Students at a small Hamden-based charter school will move to classes in a new building in New Haven—and attend college while they’re doing it.
That’s the latest plan in store for Highville Charter School, which serves 360 students, a majority of them from New Haven, in grades pre-K to 9 in rented space on Hamden’s Leeder Hill Drive.
The charter school, which has been planning a move to an empty AT&T building in New Haven’s Science Park, recently won state approval to expand to serve grades 10 to 12. The school is now recruiting kids to fill out its sophomore class this fall—and designing a new, college-focused experience for them when they get there.
Highville has struck a deal with Post University in Waterbury through which students will take college classes as part of their regular school day. If students pass the classes, they’ll earn college credit and the chance of graduating from high school with an associate’s degree from Post.
The program provides a twist on the traditional dual-enrollment college programs offered at many other high schools: Unlike in other programs, the college classes at Highville will take place online.
Principal Craig Drezek announced that news in a recent interview at the school. Drezek, a 6-foot-6 former college basketball player who grew up in New Haven and Meriden, led the Independent on a tour Wednesday of the school’s humble home in Hamden. Drezek’s school was born in 2007 out of the Highville Mustard Seed Charter School, whose director drove it into financial ruin. The school stayed in the same location; its board dissolved and reincorporated.
For its entire existence, the school has been housed in Hamden’s expensive swing space, which currently also houses the Engineering & Science University Magnet School (ESUMS). Nearly 100 percent of Highville students are African-American, Drezek said. About two-thirds hail from New Haven, a quarter from Hamden, the rest from other towns. Spots at Highville are hard to get because students typically start in pre-K and stick with the school through 8th grade, Drezek said; the only open seats in the annual lottery tend to be in pre-K.
Drezek, a former private school principal, Litchfield superintendent and principal of Derby High School, is now in his second year working at Highville, an independent charter school not affiliated with any other charters. The school has outperformed New Haven on test scores; it recently ranked “progressing,” which is second from the top on the state’s five-tiered way of grading schools.
After regaining the state’s trust and winning renewals of its charter, Highville began considering how to expand its reach. Drezek said he put the question out to school families.
Some families wanted more pre-K spots. Others wanted a high school, Drezek said, because students faced a lack of good choices for 9th grade.
“Most of our kids were getting shut out of the magnet lottery,” he said.
Demand in the New Haven school choice lottery, which includes charter schools and magnet schools, typically dwarfs the number of available spots. This year 8,130 students applied for 2,394 spots.
Parents of graduating 8th-graders would return to the lottery “distraught,” Drezek said. The New Haven kids often got assigned to the city’s two comprehensive high schools, Hillhouse High and Wilbur Cross—large schools with which parents were not comfortable.
“What are we going to do?” parents asked Drezek.
Highville decided to create a high school. To do so, it needed approval from the state. As a charter school, Highville is managed by an independent board and accepts public-school kids through a public lottery. It operates on its own charter, or governing document, which must be renewed by the state every five years. Drezek said Highville got approval to add a 9th grade this year, but the approval came so late in the year that half of the 20 graduating 8th-graders had already secured spots in other schools.
Highville started this school year with 10 freshmen; the class has shrunk to five as students returned to bigger schools and in one case moved to Jamaica. The school plans to work with those diehard five freshmen and add more as it builds its high-school offerings.
Two of those freshmen, N’Kiyah Galberth and Natalya Chambers (pictured in the student lounge), both of New Haven, said they applied to the magnet school lottery this year in case their school did not get permission to expand to 10th grade. N’Kiyah applied to Metropolitan Business Academy and ESUMS. Natalya applied to Hill Regional Career High and Hyde Leadership Academy. They both struck out. N’Kiyah, who has attended Highville since 5th grade, said she worried about where she would go if she couldn’t stay at Highville.
The state recently granted Highville’s wish to expand to grades 10 to 12 as part of its charter renewal. The charter was extended until 2020, Drezek said.
To accommodate that expansion, Highville has been planning a move to 300 Mansfield St. (pictured) at New Haven’s Science Park. The building is owned by AT&T. The sale of the building requires state approval, which could take up to 8 months, Drezek said. So the school will likely move to its new building sometime during next academic year, he said.
“It’ll be a mid-year move,” he said.
Drezek said he aims to open the high school, dubbed Highville Change Academy, next fall with 20 freshmen and 20 sophomores. Eventually, the high school would grow to serve 120 kids. Highville’s elementary and middle schools have a global studies theme. The high school will have a “community activism” theme; kids will get involved with local not-for-profits and, their senior year, come up with a business plan for their own.
As part of a school reorganization, Drezek plans to step out of the principal role and become superintendent of Highville’s K-12 schools. He has been trying to raise money to fund the creating of several new positions, including academic coordinators to oversee the elementary, middle and high schools. Drezek has poached a New Haven administrator, Chaka Felder (pictured), to coordinate the high school curriculum and oversee its teachers. Felder, the director of guidance at James Hillhouse High School, is on the board of Booker T. Washington Academy, the newest charter school set to open in town. She also runs Higher Heights, a program that prepares high-schoolers for college.
Felder will help the high school take on a second emphasis: college.
Highville has struck a deal with Post University to offer the online classes to high school kids, Drezek said. Post, which offers hundreds of undergraduate online classes, will offer the classes at a discounted rate; Highville will pay the fee for students. Students will start their sophomore years in some kind of online math class, yet to be determined, Drezek said. Students will move at their own pace through the online work; they’ll have a certified math teacher in the room to help them along. In their junior and senior years, students will take five more classes. If they get a C or higher in the classes, they’ll leave high school with a full semester of college credits. If they take on extra online classes, they can end up with an associate’s degree from Post at the end of high school, Drezek said. (A Post University spokeswoman declined to comment until details are finalized.)
Drezek said the new setup aims to prepare kids for college and give them a greater chance at earning a college degree. He said in his time as a superintendent and principal, he has seen too many kids leave high school, dabble in a few community college courses, then never make it to a degree. Drezek said he’d like to establish a new college-going expectation.
“We want college to be normal,” the natural next step after 12th grade. Students also will have the chance to snag a spot in Post’s bachelor’s program before they finish high school, Drezek said.
Students at Highville have been getting used to learning online, Drezek said: In part because of a shortage of specialty teachers to serve a tiny freshman class, freshmen have already been taking classes online through Edgenuity.
James Stephens (pictured) said he’s taking an online engineering class. N’Kiyah, is taking psychology. James, who is not sure if he will stay at Highville next year, said he wants to be a U.S. marine. He wants to go to Southern Connecticut State University. Natalya wants to be a doctor or a dentist. N’Kiyah doesn’t know what she wants to be; she does know her heart is set on attending Yale.
She said she plans to stick with the school through its next experimental phase.
“I just love this school,” she said, “because everybody’s all so close. We’re like one big family.”