Elm City Imagine Sparks Debate

Aliyya Swaby PhotoA “huge step backward”? Or a way for traditional public schools to team up with charters to experiment with new ways for kids to learn?

Teacher’s union President David Cicarella and Achievement First (AF) CEO Dacia Toll very publicly offered those competing views Monday night about the benefits of a proposed partnership between New Haven’s school board and AF to create a new charter school.

They and a few other charter advocates and critics gave prepared speeches at Monday’s Board of Education at Martinez School in Fair Haven meeting about the proposed experimental Elm City Imagine charter school, which could be open by August 2015.

Toll said AF is working on a memorandum of understanding with the district to outline shared responsibilities and project parameters of the financial partnership.

The proposal for the school includes an extended academic year with a calendar alternating eight weeks of regular classes with two weeks of “expedition” career engagement; longer school days with staggered teacher schedules; and small-group instruction with more focus on technology. Achievement First has been researching and developing the school design for two years.

The partnership would be primarily financial, Toll said in a previous interview, with the New Haven school district providing a “modest” amount of about $2,000 per student, $500 in operating funds and the rest through in-kind services such as nursing and food. The state provides about $11,000 per child, she said. AF would be responsible for hiring and day-to-day management of the school. The benefit to the city would be to ease overcrowding in existing schools, reduce the burden of mid-year transience, and add another educational option for families, officials said.

At Monday’s board meeting, Superintendent Garth Harries briefly mentioned the plan for the pilot school as one of various initiatives to “deepen and extend school change.”

According to the handout he distributed detailing these initiatives, the partnership was being proposed with the goal of “supporting the creation of an innovative and progressive school model, reinventing the schedule and program for students enrolled, ensuring fair share and retained enrollment across the AF network, and enabling early grade class size reduction in New Haven’s most challenged schools at significantly lower cost.”

The board did not discuss Elm City Imagine further, deciding instead to listen to community members’ comments for discussion at future committee meetings.

Teachers union President Dave Cicarella started off the public comments by calling the proposal for a new charter school “a huge step backward.” He criticized charter networks like AF for refusing to take in students who want to transfer schools in the middle of the year—a major cause of academic and behavioral disruption at neighborhood schools.

As part of the partnership, Elm City Imagine would be used to reduce class sizes at over-enrolled neighborhood schools, by taking in transient students who change schools after October 1, Toll and Harries have said. But Cicarella said AF is getting more out of the relationship than the district.

“We shouldn’t have to give AF or any charter school operator a school for them to do what’s right,” he said.

Toll said that she “understands why there might be skepticism” about her stated desire to collaborate with the district, but that the school is another step toward improved discussion between the two. She said she agrees with Cicarella about “the need to wrestle enrollment questions to the ground” and that she has tried in the past.

“Contrary to the myth, we do not want students to leave in the middle of the year,” she said. “We are willing to take students mid-year ... It’s not something that we are required to do.”

Cheryl Brown, principal of Ross/Woodward School and president of the New Haven School Administrators Association, said she worries that AF will bring bad practices to the new charter school. She cited articles in the Hartford Courant presenting high rates of suspensions and expulsions at AF schools in Hartford and New Haven.

Toll said she accepts responsibility for “suspension rates that had gotten too high.” Those rates are now “down by 40 percent,” she said. She said she “couldn’t be more excited about working with the district.”

The leaders of the city’s newest charter school weighed in on the discussion Monday. John Taylor, executive director of Booker T. Washington Academy (BTWA) on Greene Street, said the school could not have opened without the help of both AF and the district.

“Coming from Albany, where the relationship between the school district and charter schools is adversarial ... it was refreshing to come to New Haven” and see the two collaborating and sharing best practices, he said. When Taylor thanked them for their help in opening BTWA, “they both said, ‘We didn’t do it for you. We don’t even know you like that. We did it for the kids.’”

The school’s founder, the Rev. Eldren Morrison, sent a statement to the Board of Ed expressing his support for the collaboration behind Elm City Imagine. “I urge you to support Elm City Imagine because our community needs high quality options to be made available for every child,” his e-mail stated.

Harries said the proposal requires further public discussion and agreement to go forward.

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posted by: Theodora on January 13, 2015  9:32am

More than a year ago, the Board of Education selected the least qualified candidate to head New Haven Public Schools. Given that, this person should hunker down and focus on the performance of his schools. Instead, he keeps trying to show how ‘innovative’ he is without focusing on academic performance. Can we please see the massive amount of tax dollars we pay be focused on those students in the NHPS system? Before you can be seen as ‘innovative’ and all the other buzzwords you like to use, first find some evidence of success.

posted by: elmcityella123 on January 13, 2015  9:51am

What a great opportunity to bring innovation to New Haven. I like the way Achievement First is so committed to educating our city’s kids. I hope this program helps more children to go to a good school. I want to see more schools and programs like this in the future for my nieces and nephews.

posted by: ElmCityVoice on January 13, 2015  10:40am

Toll said she accepts responsibility for “suspension rates that had gotten too high.” That’s a good one. These scam artists are not to be believed. Now that Stefan Pryor is gone, Harries is here to continue the corporate takeover of public education. They play us like fools. If we don’t organize and fight for funding for public education, they will always fill the “public relations” gap. There’s always a new “name”, a new “way”, a new “reason.” Just say NO New Haven! Take all the charter funding and send it to our public schools!!

posted by: markcbm on January 13, 2015  12:19pm

I find it interesting that in the last few charter school related articles in the NHI there have been short, grammatical, pro-Charter comments that are penned soon after the publication of the article and make it to the top of the comments thread.

