To the last-minute surprise of neighbors, Wooster Square will make room for two new schools this fall.
On Tuesday evening, Wooster Square neighbors gathered at the Episcopal Church of St. Paul & St. James armed with questions on the subject.
They posed their questions to John Taylor, the executive director for the newly approved Booker T. Washington Academy (BTWA), which announced last week that it will open temporarily this fall in a Greene Street building. Neighbors asked how the school will interact with another institution they recently learned is moving in to Wooster Place, New Light High School.
They wanted to know about traffic. They wanted to know more about why no one clued them in until the last minute.
“I’ve done this before, and every time we always started with the community,” Taylor said. “But we had blinders on about trying to get this school off the ground.”
The meeting came on the heels of the State Board of Education’s approval last week for the new BTWA charter school to open on Sept. 15. BTWA leaders had been scrambling for the past month to reconfigure their plans under new management after firing their scandal-ridden parent company, Family Urban Schools of Excellence.
A week and half ago, in partnership with New Haven’s main charter school organization, Achievement First, BTWA subleased a building on Greene Street owned by the St. Michael’s Church, since BTWA’s permanent location on Blake Street won’t be ready in time for the school’s expected opening next month. The Greene Street space used to house the Elm City College Prep charter school.
“Realistically, the political climate is such that if the school didn’t open this year, it’s not likely it would ever open,” Taylor said.
Taylor apologized for not involving the Wooster Square community earlier as his school prepared for the move, reassuring attendees at the Tuesday meeting that BTWA’s presence on Greene Street is only planned till the end of December.
Despite the oversight, Wooster Square Alder Aaron Greenberg said in an interview, the real challenge will now come from coordinating the presence of two new schools. Regarding the BTWA matter, its topsy-turvy trajectory toward approval was a cause for alarm at the Tuesday meeting, with neighbors clamoring for more details regarding the school-parent compact, the school’s budget and the renewability of its sublease agreement.
“The meeting was long on generalities and assurances and short on specifics,” homeowner Ruth Koizim told the Independent. “We still need to know more.”
New Schools On The Block
Come September, Booker T. Washington Academy won’t have the only set of school buses making the rounds through the neighborhood. New Light High School (formerly known as Dixwell New Light High School) plans to open on the grounds of the former Polly McCabe Center School on Wooster Place, right behind BTWA’s short-term location on Greene Street.
Taylor, who is new to the city, found out about this coincidence on Monday.
“It’s rare and it’s unfortunate that the timing aligns itself with another situation that sounds similar,” he said. “But they are different sets of circumstances.”
The New Light school had been considering relocation for a while before migrating to the Wooster space — its top option — at the end of the school year in June, schools spokeswoman Abbe Smith said. Once the move was made permanent, she said, then Board of Ed officials informed the community. She said officials didn’t learn about BTWA’s intentions till after this decision.
For BTWA’s part, the school had reviewed a series of swing spaces before settling on the Greene Street locale, given its infrastructure and low need for cosmetic renovation. Even if BTWA had known about New Light’s nearby presence, Taylor told the Independent, it would not have changed the outcome. (He said he expects the permanent Blake Street facilities to be ready by Nov. 22.)
After hearing that Taylor had just learned of New Light’s move, community members said they were bewildered by what they perceived to be an inadequate level of communication within the school district, claiming that New Light’s arrival had been a publicly known fact since July.
“It’s truly alarming to see the failure on the part of the superintendent to keep communication with the executive director,” Koizim said.
Taylor said he has already met with the New Lights principal in order to find out ways to keep their school populations — kindergarteners and first-graders at BTWA, at-risk high schoolers at New Lights — separate.
Until BTWA determines how to best interact with its next-door neighbor, Wooster Square folks said they won’t know what to expect from these new arrivals.
“It would be silly to understand Booker T’s traffic issues without understanding [New Light’s],” neighbor Tisha Ferguson said in an interview. “These things don’t exist in a vacuum.”
The “Guinea Pig” School
Wooster Square neighbors grilled Taylor at the meeting, questioning him about his past work with charter schools, and BTWA’s new curriculum and staff composition.
“I plan to make New Haven my home,” he told the dozen of community members at the meeting. “I plan to make Booker T. my passion project hopefully till retirement.”
For the most part, Taylor spent the evening clearing the air and seeking to reassure his audience.
Taylor referred to BTWA as the state’s “guinea pig”, having already been subjected to the new state policies announced this week requiring charter schools to operate under more transparent guidelines. New regulations include background checks for employees and clearer student performance standards.
Since the school board’s approval last Monday, BTWA has seen a steady increase in student recruitment, Taylor said, and confirmed that around 90 percent of enrollees come from New Haven.
Automatic acceptance is given to students from the Newhallville and Dixwell neighborhoods. So far, Taylor said, 60 students have signed up for kindergarten, the maximum capacity for that grade (the school, K-1, will have only 120 students in its first year). If one more child enrolls, a lottery will determine the kindergarten student roster.
By Friday, BTWA expects to have hired its entire staff: six full-time teachers, six assistant teachers, three part-time teachers, an instructional coach, a family intervention specialist and an office manager. Most of the employees are based in the city; their compensation and benefits will be based on a salary scale similar to that of public schools.
The school, with a $2.5 million annual budget, has some $650,000 in committed donations of the $1 million it must procure from philanthropic gifts. Taylor said BTWA needs to meet that requirement by December; if not, he said, the school will take out an interest-free loan with a five-year payment plan.
Between the parking spots at the Greene Street building and the St. Michael’s parish, Taylor said, there should be enough space for employee vehicles to avoid street parking. The drop-off and pick-up times won’t overlap with New Haven public school schedules, which will allow for less congestion during rush hours, he said.
All this information did little to assuage residents’ concerns about how the school district has handled these developments.
“It’s a less-than-ideal situation for everybody. But you gotta have perspective: it’s four months,” said Alex Dyer, head pastor for the Episcopal Church of St. Paul & St. James. “If it can help get the school off the ground, then so be it. Some communication would have been nice.”
For now, as Koizim said, Wooster Square can only hope for a smooth transition when the school bells start to ring next month.