The state school board approved New Haven moms’ Montessori proposal Monday, launching Connecticut’s first-ever locally controlled charter school—with unionized teachers, to boot.
The approval came Monday at a meeting of the state Board of Education in the Legislative Office Building. The board unanimously approved a proposal to create a new pre-K to 8 charter school called the Elm City Montessori School, starting with 51 New Haven kids ages 3 to 5 in the fall of 2014. The proposal, which New Haven’s school board approved in May, originated from three New Haven moms, including Joan Bosson-Heenan (pictured above), who were frustrated with the lack of pre-K offerings in the city.
The school will break new ground as the state’s first “local charter.” That means Elm City Montessori will be authorized by and funded by the New Haven school district, with a unionized teaching staff, yet will gain curricular freedom by operating under its own charter. The state will kick in an extra $3,000 per pupil, as well as an undetermined amount of start-up money, in return for extra scrutiny: The school’s existence will depend on the state renewing its charter every five years.
State Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor (pictured), who sits on the state school board, said state law has allowed for “local charters” in prior years, but no proposals ever got off the ground. The state’s education reform law of 2012 revised the “local charter” distinction to require staffing flexibility and to add the $3,000-per-pupil incentive, he said. Pryor commended the New Haven group for an “outstanding application.”
“We are very pleased to see the pioneering effort that you have organized taking shape,” said Pryor, a former New Haven alderman and founding member of New Haven’s Amistad Academy charter school.
The project represents the latest experiment in New Haven’s brand of school reform. The school district has gained national attention for the way it has collaborated with unionized labor, while “reform” in some other cities has meant declaring war with unions or annihilating them. Putting aside years of acrimony, Mayor John DeStefano also launched a first-of-its-kind collaboration between the school district and Achievement First, the state’s largest charter organization, on a new principal training program.
Elm City Montessori gained local and state approval in part because one of the leaders of New Haven’s teachers union, Dave Low, signed on as a board member and chief proponent of the charter experiment. The union plans to negotiate a side agreement to its contract outlining flexible rules for teachers who work at the Montessori school, including extra duties to work with families after normal school hours.
The school still needs to find funding for kids aged 3 and 4. The school founders originally sought to open the school this fall, then agreed to push the opening back a year in the hopes of tapping into a promised influx of federal funding for early childhood education.
New Haven has one public modified Montessori classroom at Gateway Community College and two private Montessoris in Edgewood and on Grand Avenue, but no public Montessori schools as of yet, and none that go up to 8th grade. The Montessori model uses a mixed-age classroom and a hands-on, individually paced approach to learning. Click here to learn more about that.
Bosson-Heenan, who presented the proposal to the state board Monday, said her group is committed to finding money, either from the federal government or private sources, to ensure the program is free for all kids. (Some pre-K programs carry a fee based on a sliding scale.) She said Monday marks a milestone for a grassroots school experiment.
“This is exciting,” she said, hugging two supporters after the vote. “This doesn’t seem real.”
Tale Of Two Charters
The approval highlighted a marked contrast between the fates of two similar proposals in New Haven and Bridgeport. Both proposed new Montessori schools. Both proposed “local charters.” Both aimed to replicate the Annie Fisher Montessori Magnet, a public Montessori in Hartford. Both had support from that school’s principal, John Freeman, as well as from the National Center for Montessori in the Public Sector.
The Bridgeport proposal, put forth by statewide Teach for America Director Nate Snow and others, failed to gain local approval from the Bridgeport school board. Amid a polarized political climate there, Snow, who has supported now-deposed Superintendent Paul Vallas, met public resistance for the proposal and also fought a public perception as an outsider. Snow said the number one reason the proposal failed was budgetary: “The board in Bridgeport had concerns about the financial viability of redirecting local dollars from schools in Bridgeport into a new local charter school.”
New Haven’s proposal was led by Eliza Halsey, a lifelong New Havener and parent activist, along with Low, the teachers union’s vice-president of high schools. Bosson-Heenan credited Halsey with rallying significant support around the proposal, which gained positive feedback at a public hearing in April.
