One magnet high school and two alternative schools will permanently shutter next month as a result of a vote Monday night by the Board of Education, after more than 100 people showed up for one last rescue attempt.
Cortlandt V.R. Creed, an inter-district magnet school that has been stuck in temporary quarters in North Haven, plus two of the district’s three alternative schools, New Light and New Horizons, will all close after their last class of seniors graduates.
Riverside Academy, the largest alternative school, could be relocated elsewhere in the city if the superintendent is unable to renegotiate a cheaper lease for its current space in the Hill.
The Board of Education made those painful decisions at a meeting at Celentano School, where at least 150 people crowded into the cafeteria in a last-ditch effort to save their schools.
“This is a very difficult situation to be in. As someone who’s been an educator for at least 20 years now, I never signed up wanting to make these kinds of decisions. It’s hard looking at our 21,500 students, but we have a system right now that is facing tough fiscal constraints,” Superintendent Carol Birks said. “There’s no Superwoman coming this time.”
Birks estimated that the district will save up to $5 million by closing three schools and ending three leases. That will put a major dent in the coming year’s $14.35 million budget deficit, which could get even bigger if alders don’t approve the mayor’s request for a $5 million increase in school funding as part of the overall city budget.
At Creed, Birks said, the district expects to recoup $2.44 million by halving the staffing costs, ending the lease, making fewer bus trips to North Haven and eliminating sports teams. At the two alternative schools, Birks said, the district will save $1.33 million by reducing staff, consolidating administrators and combining custodians.
(Birks said a $460,000 savings figure referenced at a Finance & Operations Committee meeting last week had been misreported as the cost of closing Creed, when it was actually the estimate of phasing the school out in a different location.)
Many students along with some graduates turned up for Monday’s meeting in their Creed gear. The boys basketball team, wearing their white home-team jerseys, stood in one corner, while the girls team went to the other side of the room. A group of freshmen in blue polos sat together near the front and held each other as they cried.
Creed’s defenders were each allowed only three minutes to describe how they feel about the vote: an end to the intimacy of a smaller high school, a medicine-focused curriculum, and an outsized athletic program.
Jaelan Hicks, a basketball player who wiped her nose before stepping up to the podium, said she’d probably forget a lot about her high school experience, but she would always remember Monday’s board meeting, when her teammates “stood up here and tried to save something very special to us,” she said.
“The bonds we established will never be replaced, and the transition to another school and routine will be very difficult for us,” Hicks said. “We always have done more with less, and we will do whatever it takes to keep Creed open for the future. I look around the room and see the support Creed has and ask why you would break up something that is so united.”
They implored the school board to give Creed the permanent New Haven home it had long sought, from its founding in a Hamden parochial school in 1993 to its moves to a Long Wharf facility with a leaky roof in 2012 and current location in North Haven in 2013.
Many criticized the Board of Education for repeatedly threatening to close Creed, likely causing a hit to the school’s enrollment numbers, especially the white suburbanites the school needed to meet state benchmarks. Jacob Spell, one of the board’s two non-voting student representatives and a senior at Creed, said those earlier discussions should have been an opportunity to plan for the school’s future.
“The current situation that Creed is in can partly be blamed on past iterations of the board. However, that is not excuse for a lack of action on our part. Creed has never been treated fairly since I’ve been on the board in giving resources it needed to thrive, such as a building in New Haven,” Spell said. “Every time Creed has been brought up in meetings and it looked like the board would rectify its mistakes, nothing substantive ever emerged. I can’t say I’m surprised that the board is turning its back on Creed, but I can say that I’m disappointed.”
But the Board of Education decided it is done “kicking the can down the road,” as its president Darnell Goldson has said repeatedly during budget discussions. In a split 5-to-2 vote, members decided to close the school.
Joe Rodriguez and Ed Joyner both voted to table Creed’s closure for a future meeting until they had clearer details about where students would be placed next year. They said they felt uncomfortable voting on such a drastic plan without assurances that students would have their pick of the competitive magnet school spots.
The two were outnumbered by the board’s five other members, who said it would be unfair to delay an already difficult decision any longer.
