Charter school advocates inserted themselves into the mayor’s race, convincing both candidates to sign a pledge to open new schools of choice.
The candidates, Democrat Toni Harp and independent Justin Elicker, signed the pledge in separate visits this week and last to Elm City College Prep, an Achievement First charter middle school on Dixwell Avenue.
The visits represented an effort by charter school advocates to put their issues on the radar of whoever becomes the next mayor in Tuesday’s election.
In a visit to the school Wednesday, Harp pledged to “support the growth of high quality seats for New Haven’s children through the opening of 3 new schools annually, including high-performing charter schools.”
Elicker also signed the pledge, but crossed out the number “3.”
Both candidates were invited to the school by Families For Excellent Schools, a New York-based group that Achievement First charter network has hired to organize parents at its charter schools in Connecticut and New York. In recent years, parents in the group have lobbied Hartford for resources and legal changes to help charter schools grow.
In the weeks leading up to the election, they invited both Elicker and Harp to Elm City College Prep to discuss their education platforms.
Elicker showed up last Wednesday. He spent about 45 minutes talking to parents and then toured the school, according to those present.
Before Elicker left, parents asked him to sign a pledge they had written, published on a professional-looking flyer produced by Families For Excellent Schools.
It contained two demands.
The first demand—“support the growth of high quality seats for New Haven’s children through the opening of 3 new schools annually, including high-performing charter schools”—stemmed from the results of an annual school lottery, according to Amistad Middle School parent leader Khadijah Muhammad.
Charter schools are public schools that get autonomy to operate outside a traditional school district under their own charters in exchange for extra scrutiny from the state. To get into Achievement First’s charter schools, families must apply to the lottery for city magnet schools.
Demand for schools of choice such as charters is high, Muhammad noted.
In New Haven’s 2012 school admissions lottery, a whopping 9,333 local and suburban students applied for 2,677 open seats at 29 magnet and charter schools covering grades pre-K to 12. The lottery includes five charter schools.
The results mean too many parents are losing out, Muhammad said. She called for New Haven to create more excellent schools.
That doesn’t necessarily mean more charters, she said: “This is not for everybody,” she said of the Achievement First network, where she has happily sent four kids.
Parents called for creating more “new schools,” which she said includes overhauling a failing school as a “turnaround” with new leadership.
Elicker agreed to the spirit of the demand.
“Charters play a role in increasing innovation in schools,” he said. By charters, he said, he means not just Achievement First schools but Common Ground and the upcoming Elm City Montessori School.
“The current school change model recognizes that one size does not fit all,” he said. He said there’s room for charters in New Haven, as well as turnaround schools, where existing schools are overhauled with new management.
“The turnaround school model is a model I support,” he said.
Elicker signed the pledge to create new schools—but didn’t want to be held to creating three per year.
“I don’t like to promise things that I’m not 100 percent sure I can deliver on. So committing myself to a minimum of three schools seems premature,” he explained in an interview Wednesday.
Elicker reiterated his support for turnarounds in a video-response to a question pitched by Varick Memorial AME Zion Church Pastor Eldren Morrison through ConnCAN’s website Wednesday. Click on the play arrow to watch.
The pledge’s second demand: For the mayor to “commit to unifying New Haven’s children by opening enrollment of enrichment programs to all public school students, traditional and charter alike.”
This is a reference to after-school programs—such as a language program offered by Yale—that accept kids from New Haven’s traditional school district, but not kids from charter schools, according to Muhammad.
She said charter school kids should get equal access to the programs: “We’re public schools, too,” she said.
Elicker agreed with the second demand. Youth programming should be open to all New Haveners, regardless of whether they attend traditional public schools or charter schools, he argued.
“If you have only a certain group of kids going to youth programs, and others are cut out of it, it’s not as much of an inclusive atmosphere,” he said.
An Undecided Voter Takes Stock
One week after they met Elicker, six parents showed up Wednesday to meet Harp for a 10 a.m. appointment at Elm City College Prep Middle School. Parents were joined by Reshma Singh, vice president of external relations for Achievement First, and four organizers from Families For Excellent Schools, who brought donuts and coffee.
Muhammad took a break from her job cooking curry chicken and steamed broccoli as the cafeteria manager at Amistad Middle to attend the meeting. Other moms showed up after driving bus routes and caring for people with disabilities. They all live in New Haven. (Achievement First’s elementary and middle schools serve only city kids.)
They waited for nearly an hour before Harp showed up.
As she waited, NeKengie Brookshire (at right in photo with Singh) said she was still undecided about whom to support.
“Basically, it’s going to depend on this meeting,” she said. She said she had initially thought she would support Harp, but took an interest in Elicker.
“He’s the one who’s really been sticking to his guns and showing up,” she said.
