Crowds from Stamford and Bridgeport stormed Hartford Wednesday to oppose new charter schools in their communities. New Haven’s proposal for a new charter school, meanwhile, sailed through with not a peep of opposition.
By a unanimous vote, the State Board of Education gave Varick Memorial AME Zion Pastor Eldren D. Morrison permission to open a charter school called the Booker T. Washington Academy. The school would open this fall at a temporary location at 495 Blake St. The board OK’d the school to open with up to 300 students in grades pre-K to 3.
Booker T. Washington Academy was one of four charter schools that gained approval Wednesday. Booker T. and Great Oaks Charter School in Bridgeport gained approval to open this fall. The board also approved charters for the Stamford Charter School of Excellence and Capital Prep Harbor School in Bridgeport, both of which will open in 2015.
The vote marked the realization of a years-long dream Morrison has had to open a school to serve kids from New Haven’s Newhallville and Dixwell neighborhoods, where his church is.
“The board has spoken and the parents have spoken. We are all energized by the urgency of now,” Morrison said after the vote.
As a charter school, Booker T. will accept public school students via lottery. It will operate under $11,000-per-pupil funding and their own state-approved charters, which must be renewed every five years. The vote clears the way for his school to scramble to set up a student lottery and hire staff.
The day’s proceedings brought a flood of charter advocates and opponents to the State Office Building a block away from the Capitol. The day painted a tale of three cities—two deeply divided over how to fix failing schools, and one that showed no such public division.
New Haven’s crew of charter advocates gathered Wednesday morning at Varick on Dixwell Avenue, where Morrison serves as pastor. Thirty supporters picked up white Booker T. Washington Academy T-shirts and boarded a chartered bus.
The bus-goers included 86-year-old Linneth Chin, a deaconess in the church. Chin, who’s from Jamaica, raised her grandchildren in New Haven. She said there’s a big need for quality schools serving the Dixwell/Newhallville area.
The school, which will be technically be separate from the church, will accept students from all over the city by lottery; Morrison has said he aims to recruit heavily from Dixwell and Newhallville.
The bus ride began with a prayer. “Go with us as we travel. … Guide us, oh God!”
“Amen,” responded the crowd.
Lauren King, who’s 24, took a seat near her mother, Joan Byrd. They live together in Newhallville. In 4th grade, King was the face of an experiment to desegregate Connecticut’s schools: She was the first minority student to join Chapman Elementary School in Cheshire through a desegregation effort called Project Choice.
The mom-daughter duo Wednesday joined a new effort in school choice, this one a charter school.
Their fellow bus-mates included lifelong members of the church, such as Byrd, as well as newer members, such as Douglas Hall. Hall lives in Bloomfield; Inspired by Morrison’s leadership, he has been attending Varick for five years.
“The church’s primary goal is to save souls,” he said. “The second goal is education of the youth.”
Earl Caple, of West Haven, said he grew up attending New Haven public schools: Troup School, Helene Grant and Wilbur Cross. He said classes were “overcrowded” and “slower kids was getting pushed off to the side.” He said Booker T. Washington Academy—with smaller class sizes and more personal attention—will have a better chance giving the kids a good education, and thus address the crime and unemployment plaguing Newhallville.
At the State Office Building, the Varick envoy met up with statewide charter school allies, including ConnCAN, the Families For Excellent Schools, and the Northeast Charter Schools Network. There, church members received a second T-shirt—this one green. They were joined by a handful of ministers from Bridgeport who were supporting both charter proposals in that city.
They gathered for a brief rally, then headed up the steps of the imposing bureaucratic building. Inside, they made a discovery: So many people had shown up to oppose (and support) Bridgeport’s two charter proposals that the hearing room was full. The New Haveners headed to a basement overflow room to watch the proceedings on video.
Other Cities Divided
They watched a group of Bridgeport and Stamford activists denounce the charter proposals in their towns. Opponents argued the charters would “divert” money away from the public school district and would fail to serve as many special education kids as traditional districts do. The group, organized by parent activist and former board member Maria Pereira of Bridgeport, wore bright red T-shirts reading, “Vote NO on Charter $chool.”
In Bridgeport, elected parent leaders, the school board, and the teachers union have all voted for a moratorium on new charter schools.
“We implore you not to undermine our school district,” said Sauda Baraka, president of the Bridgeport school board.
Others expressed skepticism about the experience of specific charter operators involved. One target was Steve Perry, who runs Capital Prep Magnet School in Hartford and sought to open his first charter school, in Bridgeport. Another target was Great Oaks Foundation, which runs charter schools in Newark and New York, and sought to expand to Bridgeport to open a school that would set aside one quarter of seats for English-language-learner kids.
Several Bridgeport ministers spoke in favor of the charter schools, as did some staff and parents from Capital Prep Magnet School. The testimony got testy at points.
“I have not seen any of these ministers attend any of these school board meetings,” charged Bridgeport school board member Howard Gardner. “The only reason the ministers are here today is because of the money.”
