Closing Looms; School “Family” Presses On

Sam Gurwitt PhotoOn Thursday afternoon, Church Street School art teacher Katie Anton-Steer sat in the middle of her classroom calling up students to get small pieces of colorful tissue paper. One by one, each kindergartener got up and grabbed a piece of the paper and brought it back to a table. There, they crumpled them up and glued them to the top of their two-dimensional holiday-themed paper hats, simulating a pom-pom.

“Crunch, crunch, crunch, and glue!” Anton-Steer encouraged her students.

Principal Karen Butler, who was in the room observing, chuckled.

“Crunch, crunch, crunch, and glue!” she echoed under her breath.

As Butler left the room and started down the hall, she smiled and shook her head wistfully. If you’re ever having a tough day, she said, just go spend some time with kindergarteners.

This week has been full of tough days for Butler. The Hamden Board of Education voted the previous Thursday on a redistricting plan that will involve shutting down two district elementary schools. On the chopping block are the Shepherd Glen School and Butler’s Church Street School in Southern Hamden. The district also plans to incorporate a school building on Wintergreen Avenue, in which Area Cooperative Educational Services (ACES) currently runs the Wintergreen Inter-district Magnet School, putting that school’s future in jeopardy as well. (Read more about the board’s decision here)

The closures are a part of a broad plan to streamline the district in an era of limited funding and declining enrollment. It also aims to change the racial makeup of Hamden’s elementary schools in response to a state racial balancing policy. As Butler noted, the district was responding to a “perfect storm” of factors.

If all goes as planned, the process of the district’s restructuring will begin over the summer, though schools will not close for at least another year and a half.

In the meantime, teachers, students, parents, and principals like Butler have to keep spirits up and their communities together.

“Hard-Working Parents,” “Very Connected Staff”

Butler has been at the school only since Oct. 1. Before moving to the Church Street School, she had been principal of the Ridge Hill School, another Hamden public elementary, for 13 years.

Church Street and Ridge Hill are similar in many ways, according to Butler. They’re both very diverse. They’re both Title 1 schools, which means they receive federal funding because more than 40 percent of their student bodies qualify as low-income.

They also differ in certain ways. Ridge Hill is more “equally diverse,” according to Butler, meaning the school’s racial and socio-economic demographics are more balanced.

The Church Street School has one of the highest percentages of students on free or reduced lunch in the district, in the high 70s. The school has around 88 percent minority enrollment, the highest in the district. It is composed predominately of African American and Latinx students.

The school plays an important role for the families it serves. In addition to the regular curriculum, it offers after-school programs and classes for parents in subjects like computer science.

The school is also important for its families because of the food it provides for students. According to Hector Velazquez, the family engagement coordinator, for some kids, “this is their safe haven for food.” In addition to providing free or reduced lunch for those students who qualify, the school has multiple partnerships with outside organizations to combat food insecurity. The United Labor Agency provides seven families at the school with meals, while the Connecticut Food Bank sends 40 students home with bags of food each week to get them through the weekend. The school partners with the local food pantries and other organizations to host food banks at nearby churches.

While the parents from the Shepherd Glen School and Wintergreen have shown up in force to school board meetings to fight for their schools’ survival, parents from Church Street have not been as vocal. Butler attributed the relative silence to a number of factors: The population that sends their kids to the Church Street School is mostly composed of “hard-working parents with a lot on their plates.” Many parents are too busy trying to get dinner on the table to make it to a school board meeting. Many also work evenings, when the meetings take place. Others may not have had good elementary school experiences of their own, and therefore don’t readily engage in the school’s affairs. She added that many parents simply trust the district and the school to do what’s best for their children.

But they too care about their school and cherish its strengths. Butler argued the school has potential to be an even stronger community than it is now. She hopes to make strengthening the sense of community that surrounds the school one of her primary goals over its final year and a half.

First grade teacher Diana Westcott called the school “kind of a family for me.” She’s been teaching there for 16 years, first in sixth grade, and now in first. She says it’s a very tight knit and supportive school.

Other teachers highlighted the extremely supportive staff at the school. Hector Velazquez (“Mr. Hector” to his students) said the school has a “very connected staff.”

“Everyone has everyone’s back,” he added. “You feel connected when you come here.”

Media specialist (aka “librarian”) Karen Kraemer, who has been at the school for ten years, echoed Mr. Hector. “I have never worked in such a supportive environment from my peers,” she told the Independent. “I know without question that if I need support, I will get it.”

“We may not do things in a flashy way,” Kraemer added, but the school is still a positive environment with a great deal to offer its students and their families.

“Our culture is really created by such a diversity of kids” from all over the world, she said. “Like a little United Nations.”

Every year, the school hosts multicultural day. The teachers from each grade level take on a different region of the world and showcase its culture and food, with emphasis on the cultures from which Church Street students hail. While the teachers provide the lessons on music, dance, and other traditions, parents bring in dishes to share with the whole school community.

“Just Sad”

After school Thursday, Antoine Wilkins waited in the cold to pick up his little sister. He went to Church Street himself from pre-K until third grade. He said the rest of his family also went there — in total, six people from two generations.

“I was very shocked, to be honest,” he said of learning that the board had voted to close the school. “It’s been around so long.”

Principal Butler said she has heard a mix of reactions from parents.

Many are concerned about the changes and ask if they can have a say in where their kids will go to school once Church Street closes. Some have said that maybe the school’s closure is a good thing because there’s a lot of need at the school, and perhaps it would be best if some of it were shared.

Butler has also heard from some parents who said they saw it coming, because “Church Street often got the short end of the stick when it came to other decisions that have been made.” Some parents worried that race was a part of the reason Church Street has sometimes gotten the raw end of the deal.

Monique Bachus, who has a first-grader at the school, was very upset when she heard about the board’s decision. Her son started pre-K at Church Street, and came to feel comfortable there. “It’s just sad that it’s closing,” she lamented. She added that programs the school runs help “make one big family, so we’re not separated.”

Marisa, who has a daughter in kindergarten at the school, said that her overall feeling about the news is sadness. She also has a 15-year-old son who attended the school from kindergarten all the way to sixth grade. She said that when he heard about the closing, he was even more upset than she was. At home, she and her children speak only Spanish, and she does not speak English. Her son went in speaking no English, and quickly became fluent, as did her daughter. She said this is evidence that the school is doing something right.

Teachers, too, are upset about the prospect of the school closing. But come what may, Butler said, she and the school’s teachers will “roll up our sleeves and make sure our kids are Ok.”

Tori Laugeni, a fifth-grade teacher in her first year of teaching, said her top focus is on getting through the school year. Some of her students have brought up their fears about the school closing to her. She has assured them that it will be a many-year process. She also tells her students that this is out of their control, but there are other things they can control, like the spelling test that’s coming up, so it’s best to focus on that.

Mr. Hector said he has confidence in the board’s decision. School closures like this happen everywhere, and it’s sometimes necessary to address the district’s problems. “By making these decisions, we are doing right by the state Board of Education, [and it’s] gonna benefit everyone in the long run,” he remarked.

For Diana Westcott, after 16 years of teaching, all she can do is approach the future with a positive attitude. She’ll adapt to the changes, she said, and “hopefully everything will fall right in place.”

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