For his long-running dream to start a school for Dixwell and Newhallville kids, Pastor Eldren Morrison has a new partner—and a new ambitious proposal to open in August with 300 students.
Morrison (pictured) has teamed up with Family Urban Schools of Excellence (FUSE), the organization that runs the Jumoke charter schools in Hartford, in his latest proposal for the Booker T. Washington Academy, a new charter school he’s hoping to open on Blake Street this year. Morrison proposes opening in August with 300 students in grades pre-K to 3, then expanding to serve 651 kids in grades pre-K to 8 by 2019.
The state Board of Education, which ultimately decides whether the school opens, is hosting a hearing Thursday to gauge local support for the plan. The hearing takes place from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. at Metropolitan Business Academy at 115 Water St.; members of the public will be offered three minutes of speaking time each and a chance to submit written feedback on the plan.
The hearing represents the penultimate step in a years-long effort by Morrison to open a school to serve Dixwell and Newhallville, the two largely African-American neighborhoods he serves as pastor of Varick Memorial A.M.E. Zion Church.
“It’s a really big moment,” said Morrison, who’s 32. “To get this far in the process is very exciting.”
Click here to read his application.
As a charter school, Booker T. Washington would accept public-school students via lottery; the state would fund the school on a $11,000-per-pupil basis. It would get the freedom to operate on its own foundational charter, outside of New Haven’s traditional school district; its existence would depend on the state renewing that charter every five years.
Based on feedback at Thursday’s hearing, state education Commissioner Stefan Pryor will make a recommendation to the state Board of Education on whether to approve Booker T. Washington’s charter; the state board is expected to vote on the matter at its next meeting on April 2. The state budget includes funding for two more charter schools to open in the fall; hearings are taking place on four proposals this month. The state has 18 charter schools; Pryor has overseen the approval of several new charters after years of stagnant charter growth. Morrison has emerged as a frontrunner in the competition; Gov. Dannel P. Malloy has made at least two personal visits to Varick to support his effort.
This is Morrison’s third effort to seek state permission to open a charter school. This time, he brought in big guns from Hartford to bolster his application. Morrison and the board of volunteers he assembled to open the charter school has hired FUSE, a charter network that runs five schools in Hartford and Bridgeport, to run Booker T. Washington. FUSE is the evolution of Jumoke Academy, a charter school that opened in Hartford in 1997. Jumoke has since expanded into a district of three schools, one elementary and two middle, in Hartford.
After leading the Jumoke district, CEO Michael Sharpe (pictured) in 2012 got into the business of not just creating charter schools, but taking over failing schools as “turnarounds.” In 2012, Sharpe launched FUSE, which took over Milner School in Hartford, part of the state Commissioner’s Network of turnaround schools. FUSE hired away Karen Lott, principal of the Brennan/Rogers School in New Haven, to run the newly revamped Milner. In 2013, FUSE expanded to Bridgeport, launching another turnaround effort at Dunbar School. FUSE now serves 1,400 students, including 704 students in the Jumoke district.
In an interview Tuesday, Sharpe outlined an ambitious timeline to launch the sixth FUSE school, this time in New Haven. If the school wins approval at the April 2 board meeting, Booker T. Washington would need to find 300 students by summer’s end.
That’s an unusually large number of students to start with: 300 is the maximum size for a charter school allowed by state law without a waiver. Charter schools often start with just one or two grades in order to establish school culture and ensure a smooth rollout. Morrison’s previous proposal called for opening this fall with just 36 students, then growing slowly each year. Another charter school, Elm City Montessori, is opening this fall in New Haven with just 69 students.
“We do have an aggressive agenda in terms of start-up,” said Sharpe. But he expressed confidence that his group could get a 300-student school ready by August. FUSE and Jumoke have never missed an enrollment target, he said.
Morrison outlined some details of that agenda in an interview in his church office on Dixwell Avenue Tuesday. Sharpe joined by telephone.
Recruiting & Retaining Kids
Morrison said he plans to recruit heavily from the Dixwell and Newhallville neighborhoods; the school will also be open to students citywide. He and Sharpe were asked about the possibility of drawing students away from public-district schools in the neighborhood, such as Wexler/Grant School, which launched a “turnaround” effort three years ago, and Lincoln-Bassett School, which the school district is planning to revamp as a 6 a.m.-to-6 p.m. community school in the fall. Lincoln-Bassett already lost its 7th and 8th grades this year due to low enrollment.
