Parents stormed the school board to protest a newly revived plan to move Hyde School from a costly swing space to a new home inside Hillhouse High School.
Superintendent Garth Harries announced at Monday’s school board meeting that he is considering moving Hyde School of Health Sciences and Sports Medicine, a 200-student magnet high school in the New Haven public school system, from its swing space in North Haven into an under-used wing of Hillhouse High at 480 Sherman Parkway.
Hyde would exist as a separate school sharing space with Hillhouse, Harries said. Hillhouse has extra room: It was built to serve 1,400 students and has only 950, according to Harries.
Harries said he has not made a final decision on the move.
The announcement marked the latest effort to save money during a budget crisis, and the latest effort to find a home for a nomadic school community. Hyde has been bouncing around between swing spaces in recent years. Former Superintendent Reggie Mayo tried to move Hyde to Hillhouse two years ago, but abandoned the idea amid opposition from parents and neighbors.
Hyde parents learned of the potential move in a meeting with Harries last week. Citing concerns about safety and losing the school’s identity and cozy environment, a group of parents mobilized to speak out against the proposal at Monday’s board meeting at Career High. No Hillhouse parents spoke for or against the idea.
Melvin Wells (pictured at the top of this story), who coaches football and track at Hyde and also has a son who attends the school, was one of nine parents who spoke against the move. He warned that kids from Hillhouse High might beef with Hyde students who come into the school from outside the neighborhood. Hillhouse is the comprehensive high school for kids in half of the city; many students hail from nearby Newhallville and Dixwell. As a magnet school, Hyde draws students from across New Haven as well as surrounding towns.
“To put all of our kids in one neighborhood—that’s not putting kids first,” Wells said.
“If you do it, it’s a travesty. You’re going to have difficulty.”
“Our fear is that Hyde will become another academy inside of Hillhouse High,” said Rev. D’Hati Burgess (pictured), who has two children at Hyde and hopes to send another one there in the fall.
“I don’t want my children in Hillhouse, close to Hillhouse,” he said.
Burgess said Hyde is already split among many locations: Its sports teams borrow spaces at Fair Haven School, Truman School and Wilbur Cross High.
“It’s not fair,” Burgess said. “We just want a place to call home.”
Hyde has occupied three buildings in the past three years: In 2012, Hyde left its home of 19 years, a former parochial elementary school in Hamden, because that space was costly, cramped, and lacked key infrastructure, such as science labs. Hyde moved to the abandoned Gateway Community College campus on Long Wharf, but was forced out after one year due to leaky roofs. Last fall, Hyde moved to a second abandoned Gateway campus—this time in North Haven.
The space costs the district $1 million per year in rent, facility and transportation costs, Harries said. Harries has been under pressure to get a handle on a $3.5 million structural deficit he inherited when he took over the school system in July. He announced Monday he has identified a way to close the budget gap this fiscal year. But the budget Mayor Toni Harp proposed leaves the school system with a $3.8 million hole for the next budget year, which begins July 1. Harries said the school system is under pressure to reduce its expenditures on leased spaces.
Harries said he is not closing Hyde: “I will fight like hell” for Hyde’s “continued existence,” he said. The school “generates significant demand” in the magnet lottery, he added. He said the long-term plan is to grow the school from 200 to 300 students, to allow the school to offer a broader array of courses.
In public comments, parents said they fear the school will be swallowed up by Hillhouse.
“We cannot incorporate Hyde into another school,” argued Jennifer Cary, of Shelton, one of several suburban parents who spoke against the move. “To merge it with another school would be essentially to close it.”
“You take away Hyde’s campus, and you take away the very identity of Hyde,” she warned.
“I’m not feeling good about this situation,” said Hyde sophomore Javon Eldridge, of West Haven. He said Harries consulted parents and staff but did not consult students about the move: “you never came to us to talk about how we feel.”
“I had a really fun two years at this school,” Javon said. “Just to see it up and move, or become part of Hillhouse, doesn’t make me feel comfortable.”
Other parents said they worry that the magnet lottery deadline has already passed, so it’s too late for them to make contingency plans for their kids if they don’t want to be at the relocated Hyde next year. They said they are not asking for a new building, just a standalone building dedicated to Hyde.
Board member Che Dawson asked Harries why Hyde has never had a permanent home. Harries replied that former Mayor John DeStefano’s $1.6 billion school rebuilding initiative originally aimed to rebuild or renovate every city school. Hyde was slated for a new building but got cut from the list.
Now that initiative has wound down. Harries said there is no space inside any other school district buildings for Hyde.
“We don’t have right now a low-cost, free-standing facility” to house the school, he said.
New “Academies” Planned At Hillhouse
Harries gave one reason that Hyde may be able to exist within Hillhouse and retain its identity: Plans are under way to create new “autonomous academies” within Hillhouse High next year, where a group of students learn from the same group of teachers. So the school may transform from a large, comprehensive high school into a set of more intimate environments, of which Hyde would be one.
Hillhouse already has four “small learning communities,” including one set aside for freshman and one for sophomores. Harries proposes to leverage state money to “redesign” Hillhouse to “make those four academies much deeper and more personalized.”
The goal, he said, is “that Hillhouse becomes a place where students proactively choose to go,” more so than they do now.
Incoming freshmen, and all sophomores, would get a choice next fall between two “autonomous academies”: One focused on “invention, design and entrepreneurship,” and a second one focused on public safety, according to plans under development. Hillhouse is already home to a public safety academy, which trains aspiring cops and firefighters.
Harries said he is “deciding whether we could implement this quickly enough” to launch the new academies in the fall.
The effort is similar to one at Wilbur Cross High, which received state money through the Commissioner’s Network to try out two new academies for English-language learners and other freshmen.
Mayor Harp expressed support for the new academies because they would “prepare students for adulthood.” Too few city cops and firefighters hail from New Haven, she added.
Harries expressed confidence that the two schools could coexist well. From his time working in New York City, he said, he saw evidence that different schools could maintain their identities while operating side-by-side.
Harries said in New York, he also saw schools get bounced around without a permanent location. Too much moving “starts to damage the school,” he said.
In response to concerns about Hyde students’ safety at Hillhouse, Harries said all students deserve to go to school in a safe environment.
“We need to be wise to the neighborhood dynamics,” he said, but “it shouldn’t be the case that any of our kids are relegated” to an environment that parents would consider unsafe. Hyde parents’ desire to keep the cozy, family feeling of their school “highlights some of what we need to accomplish more broadly at all of our schools,” he said.