“Eliza is an amazing and mobilizing person, remarkably well-connected in the best of ways,” Bosson-Heenan said. She has an “uncanny way to make people care about” efforts to improve education. Bosson-Heenan described her as a “non-polarizing” advocate for kids.
Bosson-Heenan said New Haven’s proposal grew from the grassroots.
“We were parents who decided we really wanted this for our kids,” she told the board.
Jackie Cossentino, a senior associate of the National Center for Montessori in the Public Sector, who consulted on both the New Haven and Bridgeport proposals, called New Haven’s “an exemplar of community engagement.”
Elm City Montessori will be the fourth unionized charter school in the state, according to the state. It joins the Interdistrict School for Arts And Communication in New London; Integrated Day Charter School in Norwich, and New Beginnings Family Academy in Bridgeport.
The two Montessoris were the only local charter applications the state received, according to Pryor. He said the state plans to issue another request for proposals in the fall.
No Neighborhood Preference
The state school board put several conditions on its approval Monday. One called for students to be admitted to Elm City Montessori by a citywide lottery. Preference may be given only to siblings—not to kids from a certain neighborhood.
Bosson-Heenan said the school did not intend to give neighborhood preference the first year, but hoped to do so after the school found a permanent space. In its first year, the school will sit in a transitional space, most likely the former Benjamin Jepson School on Quinnipiac Avenue, according to Bosson-Heenan.
The school may appeal to the state in the future to establish preference in the lottery for kids who live inside a certain neighborhood zone, or “catchment area,” according to state education spokeswoman Kelly Donnelly. (Amistad Academy now has one in Edgewood.)
Approval is also conditional on the staffing agreement with the teachers union, which must be approved by the state.
Some start-up money may be available for capital costs, according to Pryor. He said he didn’t know how much.
Approval came after a series of questions from the board regarding projected enrollment. The school aims to start out with 51 kids ages 3 to 5, then grow to serve 378 kids, aged 3 to 13, by 2023.
Board member Patricia Keavney-Maruca asked if kids will be able to transfer into the school after the pre-K years. The answer is unlikely: Only if there’s greater attrition than expected.
Charles A. Jaskiewicz III of Norwich said he was “concerned” about the school’s expected attrition rates. An enrollment projection estimated the school would start with 17 kids aged 5. That group of kids would shrink to only eight by the time those kids reach 8th grade, according to the application.
Cossentino (pictured) of the national Montessori group replied that the school is expecting to lose one to two kids per year due to attrition.
Board Chair Allan Taylor supported the school’s projection.
“Wouldn’t it be irresponsible to assume zero attrition?” he asked. “It’s a city, and this is America, and people tend to move.”
Cossentino later added that the enrollment projection is supposed to be a worst-case scenario; the school expects to have a high retention rate.
Freeman (pictured), principal of the Hartford Montessori on which New Haven’s proposal is based, said his school has a 95 percent retention rate.
In response to another question, Bosson-Heenan said the school would have a Spanish-speaker on staff so that English-language learners can learn in their native language first. The school would run on an “enrichment” bilingual model.
Monday’s approval paved the way for the school to start looking for staff for 2014, Bosson-Heenan said.
Elm City Montessori is the third new charter school to gain approval this year, in the first batch of approvals since 2008. The state school board in June also approved the creation of Brass City Charter School in Waterbury (set to open in the fall of 2013) and Path Academy in Windham (opening in 2014).
The new investment in charters comes under a new education commissioner, Pryor, with a record of charter support: In 1999 he helped found Amistad Academy, which later grew into the state’s largest charter network, Achievement First. Charter growth in Connecticut has lagged behind national averages: The state’s 17 charter schools serve less than 2 percent of Connecticut kids, compared to 3.6 percent nationwide.
Jeremiah Grace, statewide director of the Northeast Charter Schools Network, which has promoted the expansion of charters, welcomed the move. Elm City Montessori will be a “lifeline” to kids stuck on waiting lists at charter schools in New Haven, Grace said.
“We’d like to commend the New Haven Board of Education for offering more high-quality options to its children, and commend the state for approving the school’s application,” he said. “We look forward to working with the board, the school and the State Department of Education to ensure that more students have access to a quality public school education, regardless of race, wealth or zip code.”