Past Meets Future At “Amistadized” Dwight

Melissa Bailey PhotosA fast-growing charter school found new footing on old stone floors, as students at Amistad Academy held their first day of class at the old—and new—Dwight School.

Elizabeth Bailey (pictured above) was one of the first batch of students to trickle into Amistad Monday, the first day of class for half of the kindergarten class. The rest were set to begin school Tuesday, with older grades following this week and next at the newly combined K-8 school at 130 Edgewood Ave.

The building, like the school it now houses, mixes the past and the future.

The $34 million rehab project, designed by Boronson Falconer LLC of New Haven, preserves the original hallways and classrooms from the 1965 school and the Dwight Public School sign from 1863. Onto that one-story frame, crews punched new windows into the brick, splashed yellow paint onto drab walls, and built an addition that expands the footprint to fit a fast-growing form of public education.

Dwight School, named after former Yale President and Revolutionary War chaplain Timothy Dwight, closed in 2008 after 145 years of history. Like the Dwight School, Amistad Academy is a public school serving low-income New Haven kids. As a charter school, it’s one of many new options that have replaced the traditional neighborhood school. Students get in through a lottery run by the New Haven public school district, but the school is part of its own district governed by its own state-sanctioned charter.

Amistad Academy, a public charter school that began 13 years ago with with 84 students in 5th and 6th grade, has grown to serve 734 kids in grades K to 8. That’s between Amistad Middle and Amistad Elementary, which had been split into two locations until this year. Meanwhile, Amistad’s parent company, Achievement First, has grown from one flagship school on James Street to a network of 20 schools in New Haven, Hartford, Bridgeport and Brooklyn, NY. And the charter movement has spread far and wide over the past 20 years, with over 5,000 charters now operating nationwide. In the national debate over charter schools, Amistad is often held up as one of the successful pioneering experiments. In New Haven, meanwhile, the organization used to be at odds with city political and education leaders; in the past two years they’ve started working together.

The city made way for Amistad’s local expansion by selling the Dwight School to the district to Achievement First for $4.5 million.

For Elizabeth Bailey and her fellow Amistad Academy “scholars,” the first day of school began with the basics—breakfast. About 15 kids, whose last names end in A through M, showed up to find a half-dozen teachers in their classroom for their inaugural day.

Randi Whitley, a third-grade teacher helping out with student orientation, showed Elizabeth how to open the wrapper on her breakfast doughnut.

“It just takes a little muscle,” she advised. “You got it.”

Kindergartners with names ending in N to Z will show up for similar lessons on Tuesday. Thursday is the first full day of school for all students in K to 4.

To make way for their arrival, the original floors of the hallway were polished and restored to their original luminescence, said Ken Paul, Achievement First’s vice-president for development, who led a tour of the building Monday. They’re made of an expensive stone composite called terrazzo, which binds together marble, quartz, granite and glass. Paul said the floors should last for many years to come.

Marcel Gutes, a second-grade teacher’s aide, pulled a small classroom chair onto that stone Monday afternoon. He balanced on it as he stapled a border around a bulletin board.

When students open the door of the former Dwight School, they’ll find motivational slogans and quotations painted in bright colors on the walls.

And they’ll find something new in the classrooms—natural light.

Liz Springer, a second-grade math teacher, was pleased with that addition. She has one of the rooms where a new window was cut into the wall. It looks out onto Edgewood Avenue. She said it’s an improvement over the old Dwight School, and her previous classroom in a swing space on Ella Grasso Boulevard. So far, she hasn’t observed much traffic noise or distractions from the street, she said.

Nick Grasso, a fourth-grade English teacher, typed up a lesson plan at his new desk, which sits under a sign that reads “No Slacking Anytime.”

A visitor asked if the sign is meant for Grasso or his students.

“Both,” he said with a chuckle.

As a newcomer to Achievement First, Grasso had already been training for the school year for three weeks. He said he was drafting plans for “Amistadization.” That’s when kids learn rules and expectations for the school year so they can get in the routine to start working.

