Four party-endorsed candidates are vying for four seats in the Hartford’s Board of Education election on Nov. 5. Voters could have had other choices had the political parties feverishly engage city residents, many of whom are immigrants and children of immigrants.
Hartford is set to hire a school superintendent, continue its controversial reform efforts and manage millions of grants and donations it attracted from the federal government, Bill Gates and “corporate reformers,” who are set to close schools in the North End of Hartford. Moreover, the Hartford Public School district, like other districts across the nation, is implementing common core state standards, new teacher evaluation methods and curriculum for 21st century students.
Therefore, all eyes should be on the 2013 reshuffling, even if there are only four party-endorsed candidates. The Democratic Party candidates include Michael Brescia, 79, a former Buckley High School teacher; Beth Parker, 35, a research scientist at Hartford Hospital and a faculty member in health sciences at the University of Hartford; Craig Stallings, 40, a self-employed tax specialist. Working Families Party incumbent Robert Cotto Jr., 32, is a senior fellow at Connecticut Voices for Children. There are no Republican candidates.
Joe Gonzalez, a 39-year-old warehouse manager and a Democrat, is a write-in candidate. Originally from Ponce, Puerto Rico, Gonzalez said he wants to represent the Hispanic immigrant. Though not an immigrant, Gonzalez’s desire to represent immigrants highlights a larger issue. In a city of immigrants, very few immigrants find their way into the Hartford’s political arena, much less the inner circles.
The Hartford Guardian is not seeing enough evidence that Hartford is integrating its immigrant population.
With nativism on the rise, new arrivals to the city are experiencing a higher rate of discrimination and exclusion. This is unfortunate because in other cities, such as Philadelphia and Baltimore, the immigrant population has spurred economic growth and vitality. The same can be done for Hartford’s 124,893 residents if more effort is put into integrating these immigrants into all aspects of the city, including commissions, boards and the city council—fostering a sense of belonging. And it can start with the school board, seen by ambitious politicos as a sure and steady pathway to higher office.
Of the total population in 2011, more than 22 percent are foreign born. And 26 percent, or 31,474, of the entire population are school-age children below 18. More than half the school’s students are migrants, immigrants or children of immigrants, according to recent estimates by school officials. Moreover, Hartford school boasts a diverse student population from more than 24 countries and who speak more than 70 languages. In fact, about two thirds of the city’s population is from the Caribbean region. Understanding these sub-cultures in the city will be crucial to “turning around” schools. We don’t see meaningful reform happening any other way. And the record of slow and misguided growth in the school district confirms this.
The current board in no way represents the city’s population, especially the immigrant population—the most vulnerable residents in the city. Consequently, the board has failed to attend to the need of most immigrant families and their children who find it difficult to navigate the school system and who are wrongly treated as “foreigners who don’t vote.” Board members seemingly don’t understand the nuances of navigating a new country with a different accent. Or think about it during meetings.
Additionally, the Hartford Democratic Town Committee, which is primarily responsible for recruiting possible candidates for elected office, does a poor job of engaging new Americans. Members do not advertise their meetings, or do outreach, in these communities. For example, the HDTC does not update their website, another way of keeping information from the public’s purview.
In fact, when the HDTC held a recent meeting to select its slate, it failed to inform the immigrant papers, online news sources, or community organizations. Some critics say it was done deliberately to exclude these groups and to engineer a carefully handpicked board. As for the Hartford Republican Party, it seemingly wants nothing to do with immigrants at this time. The Working Families Party already has its candidate.
This circumscribed life for new Americans in Hartford is unacceptable. Most of these citizens are Democrats. They should not be excluded from any part of the democratic process, or only told to show up and vote.
City officials, including the town committees, can correct this decade-old problem by appointing first-generation immigrants and their children to the board so that they too have a voice in what kind of education their children receive. Instead of erecting barriers to an already messy and complicated democratic process, officials should ensure these residents feel a sense of belonging so the city can reap the benefits of an engaged and caring community.
Public relations strategies that “support immigrants” are not enough. Real support is having new Americans seated at the table.