Learning in Springfield—and Beyond—At-large: Denise Hurst…
This post is the fourth of several profiles of Springfield at-large School Committee candidates.
School Committee members run for four-year terms and in that time a lot can change. Since she was on the ballot in 2013, at-large School Committee member Denise Hurst has seen a lot of transformation personally and professionally. Her family has grown and now her oldest is a student in the Springfield Public Schools she and the rest of the Committee oversees.
The changes go further. She and her colleagues have presided over improvements in the second largest public school district in the commonwealth. Seemingly intractable problems remain, but there is progress among underperforming schools. Moreover, Hurst’s colleagues from other communities’ school committees have also highlighted her impact on a state level.
“In the last two, three years, we’ve established a minority caucus on the Massachusetts Association of School Committees board of directors in order to get further minority input,” Jake Oliveira, a Ludlow School Committee member and past MASC board president, said. He called Hurst a driving force behind the move.
Hurst has served eight years on the Committee. She has held one of the two at-large seats since Springfield transitioned to ward representation in 2009. She and the late Antonette Pepe were unopposed in 2009. Hurst topped the at-large ballot in 2013, the same year Calvin McFadden displaced Pepe.
In a phone interview with WMassP&I, Hurst discussed her background, a range of issues affecting the schools and progress made despite Springfield’s challenges. It was because of that progress that she’s seeking another term.
Among the items she highlighted were several Level 4 schools (the worst designation under state law) had moved up to Level 3 and in some cases level 2. Graduations rates have risen as dropout rates fell. Hurst also noted the opening of the early childhood education center.
“When kids start earlier or have more formal education or reading early on,” she said it helps “break down cycles of poverty.”
Hurst gamely answered questions about a range of topics from programming to parental involvement to finances, zooming in and out as needed. This reflects her background as a social worker, something not especially common among school committee members, but helpful in an urban setting.
“It certainly is unique in the way that it helps her explore and examine an issue in front of her,” Christopher Collins, a district-based colleague of Hurst’s on the School Committee, said. Collins, who is supporting her reelection bid, added that social workers analyze how policies affect individual children, families and whole neighborhoods.
“Denise is maybe one of the most attentive school committee people I’ve ever worked with,” he added. Collins served on the Committee briefly when it was all at-large, but he had a long career in the system before that.
There is still work to be done. Springfield’s middle schools have been functioning within an “empowerment zone.” Though the middle schools have shown progress, there is still a lot to assess. Hurst said the Committee still needs a figure out if the zones are working as intended.
Finances remain an issue as well. While Hurst defended the Committee’s budgeting over the last several years, she did concede that charter school reimbursements and the legislature’s insufficient funding of Chapter 70 have rocked the budget.
“If we have to educate under the most challenging situations, then we should be given all of resources we’re entitled to,” she said. Still, Hurst said the schools have expanded laptop access and revived middle school athletics. She said the latter was partly the product of the Committee’s outreach to parents and faculty during the budgeting process.
Chapter 70 is the law under which public schools are primarily funded in Massachusetts. Therefore, the answers to many of the school’s problems lie outside Springfield’s borders. Indeed, Hurst has become the city’s primary delegate to MASC, which form the main lobbying arms of the commonwealth’s school committees.
Oliveira said Hurst’s involvement with MASC has been crucial, especially given the size of the district she represents. The perception of urban school districts, especially within I-495, are not always accurate. Their closest urban comparators are either Boston’s massive district or much smaller urban ones in Revere or Everett.
“She’s really been the face of Springfield Public Schools outside the 413 area,” Oliveira said, shaping views of urban schools. He added that Hurst being both black and Latina amid a heavily white organization. That fortifies her ability to speak to the experience of urban, often minority-majority communities.
That comes on top of the minority caucus within MASC. Oliveira and Collins said Hurst’s echoes and builds upon the urban caucus Hurst’s mother-in-law. Marjorie Hurst helped found MASC’s urban caucus when she was on the Springfield School committee.
Hurst added that being active in MASC has been helpful spotting national and state educational trends before they hit Springfield. Despite the well-known provincialism of Springfield and environs, educational policy is usually an overwhelming force.
Yet that insight into trends was helpful for Hurst and her colleagues battled Question 2. That ballot initiative last year would have expanded charter schools. Springfield might have faced further hits to its school budget had the charter cap been raised.
Overall, Hurst views MASC as an opportunity for her and her colleagues to walk-the-walk in terms of professional development. “The same way we push for teachers’ professional development, the more we need to be committed to enhancing my own learning,” she said.
Hurst’s own life has prompted some professional changes or at least perspective. Her older son began first grade this year. She is no long just an alum of the schools, but the parent of a student.
Among school boards across the country, parents of students are anything but rare. Often it is a motivating factor to running. To transition to that status while in office can bring challenges and a need to measure the subjectivity of their child’s experience.
“I think that I’ll be honest,” she said, “it’s a balance because I want to be sure that I don’t lump every school and every school and every child into the same group.”
She added that she has tried to form independent relationships with her son’s teachers and administrators. Hurst’s husband, at-large Councilor Justin Hurst, also worked as a teacher, adding more perspective.
The arithmetic certainly favors Hurst and her husband on Tuesday. She has not always seen eye to eye with colleagues past and present. However, Hurst has cultivated a particularly strong brand, distinct even from Councilor Hurst, within the city.
“She’s a pleasure to work with,” Collins said. “We don’t agree on everything, but we can always discuss and move on to the next thing.”
Despite the warm vibes, Hurst is still working, not just on turnout, but persuasion.
“We’ve also gotten not so great responses from people who think their voices are not being heard,” she said. Hurst is still pitching to those people too. Before the interview, she was out canvassing the weekend before Election Day.
“We are workhorses. We are both workhorses,” Hurst said, also referencing her husband. “Even though we placed well in the preliminary, we have not let up.”