Harp’s lateness wasn’t helping.
“Now it’s 10:25. Now, here we are, playing the waiting game,” Brookshire said.
She said she was eager to hear whether Harp would be “confident” in her support of charter parents’ demands.
Muhammad, an Achievement First parent activist since 2000, said Harp has helped charters a lot over the years. Harp was instrumental in passing legislation to grant Elm City College Prep its charter and help it open in 2004, Muhammad said. The state funds charters on a per-pupil basis, with enrollment capped for each school. Harp later helped the school expand the number of students who go there, Muhammad said.
Harp touted that history when she arrived at 10:55 a.m. (She later explained her 55-minute delay: She had spent the morning meeting with her campaign finance team, and then with an editorial board at Yale.)
She said her support for charters is based in her family history. Harp told of her dad, a railroad porter, who moved to Salt Lake City to study engineering at the University of Utah. Her mother-in-law grew up poor in New Orleans, worked for the post-office at night and went to school by day, graduated from college, then became a school principal and put her own six kids—including Harp’s late husband, Wendell—through college.
The Harp family legacy, she said, “is the belief in education” to lift people out of poverty.
“That’s why I’ve always supported charter schools,” Harp said.
She said Dacia Toll and Stefan Pryor, who founded Amistad Academy, Achievement First’s first school, defied the popularly held notion that poor and black kids could not be educated.
“I really like ‘No excuses,’” she said, pointing to a sign over the blackboard. She said charter schools have succeeded in “putting pressure on public education to no longer give those excuses” that poor and minority kids can’t learn.
“The pressure that you’re putting on the system is needed,” she said.
After hearing her general support, parents pressed Harp on a handful of demands.
“How would you deal with the leadership of our failing schools” in the public school system? Muhammad asked.
Harp replied that she would take a look at the schools—Domus Academy and Roberto Clemente Leadership Academy—that have been handed over to outside management.
“If they’re not doing well,” she said, New Haven should “rethink outside management” of those schools.
And “if it looks like there’s a school that’s been on the failing list for a long time”—such as Hartford’s Thurman Milner School—“we’ve got to think about turning it over” to a charter management organization, as Hartford did.
Lincoln-Bassett, 6 to 6
Harp took the chance to float a new idea about neighborhood schools in New Haven.
“There are some public schools in New Haven that do a really great job,” such as Worthington Hooker School in East Rock and Davis Street School in Westville, she said. But schools need to do more, she said.
She called for vastly expanding the hours at Lincoln-Bassett School in Newhallville.
“I would like to make it a 6 to 6 school, immediately,” she said. That means 6 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Harp also said she receives too many calls from parents who can’t get into the magnet schools near their houses. She called for adding more neighborhood preference at magnet schools.
In a separate interview, Elicker also said he has heard from a lot of parents who are frustrated they can’t get into their neighborhood schools. “We need to make sure we have the right balance of allowing parents to opt into their neighborhood school, and allowing parents not to opt in if they choose,” he said.
He also called for making it easier for neighboring families to get into magnet and charter schools. (New Haven is exploring adding neighborhood preference as part of a school redistricting panel.)
Muhammad asked Harp about opening up after-school programs to charter schools. She cited a language program at Yale that she said is open only to New Haven Public School kids, not to charter school students.
“That’s something we’d be happy to work with you on,” by sitting down with the operator of the program, Harp said.
Parents asked Harp if she would sign their pledge, starting with the part about opening three new schools per year, including charters.
Parent activist Santia Bennett told her that Elicker had already done so, last week.
“I’ll sign whatever it is that he signed,” Harp replied.
“I know we’re doing two” new charters, she said.Elm City Montessori has won its charter. And Pastor Morrison plans to resubmit a plan for the Booker T. Washington Academy to open next fall.
Harp said if turnaround schools are included in the count, she would definitely sign the pledge: “I think we should turn around more than three.”
She took out a pen and signed her name.
Harp answered a final question from Bennett: Would she include parents in the decision of whom to appoint to the school board?
Harp said she supports an effort to revise the city charter so that parents—and all New Haveners—could elect two members of the school board. But she said she alone would decide on her appointees to the board.
“I’d receive names from people,” Harp said. But “I don’t think this should be a collaborative decision.”
Harp then followed 12-year-old Zack Murphy on a quick tour of the school. Harp and Zack chatted softly as they walked.
“I played the violin when I was in elementary school,” she told him during a visit to an empty music classroom. (She later switched to piano.)
After Harp left, Bennett pronounced herself still undecided as to whom she will vote for, because of how Harp answered her final question.
Brookshire said she was leaning towards Harp. Brookshire had wondered if Harp remained as strong an advocate for charters as she had been in the past.
“I feel like she’s still supportive of the charter schools,” she concluded.