An Interview With Christina Kishimoto, Hartford's Next Schools Chief
The Hartford Board of Education recently selected Christina Kishimoto to be its next superintendent of schools. She's taking over for Steven Adamowski, who's stepping down after five years. Kishimoto has been a leader in the district's effort to reform its schools and improve it's test scores. WNPR's Jeff Cohen sat down with her for an interview. KISHIMOTO: Well, if age is important, I'm 41 years old, I'll be 42 in a couple of weeks, actually. I have one child in the school system. I've been with the Hartford Public Schools for five and a half years, I've lived in the state of Connecticut for just over 15 years. I come from New York City, grew up in the South Bronx, went through a career in higher ed before coming into k-12 education. COHEN: Have you taught, if you haven't taught, is that an obstacle, is it not an obstacle, does it effect your relationship with teachers? KISHIMOTO: Well, I would say I'm an educator but I'm not a traditionalist, I'm not a traditional educator in the sense of having been in the classroom, been a school principal, and then come up into central office work. What I've done is some of the other work that is important to senior management work that oftentimes our traditional educators don't have a chance to go through. I have 15 years of policy development work, I have a high level of budget work and financial work, I've supervised for most of my career, so I have supervisory experience, I'm a very strong leader, strong visionary. COHEN: Do you have any teachers in your mind from growing up that were formative to you? KISHIMOTO: Oh, absolutely, and I would say my middle school experience was the most powerful experience I had growing up. I went into a middle school where an English teacher -- Mrs. Cohen -- came in the first day and said she was not from the Bronx, she was from the suburban area, and everyone told her she should never have come into the Bronx, and she found the most compassionate, intelligent, engaging students. And that's the way she treated us. She treated us with a high level of respect, and I will never forget that lesson because I bring that to everything I've done. I would say Mrs. Cohen is someone that was always in my mind because, in seventh grade, she took a group of kids that people, I think underestimated, right? A group of kids from the South Bronx, all Black and Latino, and she taught us -- and she made us read about 10 Shakespeare books. And I became a fan of Shakespeare and a fan of 18th century literature soon after that. When I got into college, I just started looking at literature from different periods from the 16th to the 18th century. Unusual, right? I just became so enamored with literature because of her impact. COHEN: What would you say over the past three to five years have been the strengths of the reform, and what do you see to be some of the weaknesses and the challenges. KISHIMOTO: Well, the strength of the reform I think is the urgency that was brought to the table across the board. The fact that having high performing schools and low performing schools and averaging that and saying we're okay is not good enough. I think some of the positives, I think the deliverable that was the most positive is bringing this portfolio schools approach to the district, where we said, okay, students have to learn about career options, college options, while in school, because they're not getting that outside of school necessarily across the board. On the other side, I think the piece that I would agree with, that we often hear about that we did not deliver on as strongly and need to correct very quickly is our whole communications plan that's the backbone of our school reform work. We did a lot of communication, but in a very piecemeal manner and not necessarily with a full communications team or a full-fledged communications plan. COHEN: Kishimoto's selection was stalled after news that the school system's director of communications was doing outreach on her behalf. That employee, David Medina, was later reprimanded. I asked her whether she thought his lobbying was inappropriate; Kishimoto declined to comment. But that story was one reason that Mayor Pedro Segarra called for the board of education to scrap its search and start over. At the time, Kishimoto told the Hartford Courant that "disgusted" her and that it was a "slap in the face." I asked her if she would use those words again. KISHIMOTO: I will say what I think is only fair to say. I'm a human being, and I have a family, and i did have a reaction, as a human being. I speak from the heart, you'll learn that from me. COHEN: I appreciate that very much. KISHIMOTO: What you see is what you get, that's who I am. I'm not an entertainer, I'm not a journalist. You get what you get. Kishimoto says she'll become the superintendent of schools this summer. For WNPR, I'm Jeff Cohen.