From Stamford, two school board members and five parents spoke against Stamford Charter School For Excellence. The local school board there voted 7 to 1 to oppose the new school. One critic warned that Stamford’s charter schools are “intensely segregated” and corral minority students into the same place instead of allowing them to learn from diversity.
In total, 72 people signed up to speak at Wednesday’s meeting. Not a single one spoke against Morrison’s school.
In the hallway, Jennifer Alexander, CEO of ConnCAN, a pro-charter education watchdog group, reflected on the differences.
Bridgeport is “clearly deeply divided,” she said. New Haven, meanwhile, has over the past five years seen new “momentum” and hope about improving schools. “I don’t think there’s that hope in Bridgeport,” she said.
In New Haven, Morrison has secured significant community support—including from the mayor—for his plan over the course of several years, Alexander noted.
At a previous public hearing in New Haven March 13 on the charter proposal, two teachers spoke against New Haven’s proposal. Also, New Haven’s teachers union president expressed reservations but stopped short of opposing the school. The opponents did not show up to Hartford for Wednesday’s hearing. By contrast, Bridgeport’s hearing showed a deep divide among the crowd, according to the state. Many of those Bridgeport opponents took the trip to Hartford Wednesday to weigh in against the proposal again.
The contrast between the cities was not lost on the state school board members.
Robert Trefry noted that the impact of the 2011 state takeover of the Bridgeport school board—which was subsequently overturned by the Connecticut Supreme Court—“still lingers.” “That’s not going to go away for a long time.”
“There’s a lot of healing that needs to happen in Bridgeport,” said board member Terry Jones. He urged both sides to “bury the hatchet” and start working together.
After waiting for nearly six hours, Morrison approached the board at 3:10 p.m. with Michael Sharpe, CEO of Family Urban Schools of Excellence (FUSE), the charter school operator that Booker T. Washington tapped to run the day-to-day operations of the school. FUSE runs the Jumoke charter schools in Hartford.
Also at the table was Christina Grant, lead applicant for the Great Oaks proposal in Bridgeport. Grant was grilled about special education students, about English-language learners, about the credentials of the college-aged tutors the school will rely on for after-school help.
State board member Estela Lopez noted that Grant was receiving all of the questions, and Morrison none. She asked why that was—does Bridgeport have more charter schools than New Haven?
The cities are similar in that regard, responded Morgan Barth, a former New Haven charter school principal who is now the state’s point person in charge of turnaround schools. Bridgeport and New Haven each have four charter schools. In Bridgeport, 8.5 percent of students attend charter schools; in New Haven, 8.6 percent, Barth said.
The biggest objection coming from Bridgeport is that the creation of new charter schools would take away money from the public school district. Commissioner Stefan Pryor was asked if that was true. He said the money released for charter schools—$11,000 per pupil—is a new stream of money. Traditional districts will be required to pay for their transportation and special education costs, he said, but that should not be new spending if it’s the same number of kids.
Pryor acknowledged that school districts do get funded according to how many students they serve—a number that would drop with the addition of charters. But he said there has been no reduction in the Education Cost Sharing grant, the main way the state funds school districts, in recent years. The state has put in an extra $140 million in the past three years, including an extra $14.8 million in Bridgeport; $12 million in New Haven, and nearly $3 million Stamford, he said.
State board members concluded that politics—not the funding or the number of charters—separated Bridgeport from New Haven.
“What I’m noticing is the unfortunate contrast between what’s going on in New Haven and what’s happening in Bridgeport,” said board member Stephen Wright. The charter school in New Haven received “no opposition,” while there was “nothing but opposition” to Great Oaks in Bridgeport. He urged both sides to avoid controversy and start working together.
Board members voted unanimously to approve Booker T. Washington and Great Oaks to open in the fall of 2014.
Board Vice-Chair Theresa Hopkins-Staten issued a warning: Though the state has OK’d a few new charter schools, there will be thousands of students left in traditional schools that are failing kids.
“I’d like to see those holding ‘no’ and those holding ‘yes’ come together,” she said.
Back in New Haven, Superintendent Garth Harries released a statement applauding the new charter school.
“We are excited to have Booker T. Washington Academy in New Haven and look forward to working with new partners, including Varick Memorial A.M.E. Church, an organization with deep roots in our community,” Harries wrote. “NHPS is dedicated to the goal of every school being an excellent school from which our families can choose. This new opportunity with Booker T. Washington Academy creates a chance to have renewed and deeper conversations about the wide range of needs among our City’s students,and how the various school types – neighborhood, charter, and magnet – can work together to provide not only choice but also outstanding education to all.”
Teachers union President Dave Cicarella, who did not attend Wednesday’s meeting, said he still has major concerns about charter schools, and the risk that “you’re starting to have two separate school systems.”
“We would love to support it,” he said of Booker T. Washington. But for him to support it, “they’d have to do what we do: Don’t close your doors after Oct. 1. And you can’t send your students to us all year because they don’t fit in.”
Cicarella said he was encouraged that Morrison’s team has contacted him and invited him to lunch to discuss how the two sides could work together.
No discussions have taken place yet, he said, but “It’s a step in the right direction.”