His classroom looks out over a courtyard, where the wall on the original one-story building blends into a second-story addition.

The elementary school sits in the one-story original Dwight School building. The middle school lies in the two-story addition facing Chapel Street.

Each school has its own principal and leadership team. Amanda Alonzy, principal of Amistad Elementary, said she likes the new location because it is “closer to our families instead of being in a business park.”

Now that Amistad is in the Dwight neighborhood, kids who live nearby have a preference in the admissions lottery, school officials said. Unlike some magnet schools in the district lottery, Amistad accepts only New Haven residents, not suburban kids.

As part of the deal when the city sold the building, the Greater Dwight Development Corporation still has the right to use the school cafeteria for community events. The Dwight Management Team, which used to meet there, has been meeting at the Troup School while Amistad was under construction.

The school has a new gym, which as of Monday was still filled with boxes of lacrosse sticks and chairs.

Some workers from William B. Meyer moving company earned their keep Monday by rolling out cafeteria tables to make way for gym class.

The construction project yielded $2,970,000 in contracts to minority-owned companies, according to Lil Snyder of New Haven’s Small Contractor Development program. Achievement First and its construction manager, Fusco, worked with the city to help find work for minority contractors, she said. Of 526 construction workers on the project, there were 196 racial minorities, 106 New Haven residents and 29 women.

The project is the first charter school in Connecticut to be rehabbed as part of the state school construction program, according to Lisa Desfosses, head of facilities at Achievement First. The state paid about $26 million of the $34 million project; Achievement First is paying the rest. Beforehand, the state paid for construction projects run only by traditional school districts like New Haven, which used the program to rebuild or revamp nearly all of its schools.

Achievement First may soon be headed for another first: As New Haven tries out new models as part of a school reform drive, Mayor John DeStefano has said he intends the charter group to run a city school. That would mean Achievement First would step out into new territory of working with a unionized workforce as part of a traditional district, instead of running a school with its own charter.

Meanwhile, troops on the ground focused on the days ahead.

Sylvia Perez, director of operations for the elementary school, stood in the gym directing young men on where to roll the tables.

The construction project expanded the Dwight school building from 39,000 to 91,000 square feet. That made room for the elementary school to get a long-sought library, and for the middle school to add another 25 to 30 kids.

The new space will make room for a new kind of learning, Perez argued. She said her mother taught at a traditional public school for nearly 30 years. The curriculum was so set in stone, she said, that she knew every year the day before Thanksgiving, her mom would guide students in how to trace their hands on paper and create a turkey.

That won’t happen at Amistad Academy, she pledged. Every six weeks, based on standardized tests, the team changes the game plan based on how students are performing.

“It’s dynamic,” she said of the school’s curriculum. “We’re always changing.”

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posted by: THREEFIFTHS on August 16, 2011  9:46am

Will the teachers be able to form a union?

posted by: Paul Wessel on August 16, 2011  12:20pm

This is another great example of how New Haven is pushing the envelope on transforming its schools.  What’s going on is far from perfect, but it shows what adults can do when they are serious.  From the much-heralded but little understood landmark teacher’s contract, to reporting publicly the results of parent, student and teacher surveys, to figuring out a working relationship with charter schools, we’ve got remarkable things going on here.  (And Threefifths, it’s up to the teachers to decide whether they want a union, no one else.)

posted by: @Paul on August 16, 2011  1:17pm

How come not one AP test was passed? One teacher last year at Cross had 35 students pass. ONE TEACHER!

posted by: East Shore mom on August 16, 2011  3:29pm

Paul, well said.

posted by: @Paul Wessel on August 16, 2011  6:34pm

For every “great example” of the “remarkable things” allegedly going on in New Haven’s schools, there are probably 10 unremarkable things that are occurring.

Sadly, it seems whenever a teacher or administrator points out legitimate concerns and problems, they are accused of being negative or against the welfare of children or not a team player.