The board also voted unanimously to close down New Horizons and New Light. Working with the toughest students who’ve been kicked out of other high schools, the two alternative schools have struggled with high absenteeism and low graduation rates, Birks said. She plans to combine the programs into one “opportunity school,” while adding more programming at traditional high schools.
It also unanimously agreed to end the leases at 80 Hamilton St., the early childhood education offices; 654 Ferry St., the curricular offices and storage warehouse; and 560 Ella T. Grasso Blvd., home of Riverside Academy and Adult Education. Altogether, the district could save up to $1.22 million on rent.
Before the vote, Birks said that Creed was growing, by adding more racial minorities who, from the state’s point of view, jeopardized its magnet-school status and accompanying boost in funds.
In October, when the state took its official count, Creed had 250 students, about 45 short of the projected enrollment. The freshman class had 80 students, twice as many as the 41 seniors, suggesting that, at current rates, the school could have filled up all its seats within two years.
But each new class at Creed also contained a larger number of African-American and Hispanic students. In October, 91.2 percent of the students said they were black or brown. That went far above the 75 percent cut-off for “racial isolation” established by Sheff v. O’Neill, the landmark desegregation case.
The State Department of Education recently took the court’s standard, which had applied only to Hartford area magnet schools, and required compliance statewide. That change put Creed, which became an inter-district magnet school, at risk of a $121,000 penalty this year for its non-compliance. Within two years, the high school could have lost all its magnet funding, the state warned, totaling around $738,000 of the school’s $3.32 million operating costs.
Mayor Toni Harp said that the vote symbolized a “failure of the magnet school system.” The extra state dollars — nearly $1.7 billion dollars — helped New Haven rebuild almost all of its schools, but the city hadn’t been able to adhere to the regulations that came with the money. “We’re going to have bigger problems next year, when the other schools don’t meet their numbers,” she warned. “It really is time to get the rules changed.”
To avoid an imminent loss of funding, Creed students will now be shuffled into the district’s other schools, reapplying through a dedicated placement process. Starting Wednesday, they will be able to submit their picks online, until the lottery closes the following Sunday, May 27.
Counselors will be available for one-on-one advising sessions, and high schools will hold open houses, Birks said. Students will find out their placement before June 1, after which they will have one week to accept.
Sherri Davis-Googe, the director of school choice, said she could not promise that Creed students will get their top choice. Even their third-choice alternative wasn’t guaranteed, she said when asked by Rodriguez.
Because other incoming applicants were already placed into their first-round picks on May 4, Creed students will be competing for expanded seats wherever schools can create them, Davis-Googe explained.
How Best To Transition
With the closures happening late in spring, parents said they worried that their children would be stuck in the district’s two comprehensive high schools, Wilbur Cross and Hillhouse, where they’d be swallowed up without individual attention. In fact, several parents said that had already happened to their kids before transferring to Creed.
Mai Bradley said her freshman daughter had been “aggressively bullied” and “assaulted twice” at Cross. “The only answer I could get from the administration after repeated visits to the school: Well, we have 1,600 students here, what do you expect us to do?” she said. Bradley’s daughter transferred to Creed last year, where her mom said that she’s thrived. “She’s on every girls sports team; she has friends,” Bradley said. “But most importantly, she feels safe to walk into school every day.”
Rodriguez asked for the vote to be delayed until June 25, when the superintendent will present more details on where students will end up next year.
He said he’d feel “uneasy” if his own daughter’s school was closed without a clearer plan. “I understand the financial limitations, but I would like to see a plan that ensures children at Creed go to whatever magnet school they feel they should go to,” he said. “I’m hearing discussions about a plan. I’m hearing that you’re working on it, but I feel uncomfortable not having that plan in front of me.” With the exception of Joyner, the other board members voted his motion down.
After a school closure, transitioning students into stronger schools is the most important factor in boosting academic outcomes, researchers at Stanford University found last year after analyzing 1,500 closures in 26 states.
According to the study, students who landed in better schools pushed ahead of peers in low-performing schools that stayed open, as if they’d had 10 to 40 extra days of class, while students who ended up in worse or similar schools fell behind by peers in the low-performing schools, as if they’d missed 20 to 80 days of class.
You can watch the entire meeting in the following Facebook Live video.