HARTFORD, Conn. (WTNH) — The countdown to the new school year has begun.

That means students and staff returning to Hartford schools, and new strategies for improving education there.

“I’m always feeling excited,” Hartford Public Schools Superintendent Leslie Torres-Rodriguez said. “They fill us with hope and joy and opportunity.”

Before that first bell rings, Torres-Rodriguez sat down with News 8. She said one thing the district is focused on these next few weeks is filling vacancies across its 39 schools.

“At this time last year, we did have 97 vacancies,” Torres-Rodriguez said. “We have 60 vacancies for classroom teachers. We know that will have a tremendous impact.”

The district is working to attract new teachers to the district, and retain the ones it does have.

“We’re trying to go at that from so many different angles, whether it’s an incentive program,” she said. “Whether it’s our pipeline work, so we have teachers can transfer to leadership programs or mentoring.”

Torres-Rodriguez said teachers have left for a variety of reasons.

“Some are going to work closer to home,” she said. “Some are going to a district that has a different pay scale. There are some who are saying it’s really challenging in an urban context and ‘In this moment, I need something different.'”

Having qualified teachers is critical to the success of the district’s 16,500 students. It helps students build relationships with trusting adults, and directly impacts student engagement.

“We saw some improvements in our chronic absenteeism,” Torres-Rodriguez said. “At one point during the pandemic, we were at 49% of our students chronically absent. That trickled into the following few years. We were able to get that to 37%.”

That’s an area educators are working to improve on, both in and out of the classroom, through extracurricular activities and projects.

“I’m excited about the innovation work we’re doing and having a group of students have a project to design their own high school,” Torres-Rodriguez said. “I’m excited to see what they’ll come up with!”

The district is doing all this while also facing a budget deficit, which was made worse by pandemic-era funding running out and inflation-boosting costs. 

“Already looking into next year, we had projected anywhere from a $12-20 million deficit,” she said. “What are we going to prioritize with the funding? How do we sustain what we were able to gain when the funding is no longer here?”

The district also is addressing the challenges the city of Hartford is up against. It’s been a violent summer with students exposed to that pain and trauma. 

“We would love to only be able to focus on instruction,” Torres-Rodriguez said. “We know that’s not the reality we are operating in. We have to step back and look at the entire picture.”

She added there’s an emphasis on mental health support and making sure students have the resources they need, especially after a tough few years. But, at the core of it all, Torres-Rodriguez said the district is looking towards the future and making it a great year for the entire district.

All of those issues and more will be on the agenda as Hartford’s superintendent, and superintendents from all over the state gather at Berlin High School Thursday morning for the education commissioner’s annual back-to-school meeting. The meeting is scheduled to start at 9 a.m.

The first day for Hartford Public Schools is Aug. 29.