I would think the opposite would hold true.  Correcting problems and addressing concerns instead of dismissing them or downplaying them would most benefit our city’s students.

Articles like this one, which highlight the positive, are important.  But it’s also crucial not to pass off legitimate and pressing problems as “far from perfect” and continue to do nothing to rectify them.

I invite you to spend some time volunteering at a Clemente, a Celentano, a Wexler.  You’ll learn that things are worse than far from perfect.  Perhaps the more press such issues receive, the less prevelant they’ll be.

posted by: Wilbur Cross on August 16, 2011  9:26pm

Paul Wessel,

You can add Wilbur Cross to your list of schools that are “worse than far from perfect.”

posted by: Paul Wessel on August 16, 2011  9:31pm

Agreed.  The Independent’s story of the “dramatic” improvement of test scores at Cross presented the flip side.

posted by: teachergal on August 17, 2011  4:15am

Fourth grade english teacher???
Second grade math teacher???
Since when did the elementary grades have content area teachers???
Is this something unique to Amistad Schools?

posted by: @ Wilbur Cross on August 17, 2011  9:24am

This article is not about Wilbur Cross.  It is about the preparations being made to open a new charter school building for some of our children.  They will be able to remain as long as they earn high marks on standardized tests for Achievement First.  If they can’t, they’ll be counseled out.

However, seeing as you bring up Cross, let’s make a comparison.  Their staff have had the benefit of three weeks of “Amistadiztion” preparation. In contrast, Principal Moore has not breathed a word to her teaching staff of the “major changes” she has growled about for the past 12 months.

What reason is there to expect any different outcomes at Cross this year?  Principal Moore has repeatedly demonstrated her contempt for participatory leadership by crushing student and faculty dissent and avoiding parental engagement.  Mind you, this is consistent with the culture of coercive and threatening management. 

Do students, staff, and parents have a meaningful voice at New Haven’s largest high school?

When will Mayor DeStefano tell the superintendent and the public which school Achievement First will run next year?  How has this school been chosen?  Who chose it?  Is there ANY transparency to this process?

posted by: THREEFIFTHS on August 17, 2011  9:58am

This is what is going to happen here in New Haven If the people do not wake up.

Former City Council member Eva Moskowitz makin’ a bundle at nonprofit schools
Thursday, February 26, 2009

Greed and Sleaze behind Charter Schools: An Expose by Juan Gonzalez

posted by: brutus2011 on August 17, 2011  9:35pm

@Wilbur Cross wrote the following statement:

“What reason is there to expect any different outcomes at Cross this year? Principal Moore has repeatedly demonstrated her contempt for participatory leadership by crushing student and faculty dissent and avoiding parental engagement. Mind you, THIS IS CONSISTENT WITH THE CULTURE OF COERCIVE AND THREATENING MANAGEMENT.”

This is what goes on behind the scenes at NHPS. And our mayor just said publicly at the second debate that we in New Haven are blessed to have someone like Dr. Mayo as our superintendent of schools!

posted by: Amistad mom on August 23, 2011  10:48am

I stand behind everything that this school is doing…. My daughter is in the 2nd grade this year (she has Liz Springer for math) & this is on of the best school in New Haven…
@ teachergal yes this is unique to Amistad Schools.
I am so happy with this new school. It is way better then where it was over on Ella T Grasso. They needed this very bad. They had no room in the old shcool & it was in two buildings. The teachers are full time & this school is there life!!! They get to school in the morning at about 6am-6:30am & don’t leave not days until 6PM or even later some times.

posted by: Sara Thomas on September 3, 2011  8:18am

My grandson has been at Amistad since kindergarten and is now excelling in the fourth grade.He loves school and loves to read-he is two grade levels above - and he is in a totally positive environment every day.  As a former public school teacher for 32 years I am so grateful for the opportunity that unfortunately he would not receive in New Haven.  His younger brother is now in kindergarten at Amistad and doing very well,despite New Haven’s feelings he belonged in ACES. Thank you for the TEACHERS at Amistad