These comments do not seem to come from regular NHI contributors (I pay attention to the comment threads). They seem to be one-off posts that are intended to sway/set the tone of the comments.  When I search the NHI for other comments by these login names, I don’t find anything.  One wonders if these posts are not from neutral stakeholders (i.e. parents), but from folks who have a dog in this race (i.e. related in one way or another to the charter schools). 

In this comment thread, ElmCityYella123 seems like a throw-away login name (no proof here, but the ‘123’ smacks of it).  And in the last AF-NHPS article, some clicking reveals the first poster, Shulansky (https://twitter.com/shuls13) to be related to the New England Charter Schools Network.  I’d bet Bena85 is somehow on the dole too.

Everyone is entitled to their opinions and their public comment posts.  It just seems disingenuous to make such anodyne pro-charter comments as if they were from ordinary, concerned, neutral residents while masking one’s relationship with an organization or group of organizations that has a vested interest in a given outcome.

I’m not against charter schools per se, but I am against shills using comment threads as a veiled public relations gambit to sway public opinion.

If I am wrong - and I hope, for the integrity of the charter school movement, that I am - then I ask ElmCityYella123, Bena85 and Shulansky, to correct me.  Thanks!

posted by: connecticutcontrarian on January 13, 2015  1:32pm

New Haven doesn’t need another school; charter,  magnet, hybrid or otherwise.
What we need and what our children deserve is an emphasis on strengthening the existing schools and promoting accountability,  leadership,  and development.

If the current administration including the BOE is ill equipped to achieve without outsourcing its core purpose to AF then perhaps it is time for them to choose another career path

posted by: Bena85 on January 13, 2015  1:56pm

I am not sure how anyone could be against innovation that could have real results for children and families. I will continue to support this new school and hope that the city continues to find ways to work with organizations that can improve education for those who need it most.

posted by: Theodora on January 13, 2015  3:59pm

Bena… The “innovation” is clearly not grounded in any successful methodology. What needs to be accomplished for “real results for children and families” is to show improvement in the real results for children and families in NHPS. That hasn’t happened because Meadow Street is to focused on being darlings of the corporate education movement and not on comprehensive success.

posted by: Tom Burns on January 14, 2015  12:50am

What a sick joke—all the time we put in together over the past five years building trust and taking chances—building a foundation that supposedly lets our public school teachers take chances and innovate—we took a chance and trusted you Garth—and you became a hero for education and educators everywhere—we believed in you (even with your so flawed history in New York) and you had proven yourself again and again working closely with REAL educators—and I believed in you—and told others to believe in you also—but maybe I was wrong, maybe you don’t have the soul I thought you did to say no to the phonies—the non-educators, who know nothing and have never performed themselves in the classroom. Yet they have the answer and know so much—I am hurt and discouraged by your actions and that of our BOE—you have disrespected your teaching and administrative staff by saying you don’t believe in us and we can’t do the job-we need to leave it up to religious school charters and other charters outside to do the job and save us—-we have never berated the teachers in any Charter Schools yet they beat us up at every turn—and we want them to be our partners—over my dead body—I stand for our educators who give their all everyday for our students—When does it end? Religious School yesterday, AF today, KIPP tomorrow, then Green Dot—please prove me right in my assessment of you as a real EDUCATOR and say no to AF and any other fake Charters who wish to invade New Haven—we have always worked together—why now would you go against real educators who we thought you believed in—I am counting on your SOUL to make the right and only decision—am I asking for too much? Our partnership has been amazing to date and this one move WILL ruin it all—it’s your call—stand for us-the real educators who believed in you—or stand for your faux educators and embarrass and disappoint your believers—I feel like something very special has died and it hurts—T

posted by: ElmCityVoice on January 14, 2015  9:04am

Thank you Tom. You’ve given everyone more time to prove integrity, loyalty and, frankly, pedagogy, than I ever would have. Your comments are well stated and pierce the heart of all parents and educators who are rooting for our teachers, students, parents, neighborhoods and schools’ success. Please don’t cross that line Garth.

posted by: Shulansky on January 14, 2015  9:14am

Thanks for giving my twitter handle a shout out markcbm (tweet @ me people)! You’re right, I’m not a regular NHI contributor—in the internet age, unless I really want to comment, I don’t. But I do live in New Haven and read the Indy multiple times a day. And as you figured out, I’m quite open about who I am. My handle is literally my last name.

