Aritza Ortega wanted to know how long it would take to rebuild the contaminated Clark Elementary School.
"Several years," Superintendent Beth Schiavino-Narvaez said Thursday.
"By that time my daughter will be in high school," Ortega, 36, said of her fifth-grader. She sat with other Clark mothers in a cafeteria at Wish Museum School, worrying about the opportunities left for their children.
"I didn't get to go to college," Ortega said, "but I'll be damned if my kids don't get that chance."
Clark School in north Hartford was shut down in January 2015 after hazardous chemicals called PCBs were detected in the school's air. Parents were initially told that the cleanup could take a year. That timeline was blown after tests continued to detect airborne toxins; school officials say it's impossible to make Clark safe enough by August and within the $5 million that the city had budgeted.
Narvaez's recommendation, revealed at a parent meeting Wednesday night, is to demolish Clark and build a new school. Mayor Luke Bronin said he supports rebuilding Clark, framing the proposal as "the best first step toward strengthening Hartford schools in the northeast neighborhood."
But Clark parents have expressed frustration and fears over their children's education in the meantime.
Starting next school year, Narvaez has proposed folding Clark into Wish School, which has already been hosting Clark's kindergarten to fourth-grade students. That plan has led to uncertainty over what will happen to Clark's staff. Principal Tayarisha Stone, for instance, would have her position eliminated next school year under a consolidated Wish-Clark school.
Narvaez has tried to assure parents that Stone will get another leadership job in the system and that the district is working to try to keep many of the teachers and special supports that have become part of Clark's identity, such as its partnership with the Village for Families and Children, a social services agency in Hartford.
Rep. Brandon McGee, whose district includes the impoverished Clark neighborhood, said Hartford should be aggressive in the wake of a school contamination: Demand that the state grant waivers to Clark students who want to attend a magnet school with open seats. Narvaez said she recalled asking the state last year for a waiver for Clark students, but that request was denied.
Magnet school admissions are determined through a state-run lottery that was built under the Sheff vs. O'Neill agreement to meet integration goals. Nearly all of Clark's roughly 250 students are black or Latino.
"Give families an open option," said McGee, a managing director for choice programs at the Capitol Region Education Council, one of the operators of Sheff magnet schools. "It's going to cause a lot of hell, but I'm willing to fight that."
The state Department of Education said in a statement Thursday, "We will review the request when we receive one."
"What makes you guys think that this school doesn't have PCBs?" Ortega asked Thursday about Wish. "What makes you think this school is safe for our kids?"
Wish was built in 1962 on Barbour Street, during the period in which PCBs were commonly used in building materials such as caulk. Wish has not been tested for PCBs, school officials have said, and there are no immediate plans to do so. District records indicate that more than a dozen Hartford school buildings, including Wish and Clark, were constructed between 1950 and 1979.
Clark was built in 1971. A school building official said this week that Hartford has spent about $750,000 on Clark's environmental testing, which has detected, among other problem areas, PCB-contaminated caulk at levels up to 1,940 times the federal limit.
"Whether you're talking about PCBs, whether you're talking about lead, whether you're talking about any of the long-term or short-term environmental, respiratory toxins that are in schools or other state working places, you have to do several things," American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten said Thursday.
"First off, you can't hide it," Weingarten said after touring Hartford's dilapidated M.L. King School, which has been promised a $68 million renovation. "The moment it gets hidden, it then becomes a problem that worsens over time. So you have to understand it, you have to see it, you have to be transparent with the community."
Rawson, a school in the Blue Hills neighborhood, has been proposed to Clark families as an alternative for next year. West Middle in the Asylum Hill neighborhood, another school offered to the displaced Clark students, is almost newly renovated and expected to be ready by summer.
Shellye Davis, co-president of the union that represents Hartford schools' paraprofessionals, said losing Clark in the northeast neighborhood is like "snatching the heart out of the community." It's where parents and grandparents have been bringing their children for the past 45 years, she said. Fewer families own cars, so everyday activities seemed to orbit around the school.
Rebuilding the shuttered Clark would cost tens of millions of dollars. "I don't know where that money is coming from," Davis said.