A fast-growing charter school found new footing on old stone floors, as students at Amistad Academy held their first day of class at the old—and new—Dwight School.
Elizabeth Bailey (pictured above) was one of the first batch of students to trickle into Amistad Monday, the first day of class for half of the kindergarten class. The rest were set to begin school Tuesday, with older grades following this week and next at the newly combined K-8 school at 130 Edgewood Ave.
The building, like the school it now houses, mixes the past and the future.
The $34 million rehab project, designed by Boronson Falconer LLC of New Haven, preserves the original hallways and classrooms from the 1965 school and the Dwight Public School sign from 1863. Onto that one-story frame, crews punched new windows into the brick, splashed yellow paint onto drab walls, and built an addition that expands the footprint to fit a fast-growing form of public education.
Dwight School, named after former Yale President and Revolutionary War chaplain Timothy Dwight, closed in 2008 after 145 years of history. Like the Dwight School, Amistad Academy is a public school serving low-income New Haven kids. As a charter school, it’s one of many new options that have replaced the traditional neighborhood school. Students get in through a lottery run by the New Haven public school district, but the school is part of its own district governed by its own state-sanctioned charter.
Amistad Academy, a public charter school that began 13 years ago with with 84 students in 5th and 6th grade, has grown to serve 734 kids in grades K to 8. That’s between Amistad Middle and Amistad Elementary, which had been split into two locations until this year. Meanwhile, Amistad’s parent company, Achievement First, has grown from one flagship school on James Street to a network of 20 schools in New Haven, Hartford, Bridgeport and Brooklyn, NY. And the charter movement has spread far and wide over the past 20 years, with over 5,000 charters now operating nationwide. In the national debate over charter schools, Amistad is often held up as one of the successful pioneering experiments. In New Haven, meanwhile, the organization used to be at odds with city political and education leaders; in the past two years they’ve started working together.
The city made way for Amistad’s local expansion by selling the Dwight School to the district to Achievement First for $4.5 million.
For Elizabeth Bailey and her fellow Amistad Academy “scholars,” the first day of school began with the basics—breakfast. About 15 kids, whose last names end in A through M, showed up to find a half-dozen teachers in their classroom for their inaugural day.
Randi Whitley, a third-grade teacher helping out with student orientation, showed Elizabeth how to open the wrapper on her breakfast doughnut.
“It just takes a little muscle,” she advised. “You got it.”
Kindergartners with names ending in N to Z will show up for similar lessons on Tuesday. Thursday is the first full day of school for all students in K to 4.
To make way for their arrival, the original floors of the hallway were polished and restored to their original luminescence, said Ken Paul, Achievement First’s vice-president for development, who led a tour of the building Monday. They’re made of an expensive stone composite called terrazzo, which binds together marble, quartz, granite and glass. Paul said the floors should last for many years to come.
Marcel Gutes, a second-grade teacher’s aide, pulled a small classroom chair onto that stone Monday afternoon. He balanced on it as he stapled a border around a bulletin board.
When students open the door of the former Dwight School, they’ll find motivational slogans and quotations painted in bright colors on the walls.
And they’ll find something new in the classrooms—natural light.
Liz Springer, a second-grade math teacher, was pleased with that addition. She has one of the rooms where a new window was cut into the wall. It looks out onto Edgewood Avenue. She said it’s an improvement over the old Dwight School, and her previous classroom in a swing space on Ella Grasso Boulevard. So far, she hasn’t observed much traffic noise or distractions from the street, she said.
Nick Grasso, a fourth-grade English teacher, typed up a lesson plan at his new desk, which sits under a sign that reads “No Slacking Anytime.”
A visitor asked if the sign is meant for Grasso or his students.
“Both,” he said with a chuckle.
As a newcomer to Achievement First, Grasso had already been training for the school year for three weeks. He said he was drafting plans for “Amistadization.” That’s when kids learn rules and expectations for the school year so they can get in the routine to start working.
His classroom looks out over a courtyard, where the wall on the original one-story building blends into a second-story addition.
The elementary school sits in the one-story original Dwight School building. The middle school lies in the two-story addition facing Chapel Street.
Each school has its own principal and leadership team. Amanda Alonzy, principal of Amistad Elementary, said she likes the new location because it is “closer to our families instead of being in a business park.”
Now that Amistad is in the Dwight neighborhood, kids who live nearby have a preference in the admissions lottery, school officials said. Unlike some magnet schools in the district lottery, Amistad accepts only New Haven residents, not suburban kids.
As part of the deal when the city sold the building, the Greater Dwight Development Corporation still has the right to use the school cafeteria for community events. The Dwight Management Team, which used to meet there, has been meeting at the Troup School while Amistad was under construction.
The school has a new gym, which as of Monday was still filled with boxes of lacrosse sticks and chairs.
Some workers from William B. Meyer moving company earned their keep Monday by rolling out cafeteria tables to make way for gym class.
The construction project yielded $2,970,000 in contracts to minority-owned companies, according to Lil Snyder of New Haven’s Small Contractor Development program. Achievement First and its construction manager, Fusco, worked with the city to help find work for minority contractors, she said. Of 526 construction workers on the project, there were 196 racial minorities, 106 New Haven residents and 29 women.
The project is the first charter school in Connecticut to be rehabbed as part of the state school construction program, according to Lisa Desfosses, head of facilities at Achievement First. The state paid about $26 million of the $34 million project; Achievement First is paying the rest. Beforehand, the state paid for construction projects run only by traditional school districts like New Haven, which used the program to rebuild or revamp nearly all of its schools.
Achievement First may soon be headed for another first: As New Haven tries out new models as part of a school reform drive, Mayor John DeStefano has said he intends the charter group to run a city school. That would mean Achievement First would step out into new territory of working with a unionized workforce as part of a traditional district, instead of running a school with its own charter.
Meanwhile, troops on the ground focused on the days ahead.
Sylvia Perez, director of operations for the elementary school, stood in the gym directing young men on where to roll the tables.
The construction project expanded the Dwight school building from 39,000 to 91,000 square feet. That made room for the elementary school to get a long-sought library, and for the middle school to add another 25 to 30 kids.
The new space will make room for a new kind of learning, Perez argued. She said her mother taught at a traditional public school for nearly 30 years. The curriculum was so set in stone, she said, that she knew every year the day before Thanksgiving, her mom would guide students in how to trace their hands on paper and create a turkey.
That won’t happen at Amistad Academy, she pledged. Every six weeks, based on standardized tests, the team changes the game plan based on how students are performing.
“It’s dynamic,” she said of the school’s curriculum. “We’re always changing.”