This article appeared in the Hartford Courant on December 1, 2021.
A new Hartford Public Schools program will open several school buildings on Saturdays to give students extra time for academic support and social-learning activities like sports, arts and cooking.
More than 400 students have enrolled in Saturday Academy, which will begin this Saturday and run through May at five schools: the MLK Campus, SAND, Parkville Community, MD Fox and Hartford High. The district hopes to serve a total of 800 students with the new program, one of several initiatives seeking to address the toll the COVID-19 pandemic has taken on students and families.
Tomoye Bryan hopes to see her 9-year-old son Zach, a fourth grader at Breakthrough Magnet School-North, get better at making friends after a year spent learning remotely. Bryan, a special education para-educator, thinks that will happen naturally at Saturday Academy, where her son will get to run around between lessons and maybe play his favorite sport, soccer.
Beverley Hines, who has five children in Hartford schools, signed her seventh-grade daughter, Krissania, up for the new program. It was not a hard sell for the young teen, who likes to bake and draw but lost interest in school when she was learning remotely last year, Hines said.
After so much time stuck at home, all her kids are eager for activities, said Hines, who co-chairs a school governance council.
“We’re getting the fire back into going to school,” Hines said.
In addition to Saturday Academy, Hartford schools are contracting with a third-party to provide no-cost tutoring to as many as 4,500 students. Next month, the district will announce a pilot program to provide evening educational opportunities to about 100 high school students. And when schools close for weeklong breaks in February and April, some students will forego the time off and take advantage of extra classes.
The district will pay for the programs using federal COVID-19 relief. Running Saturday Academy for the next three years will cost about $1.5 million of the $127 million the district must spend by the end of 2024.
Superintendent Leslie Torres-Rodriguez held a news conference Wednesday to encourage families to sign up for the weekend program as soon as possible, which will run from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. on 16 Saturdays through the end of the school year.
“Before the pandemic and certainly now, as we think about recovery, we have to tend to the whole child knowing that there are social, emotional, developmental, wellness needs and supports that our students need to have,” Torres-Rodriguez said.
There is no cost to families. The district will provide breakfast and lunch to all students, and transportation to city residents.
A majority of the time will be spent on enrichment activities, run by several community-based organizations, including the Village for Families and Children and Catholic Charities. Students will also receive help with English Language arts, math, social-emotional learning and — for older students — SAT prep.
Many students all over the country are trying to make up ground they lost during the pandemic, which was particularly hard — both academically and emotionally — on students of color in public schools, students learning English, and students with disabilities, according to the federal Department of Education.
In Hartford, chronic absenteeism rates skyrocketed between spring 2020 and the start of 2021, increasing from about a quarter of students to nearly half. Chronic absenteeism was highest among students with learning differences (61%) and English learners (57%).
All academic performance took a hit as well, as COVID-19 amplified the challenges faced by Hartford families, such as transience and housing insecurity, poverty, health issues, language barriers and low literacy.
Torres-Rodriguez has said it may take five years for students to recover from the crisis.
“It is still early, in my opinion, to determine the depth and the breadth of the impact of the pandemic and the trauma, and the amount of support that our students are going to need,” she said.