Elm City Charter Eyed For Futuristic “Conversion”

Melissa Bailey PhotoElm City College Preparatory Middle School has emerged as the most likely seat of an ambitious experiment to reinvent K-8 education with two-week-long student expeditions, daily martial arts, and a “huge” investment in technology.

Dacia Toll, CEO of the Achievement First (AF) charter school network, confirmed that news—and offered a glimpse at what that experiment might look like—at a five-hour meeting of the boards that govern AF’s New Haven, Bridgeport and Hartford schools.

Standing before several dozen board members in the multi-purpose room of Amistad Academy on Dwight Street, Toll outlined a plan for “disruptive change” at the charter organization she founded 16 years ago.

Achievement First in January hired the San Francisco-based design firm IDEO, which invented Apple’s computer mouse, to re-imagine the traditional K-8 school. AF asked the firm to reconsider every basic assumption about the way kids learn, how their day is structured, and the role of the adults in the building.

Toll dubbed the effort “Greenfield” to signify an open meadow with no constraints about what school has to look like or function.

AF plans to pilot a few new “Greenfield” ideas this fall at existing schools, then start creating the new model in earnest in 2015. The working plan, which has not been finalized, is to start a new school, possibly in New Haven, in 2015 with grades K to 1. Also in 2015, AF would begin to convert Elm City Middle to the new model, starting with the 5th grade. Toll said Elm City is the most likely candidate for conversion; a final decision has not been made.

Toll shared a working sketch of what AF and IDEO have come up with so far, four months into a five-month process of brainstorming what that new model will look like.

In the school of the future, Toll said, students would have eight weeks of normal classes, followed by two weeks of “expeditions.” During those two weeks, they would pick from a menu of choices. They could work intensely on a computer programming project, or spend time in a law office or a Yale science lab. Then they’d go back to eight weeks of classes, then break for another excursion.

Students would do a half-hour of physical activity when they show up to school—plus another half-hour of exercise later in the day.

Does “exercise” mean putting kids on a treadmill while they read a book? asked a board member.

Toll said no. It would be “real playing.” The morning session would likely be martial arts, and the afternoon would be some other kind of sport.

“There’s a ton of research that we haven’t been paying attention to” regarding benefits of exercise for the mind, Toll said.

Each student would have a “running partner,” a student who helps him or her stay on pace with academic goals. Students would also have an eight-person “goal team” that would meet in the morning, and check in in the afternoon, to set and monitor personalized learning goals.

That’s part of an overall effort to increase the frequency of feedback kids get.

Another way to do increase feedback is to bring in technology, Toll said.

The new Greenfield school would see “huge investments in technology,” she said. “Every kid would certainly have a device.”

“We don’t want all of our kids learning math from a computer,” she said. But in math class in particular, adaptive computer programs can be extremely helpful in figuring out what a kid knows and giving him or her the right amount of challenge, she argued. In a futuristic math class, Toll said, kids would work at their own pace on computers, then meet in groups to discuss strategies on how they solved a problem.

Math instruction would be self-directed and would occur in small groups of kids. There would be no more large-group instruction, where 26 kids listen to a teacher give a lecture, she said.

AF would return to a longer school day for students, stretching from 7:30 to 5 p.m., Toll said. Those are more akin to hours Amistad Academy used to keep; the organization has cut back the hours over time, she said.

Toll was asked about teacher burnout—a phenomenon that the organization has fought for years. She said AF’s teacher retention rate has hovered around 80 to 85 percent, which she said is not good but is not far from other school districts doing the same work.

She laid out two ways the new school would seek to preserve teacher energy. The first is staggered schedules. One set of teachers would come into school from 7:30 to 3:30; the other set from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

The second idea involves creating a new team of teachers who would relieve classroom teachers for two weeks at a time. The teachers would whisk kids away on two-week expeditions while classroom teachers either took vacation or got extra training. A relief teacher could be someone like an Outward Bound instructor who takes a small group of kids camping, she said.

Students would work on a cycle, taking two-week expeditions every eight weeks throughout the year. The expeditions—an idea borrowed from the Summit schools—would cost AF about $900 to $1,000 per kid for the entire year, Toll estimated. Eventually, AF could hire a team of full-time expedition leaders who would spend the whole year work with rotating groups of kids in various Greenfield-ized AF schools.

Elm City Conversion

An internal document obtained by the Independent identifies Elm City College Prep, a middle school serving 219 students in grades 5 to 8 at 794 Dixwell Ave., as the site of the Greenfield experiment in 2015. The plan calls for splitting Elm City into two schools starting in 2015—a fifth-grade Greenfield experiment and a traditional 6th to 8th grade school. The Greenfield project would start with the 5th grade and expand by one grade every year. The two schools might be split onto two separate campuses if AF can find the space. Toll met with teachers to discuss this plan and identified which staff would carry it out.