Sharpe said opening the school should not affect the city’s main state funding stream, Education Cost Sharing grant. “Where we have to be careful is where we’re drawing the students from,” he said. The group will have to make sure students are coming “not just from one school.”
Morrison said he has spoken with schools Superintendent Garth Harries about how to “strengthen” the public school system by adding a good option for kids, while not undermining nearby schools.
Morrison said “there is more than enough need” among families in the Dixwell and Newhallville neighborhood for a quality education. He said he knows that because many families apply to schools in other parts of town. And many are not being served well, he said: “When you see high-school kids struggling to read,” he said, that’s evidence of an urgent need for better schools in the area.
Sharpe was asked about the potential for charter schools to push out kids who don’t meet academic standards or exhibit disruptive behavior or have special needs. He said Jumoke Academy schools don’t do that. Suspension rates are low, he said, and the district has “never expelled more than one student” in the history of the schools, since 1997. The annual loss of students in the three Jumoke district schools in Hartford is 1.1 percent, he said.
“We have an outstanding record of keeping our kids.”
Sharp’s group has come under fire for accepting too few English-language learners and special-needs kids. Just 4 percent of Jumoke Academy students received special education, compared to 13 percent in New Haven and 18 percent in Hartford, according to the CT Mirror. Sharpe acknowledged there is a “fairly low special education population at Jumoke,” but he argued that’s because the school district has a “tremendous staff” that works with kids early, addressing their needs before they need to be identified for special education. Morrison said his group is working on how to recruit and retain special-needs students.
The deadline to apply for New Haven’s magnet and charter school lottery is this Friday. The lottery is set to take place on April 9, which means Booker T. Washington would likely have to create a separate lottery for enrolling kids, unless the district makes special arrangements for applicants to that school to join the lottery at the last minute.
Small Class Sizes
If approved, the school would open at 495 Blake St., the former home of Metropolitan Business Academy, adjacent to the Early Childhood Learning Center. Morrison said his group is negotiating with the landlord and is ready to sign a lease and move in as soon as July 1. Eventually, Booker T. Washington Academy would seek to share a building with Highville Charter School, which is plotting a move to Science Park, Morrison said.
FUSE would hire staff and run the day-to-day operations of the school. Sharpe said FUSE has not identified a principal, but the organization has a “job bank” of candidates who have sent in applications, and he would draw from that pool to staff the school. Sharpe said FUSE aims to hire staff by July, when teacher training would begin.
The proposal calls for smaller class sizes, and more adults in the classroom, than New Haven’s traditional school district typically offers. Class sizes would be capped at 20 kids for pre-K, 21 kids for kindergarten, and 22 kids for grades 1 to 3, according to the proposal. Each classroom would have an “academic assistant,” or teacher’s aide, bringing the student to adult ratio to 1 to 11. That’s a lot smaller than New Haven’s public school district classes, which brim with 26 or 27 kids in the early grades. In the New Haven district, all kindergartens and about half of 1st grades are staffed with teachers’ aides; 2nd grades and higher are not.
As a charter school, Booker T. Washington would be granted extra flexibility to develop work rules outside of a union contract. Sharpe said the school would have a longer school day, probably about eight hours. In addition to the $11,000-per-pupil funding from the state, FUSE would apply for a half-million dollar grant from the federal Department of Education for start-up costs for new charter schools, Sharpe said.
FUSE will design the curriculum for Booker T. Washington, which includes after-school arts and music and “weekly character education classes.”
Morrison said his board hired FUSE after he met Sharpe about a year ago and was impressed with FUSE’s work in other schools.
“We realized how in synch our philosophy” towards students’ character, intellectual and spiritual development, Sharpe said. While Morrison and some other board members are active in his church, the charter school will have no official connection to the church, Morrison said.
Sharpe and Morrison said they expect Thursday’s hearing to go well. Morrison has spent several years meeting with community leaders and other organizations about the proposal; Sharpe has been involved in those meetings for the past year.
“We don’t expect we’ll get folks rolling in opposing the operation, other than your regular folks who oppose anything that’s a charter,” Sharpe said.