of problems," said Paul Diego Holzer, executive director of Achieve Hartford!, an education advocacy group, Narvaez's abrupt resignation "makes addressing those problems that much more difficult. But not impossible." Holzer argued for bypassing an interim leader and naming a permanent schools chief.

"Hartford cannot afford to go through a six-month-long national search," he said. "We must identify a capable replacement as soon as possible and support an effective transition."

City insiders have floated the possibility of Jose Colon-Rivas, the district's newly appointed chief operating officer, as a replacement for Narvaez. Until recently, Colon-Rivas had served on the school board as vice chairman and was director of the city's department of families, children, youth and recreation before taking the schools job.

Wareing acknowledged Thursday that Colon-Rivas is one of several people whom the board might seriously consider as a successor. Colon-Rivas, a former Hartford teacher and principal, has a Ph.D. in curriculum and instruction, with a specialty in childhood development and educational psychology, from Pennsylvania State University.

"I think Jose is outstanding," Bronin said of Colon-Rivas. "I think he is a strong hand on the wheel right now in this time of transition. But again, that decision is the board of education's to make."

Bronin described Narvaez as "a dedicated superintendent" and said he wished her well.

Narvaez's employment contract states that she can resign her position at any time but must give the board 90 days' written notice. Narvaez said Thursday that she was in talks with Wareing about an earlier exit. They plan to meet next week to discuss her last day, Wareing said.

In the past 25 years, just one Hartford superintendent has served longer than three years and eight months on the job: Steven J. Adamowski, the brash leader who took over in fall 2006 and retired from the district in mid-2011 after pushing through the city's education reform plans. His successor, Christina Kishimoto, clashed with the city school board and was out in 2014 after her three-year contract expired.

Last September, the board voted to extend Narvaez's three-year contract an extra year, pushing to keep her at the helm of Hartford schools through mid-2018.

Narvaez is the city's highest-paid employee, with a salary of $257,500 — she was slated to get a 3 percent raise in July that would be worth $7,725 but said she was donating that money toward the city's low-performing "acceleration" schools.

Her contract also includes a requirement that she live in the city. "Oh no, no. I'm not looking to move outside of Hartford," Narvaez told The Courant on Aug. 24, days after her home was listed for sale. At the time, she said she was selling her five-bedroom house in a leafy West End neighborhood because of a "lifestyle choice" for her family to return to the city's walkable downtown. Narvaez said Thursday that she had not formally received the job offer when she put her house on the market.

Narvaez's tenure has not been without controversy. The district's handling of accusations against ex-administrator Eduardo Genao, who was charged in April with felony risk of injury to a child after allegedly sending sexual text messages to a 13-year-old girl, spurred a lawsuit from the girl's mother and outrage from community activists who argued that the district didn't do enough to shield the girl from Genao.

Genao, a longtime Hartford school administrator who resigned his $176,274-a-year central office job amid the police investigation, has not yet entered a plea in the criminal case. Narvaez, Wareing and Gislaine Ngounou, a top aide to the superintendent who resigned in July, are among the defendants named in the civil lawsuit.

Hartford parent advocate Milly Arciniegas said there were other incidents that left some parents lacking confidence in Narvaez's leadership, such as the November 2015 training exercise at SAND School when students with special needs had colored stickers placed on their shirts to identify them in the classroom. Narvaez issued a public apology and a district administrator who organized the training later resigned.

"We wish her the best, but a lot of things have transpired that were unresolved," Arciniegas said. "Parents were adamant — they needed answers. They needed to feel that their kids were going to feel secure, that kids were going to be safe when they went to school. And it didn't happen."

Narvaez had previously served as deputy superintendent for the 151,000-student Montgomery County school system in Maryland. Before that, she was an assistant superintendent in Springfield.

During Hartford's national search, Narvaez touted her experience in diverse school systems and her role in directing extra resources to raise achievement among minority students. She has called herself an "equity warrior" tasked with bringing institutional change to a struggling school system with a dysfunctional past.

One of the five-year goals she outlined last year was for 90 percent of Hartford students to graduate by 2020, up from the current 70.1 percent. In her recent speech to Hartford teachers and school staff, Narvaez praised them for their work, including lowering out-of-school suspensions and for the blips of improvement on the district's standardized test scores.

But politically, said Hyacinth Yennie, a community activist entrenched in education issues, "she probably didn't know what she was getting into."

"I like her, personally," Yennie said. "It's just that I feel like she probably was way over her head in understanding the complexity of the Hartford Public Schools system. Hartford is a city where there's so much bureaucracy going on." Earlier Thursday, Narvaez denied that the turbulence in Hartford had anything to do with her resignation. She said she trained to be an urban superintendent in Harvard's doctorate program and that the job is tough anywhere.

"It's not about running away from here," Narvaez said Thursday. "I think you hear in my voice, in what I'm saying, it's hard to leave. It's hard to leave this work."

Courant Staff Writer Matthew Kauffman contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2014, The Hartford Courant