In this case, Elm City Imagine sits at the intersect of three things I’m really passionate about: politics, education policy, and New Haven. I was excited when I first heard about the school, specifically because of the collaboration between the school and district. Its a fantastic opportunity to identify best practices from both entities and expand their reach to more children. I commented, and will continue to do so moving forward, just for you. Thanks again Mark.

Oh, and I work for the Northeast Charter Schools Network. There’s no such thing as the New England Charter Schools Network. Common mix-up, no harm, no foul.

posted by: markcbm on January 14, 2015  12:49pm

Hi Shulansky,

Thanks for your response.  I’m glad that you’re passionate about reforming education policy for the better. 

I never doubted whether you were real - just whether you were also elmcityella123 and Bena85 too.  Generic comments that don’t reference the content of the article or other people’s comments are always suspect, in my opinion.

Anyway, keep fighting the good fight, and my apologies for mixing up the name of your organization, Northeast Charter School Network.


posted by: loquacious truth on January 14, 2015  5:44pm

The state recently released data which indicated that the graduation rate at Hillhouse from 2010 to 2014 has jumped from 41 percent to 69. Also that Hillhouse has a college persistence rate of 81 percent which ranks Hillhouse 2nd in city only to Career. That’s right Hillhouse graduates have a higher college persistence rate than Co Op , Sound School, Cross and all the others. This data speaks volumes to the work The Teachers have been doing there in the last 5 years. To show their appreciation, the district brought in an audit team last spring and labeled the staff as a 2 or “needs improvement” which is one category below effective. This ” false label"allowed the city to seek new grant money which reorganized the school into 3 small learning communities.  Going forward we teachers will continue to work hard with what we have, but as a teacher I would like the District to publicly apologize for their false assessment and maybe even say; Thank you ! Oh and if Educators at charters schools want to learn how to teach the kids you give up on half way through the year, stop by Hillhouse. We would be happy to give you some PD.
P.S. Just got a student from Amistad last week. But don’t worry about sending over the money you took for educating this student, we’ll figure it out because that’s what we do. We are Hillhouse!!!

posted by: Allison Matura on January 14, 2015  6:24pm

“The proposal for the school includes an extended academic year with a calendar alternating eight weeks of regular classes with two weeks of “expedition” career engagement; longer school days with staggered teacher schedules; and small-group instruction with more focus on technology. Achievement First has been researching and developing the school design for two years.”

“What a brilliant paradigm shift, exactly what K-1 students are lacking!”, said no Reggio Emilia, Montessori, Waldorf, child development specialist, or other early elementary teacher, ever.

But, in the spirit of cooperation, here are some of the childhood career aspirations of former students, now in college. Feel free to use this information to plan “expeditions”.

“A lady with a nice purse.” - MIT
“A fire truck.” - Wesleyan
“Batman’s friend who is a ballerina.” - Rutgers
“A bratender like my dad.” - RISD
“A doctor who uses Legos.” -UC Santa Barbara

This proposed focus for a K-1 school is the opposite of a good idea. Also, show me the research. As the kids say, “Pictures or it didn’t happen.”

However, if AF wants to roll this idea out to their current charters, go for it. No one will be forced to work there, and no child is required to attend. And Imagine how interesting their data might be if they dared something crazy…like an all TFA staff.

But here’s an idea. The city could agree to offset the money. AF finds a backer to underwrite some financing, city pays the offset after AF matches the city demographics re: SES, transience, SpEd, ELL and statistically exceeds achievement outcomes of non-charter city schools.

If that happens, then I might pay attention.

posted by: nheducator on January 15, 2015  3:13pm

I’ve gone back and forth with myself since yesterday about whether or not I would comment on this article. As a teacher here in New Haven, I can’t help but feel disheartened by our superintendent proposing to give anything, even a “modest” amount to a Charter School, especially a charter school with the organization who has made has consistently linked NHPS to failure. This proposal is basically affirming that “we” are the problem and if this is what our leader thinks of us than how can the parents who send their students to us every day be assured that their children are in capable hands. Nobody who works in NHPS is here to do harm and the majority are working incredibly hard. If we have a “modest” amount to give… then why is there such an issue of equity among schools and resources? It’s already been said over and over again that until charter schools “do what we do” take SpEd students, ELL students, transient students then their “success” cannot be compared. I really hope that this proposal is reconsidered.

Salute, Loquacious Truth. Thank you for sharing some of Hillhouse’s successes!

posted by: NHLearner on January 21, 2015  9:44pm

I don’t understand the process. AF or some shadow sister organization spent money to research a school, come up with a model, come up with a shakedown/price to charge the district, has started holding info sessions as of tonight Jan 21, a pr campaign, a website, recruiting families and teachers…
see: http://www.afgreenfieldschools.org

All before a formal proposal is made to the New Haven Bd of Ed or to the state who has to approve charter seats.. All before it has been voted on. How is this legal???
Harries said “it needs further agreement to go forward”.. did he forget to tell AF that? It looks like they are going full steam ahead…