“I want to raise my family in this city, and I am scared to do that because of our school system,” said Jamilah Prince-Stewart.
Prince-Stewart (pictured) spoke out at a hearing Thursday night at the Metropolitan Business Academy on the establishment of a new charter school, the Booker T. Washington Academy. The school is a joint project of Pastor Eldren Morrison and Family Urban Schools of Excellence (FUSE), which runs the Jumoke charter schools in Hartford, and hopes to open with 300 students on Blake Street in the fall.
A staunch supporter of the creation of the charter school, Prince-Stewart choked back tears as she thanked Morrison and others who helped bring the proposal to the table.
“You give so much hope to the people who live here,” Prince-Stewart said.
About 100 people attended the hearing, ranging from Prince-Stewart’s 9-year-old cousin to a union president. The meeting lasted about an hour and a half. It began with an introduction by Morrison and Michael Sharpe, CEO of FUSE, and continued with public testimony. Of the 26 who spoke, 23 supported the proposal, two opposed, and one voiced concerns while expressing support.
Both New Haven Mayor Toni Harp and Dixwell Alder Jeanette Morrison sent representatives to the hearing to convey their support for the school. Phyllis Silverman, special assistant to the mayor, offered testimony on Mayor Harp’s behalf.
“Mayor Harp wants to assure you that you will have her administration’s full cooperation in implementing the proposed Booker T. Washington Academy charter school,” Silverman said. She invited anyone with questions or concerns about the proposal to contact Mayor Harp.
Two local teachers brought those concerns directly to the meeting. One of them, Eric Maroney, agreed that there is a public school crisis in New Haven, but expressed many concerns with charter schools. He called charter schools a financial drain on public schools, unproven to deliver better results, reliant on inexperienced teachers, and prone to push out undesirable students. He particularly emphasized the last point.
“Every October or November in my classroom, I receive new students,” Maroney said. These new students had been removed from charter schools after the school year started. Maroney said it is difficult to create a productive classroom climate when the composition of his class changes midway through the year. While he acknowledged that this wasn’t a direct critique of Booker T. Washington, he said that it was important to mention at the meeting because it shed light on education in New Haven.
Both teachers received markedly less applause than any other speaker.
David Cicarella, president of the New Haven Federation of Teachers, said that he does not oppose charter schools, but he withheld direct support for Booker T. Washington. He said he is concerned with the practice of charter schools sending children back to public schools after disciplinary or academic issues.
“We are starting to create two public schools systems,” said Cicarella, “where charters keep the best students and return those who just don’t seem to fit in.”
Cicarella said that he is “encouraged” to hear that the organizers of Booker T. Washington want to work with New Haven Public Schools and teachers. He received more applause than the two teachers who spoke.
Sharpe, in his opening remarks, said that he looks forward to working with the teachers union. “We think that’s very, very important,” he said. Before the meeting started, Morrison said that teachers at Booker T. Washington would not need to be unionized.
FUSE officials also responded to prior published criticism about some of the Jumoke schools’ low levels of special needs students.
“We have exited children from special education because their previously identified exceptionalities have been mitigated by solid teaching and learning,” said Leanne Masterjoseph, Chief Academic Officer at FUSE.
While teachers and administrators talked shop, residents spoke of larger societal issues. One local parent said that the progress our society has made toward racial integration is all for naught if children aren’t well-educated.
“Others used to fight to sit at the milk counters and lunch counters,” said Khadijah Muhammad. “But today our children can’t even read the menus.”
Muhammad grew up in New Haven and has four children. One son is a freshman at Central Connecticut State University, and one daughter is one track to graduate with a GPA of 3.5 and a full scholarship to Susquehanna University. Both finished their high school education at public charter schools. Muhammad said that more New Haveners need to have such opportunities.
Prince-Stewart was one of the lucky children. She was able to attend a private school and graduated from Yale University in 2009. While at Yale, she noticed a difference between her classmates and her family members.
“A lot of the kids that I went to school with were legacies because their parents attended the school,” Prince-Stewart said. “My legacy to Yale was that I’ve had numerous cousins and an uncle that worked in the dining halls.”
Two of Prince-Stewart’s cousins—younger cousins, who are not working for Yale Dining—also attended the hearing.
“One day they’re going to go to college. They’re going to be businessmen. They’re going to raise families,” Prince-Stewart said. “I hope and pray that when they do, we’re going to have more Booker T. Washingtons to send them to.”
One of Prince-Stewart’s younger cousins, John Sayles, echoed Prince-Stewart’s sentiments by reading a prepared statement. Prince-Stewart held up the microphone.
“I think all kids should have a good school to go to,” Sayles said. “I think all kids should have the choice of what schools they go to, and I think Booker T. Washington would be a great choice.”