HARTFORD—A new New Haven charter school won permission from the State Board of Education Monday to launch this coming school year, after all.
The board called a special meeting Monday afternoon to consider the fate of the Booker T. Washington Academy (BTWA). After a two-and-a-half hour hearing, the board voted unanimously to allow the academy a revised charter to open its doors on Sept. 15 to 120 K-1 students.
“Congratulations,” board Chairman Allan Taylor told the school’s supporters after the vote was taken at the meeting, which took place in Hartford.
The board’s vote contained conditions: BTWA must submit a report to the state school board on its first year of operations by September 2015; it had to cut the number of enrollees in year one from an originally-approved number of 225; and it must submit to regular state site visits. The state also limited the revised charter to three years, not five, as originally approved.
Rev. Eldren D. Morrison of New Haven’s Varick AME Zion Church, the prime mover behind the school’s founding, made the case to the board along with John Taylor, the man hired recently to run the charter school; and retired New Haven Superintendent of Schools Reggie Mayo, whom the school hired as a consultant in time to help persuade the commissioners.
Some 30 Varick parishioners traveled to the hearing by bus, wearing T-shirts with the slogan: “If you can’t read, it’s going to be hard to realize your dream.”
At the hearing, it became clear that New Haven’s main charter school organization, Achievement First, is playing a larger role than previously known in getting the new academy off the ground. AF will rent temporary “swing space” to BTWA, which BTWA also plans to spend over $100,000 to improve. Achievement First spokesperson Amanda Pinto said BTWA will not pay for training or curriculum.
“They’ve been wonderful as a partner in helping us get started,” Taylor said.
FUSE “Was Not The Core”
BTWA originally had permission to open this month with with 225 students in grades pre-K to 2. Then on June 29 it fired the private company it had hired to run the charter school, Family Urban Schools of Excellence (FUSE), which had become the subject of a statewide scandal. Since then BTWA has scrambled to put together a new plan to present to the state school board for approval in time for the new academic year. It hired a new management company, Yardstick Learning, and revised its plan downward to start out on Sept. 15 with the two grades, kindergarten and 1st, with 120 students. Seventy-four students so far have applied to enroll.
“FUSE was not the core of this school,” Rev. Morrison said in his opening statement to the board. “This school was a vision of mine. And it was a vision that we had five to six years ago. Today we come asking you to really give us a yes so we can start this school for children.” The school aims to serve low-income children from the Dixwell and Newhallville neighborhoods.
At Monday’s hearing, Taylor announced that the school’s Blake Street building won’t be ready for moving in on Sept. 15. So BTWA has contracted with Achievement First (AF) to sublease an empty building on Greene Street, for which AF is paying rent through 2017 on a 10-year lease. (It used to run a school in the space, then moved it elsewhere.)
Pinto said BTWA will pay $50,000 in rent from September through January. Asked if AF is making a profit on the deal, Mayo told the board members no, and that he had bargained the deal down from an initially higher total.
“We are subleasing the space to them at a discount,” Pinto claimed. She said AF pays $178,000 a year in rent on the space.
AF is also getting an upgrade on its building in the deal. BTWA has agreed to spend $105,000 on what Taylor termed “cosmetic” improvements such as “replac[ing] carpet and tiling,” “paint[ing] the entire facility,” and updating wiring for new technology. Taylor said the school expects to have that work done on an “accelerated” four-week schedule that will require added labor costs for overtime.
BTWA then plans to move into its Blake Street building during the Christmas/New Year’s break, after completing $549,000 in renovations there.
A Race To Train & Renovate
Before board members began their questioning, Chairman Allan Taylor qualified their intentions. They had already reviewed BTWA’s revised charter proposal before releasing the above conditions to awarding the charter.
“Our concern is whether this school is ready to open and move toward accomplishing the goals,” Allan Taylor said. “To the extent the questions sound hard, skeptical, it’s because that’s our job in this situation.”
State board Vice-Chair Theresa Hopkins-Staten grilled BTWA’s John Taylor on the school’s plans to be ready for a Sept. 15 opening—specifically, if it has enough time to train its teachers.
Taylor responded that he has planned a three-week training.
“In a perfect world I always like four weeks. We could only get three within our plan that is truly feasible,” Taylor said.
Week one will involve training teachers in the BTWA “climate” and “culture”—“how we do it in Booker T,” he said.
Week two: “Content,” or “working directly with teachers around their product and how it should be developed.”
On week three, Achievement First comes in to train the teachers “around curriculum planning.”
As they raced to revise their plans for the new school, Taylor said, he and his colleagues realized it made sense to reach out to AF for help with curriculum. “‘We trust that what you have is working because what you have is very good. Can we piggyback on what you have built?” he recalled asking.
Vice-Chair Hopkins-Staten, along with Joseph J. Vrabely Jr., Terry Jones and other members of the board, also raised concern about the school’s finances.
The school has a $2.5 million annual budget. Some $1 million of that is to come from philanthropic donations. So far it has raised about $120,000.
“That makes me nervous,” Hopkins-Staten remarked.
Taylor responded that the school already has another $500,000 lined up in pledges. Those donors—as well as other potential donors—didn’t want to advance the money until the school received its charter. As it eventually did Monday afternoon.
About a half-dozen members of the public spoke, all in favor of the revised charter, at the outset of the hearing. Most were Varick parishioners. One was Jennifer Alexander, CEO of the pro-charter advocacy group Connecticut Coalition for Achievement Now (ConnCAN).
“We cannot allow success to be limited just to the families who can afford it,” Alexander told the board. “... This has been a difficult summer for you, for us, and especially for the leadership.”
In an recent interview with the Independent, the state’s most vocal charter opponent, gubernatorial candidate Jonathan Pelto, called the last-minute effort to approve a new BTWA charter an example of a lack of accountability in the charter process. “There was a process. They were chosen because FUSE was their partner,” he said. “These no-bid contracts and expedited review processes are a bad idea.”
As a charter school, BTWA will operate on per-pupil state funding, under monitoring by the state, outside of the local school district. The New Haven district will pay for transportation and services for special-needs students. As of July 2012, state statute requires charter schools to include a designee of the local school board on the charter governance board. Damaris Rau, New Haven’s district executive director of schools, is now representing New Haven public schools on the BTWA board.
State board of ed members expressed optimism that the prolonged questioning charter-securing process BTWA has had to go through will help produce better results. Charles Jaskiewicz said the interactions between BTWA and the state Board of Education likely will be “ten times higher” in volume than “normal situations.”
Board member Stephen Wright said he expects the increased communications between the two groups to lead to success for BTWA. “You’re right, you probably will be under more scrutiny than any other organization would be. And from that you will thrive, your organization will soar.”
Paul Bass contributed reporting.