Toll confirmed Monday that Elm City is a “strong possibility” for a Greenfield conversion; she said a final decision has not yet been made. She said AF prefers to “give the new model a designated space,” but AF won’t be building any new buildings, so they’ll have to find the space.

She said also in 2015, AF plans to create a new elementary school with grades K and 1 to begin the Greenfield experiment there. That may mean creating a new building.

She said Elm City Middle is a good candidate for conversion because it has a “strong team” that has “taken the lead on implementing next-generation technology integration.”

“It’s a bonus that it’s here in town,” she said.

Elm City Middle’s principal, Rebecca Good, who has been at the school since in 2006, plans to leave the school after the 2014-15 school year. Toll said the school has two strong internal leaders who could step up and lead the two schools. Robert Hawke, a former KIPP principal who joined Elm City last fall as a principal-in-training and instructional coach, has emerged as the most likely candidate to lead the Greenfield school. Hawke has been involved in planning the Greenfield proposal; the new school would be a great fit for his skill set, she said.

Magaly Cajigas (at left in photo), the parent representative on the Elm City College Prep charter board, said she supports the Greenfield project but had not heard that Elm City Middle would be involved.

“I’m happy to hear it. A little surprised,” she said upon hearing the news from a reporter Monday.

Toll said AF did involve teachers in the IDEO brainstorming—just not teachers from Elm City Middle. That was not intentional, she said: AF invited “distinguished” teachers, those who ranked highly on teacher evaluations, to take part in the planning process. It just so happened that there were no “distinguished” teachers at Elm City the 2012-13 school year (there are now three), she said.

Parents from both Amistad and Elm City were involved in the brainstorming, Toll said. IDEO even spent hours at parents’ homes doing day-long “home stays.”

Toll said she briefed Elm City teachers on the possibility of opening two new Greenfield schools. An Elm City teacher suggested the possibility of converting an existing school, Toll said. She returned for a second meeting before school ended and suggested converting Elm City Middle. Teachers raised many questions about what the changes would mean for their kids, the school, and their jobs. She said in a survey, 95 percent of Elm City staff responded that they support the conversion.

Parents and teachers “obviously will be heavily involved” in the planning going forward, Toll said.

She added that parents who don’t want to take part in the Greenfield experiment at Elm City Middle will have the option of attending Amistad Academy instead.

Toll said AF came up with the plan after visiting some 20 innovative schools across the country. She visited the BASIS charter network in Arizona, where kids learn from PhD-toting teachers, ace Advanced Placement classes, and outperform their counterparts in China. She stopped in on the Summit charter high schools in Northern California, which have a highly personalized, self-paced curriculum. And she checked out a school in Acton, Texas, that has done a great job engaging families.

Toll said the AF school of the future will aspire to combine three qualities those schools embodied: “accelerated expectations,” “ownership and personalization,” and an “awesomely powerful community.” She said she has not seen one school that does all three.

Toll said the impetus for the redesign was that “we had this fear that we were still working to make a fairly traditional model, but just make it work really well.

“We needed to carve out head space and capacity to think in an unconstrained way.”

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posted by: Noteworthy on July 23, 2014  2:49pm

Another educational experiment - why? If you want to experiment with money from your corporate partners, that’s one thing. As I understand AF’s funding, it involves taxpayer money too. This constant “experimenting” makes me wonder about outcomes and the “guinea pigs” included in the experiment.

posted by: ElmCityVoice on July 23, 2014  3:54pm

Seriously. Does anyone really believe that Amistad, Elm City Academy and the rest of the Achievement First charters are public schools? If the public has a say, I vote we spend the taxpayer money on Lincoln Bassett instead. That is a school that could really benefit from “accelerated expectations.” Oh. AF has other funding streams? I thought I remember them saying they spend the same amount per pupil as New Haven public schools. Can someone please explain this to me?

posted by: poetbum on July 23, 2014  5:32pm

The technology will be obsolete in two years (that’s why Apple is so rich) and thus represents an enormous waste of money.  But the other ideas are worthwhile.  Really, most structural changes and educational reforms make little difference in and of themselves, except to the extent that they get kids and teachers excited about school.  This sounds pretty exciting, so, try it!

posted by: robn on July 23, 2014  8:31pm

uhhmmm….“martial arts” means combat training.

posted by: Samuel T. Ross-Lee on July 24, 2014  7:08am


The explaination you seek is found in accepting the fact that the Acheivement First Enterprise, with the help of this publication, has consistently lied about who they are and what they do.

They did so knowing that if they told the lies long enough, the public would eventually become bored of the conversation and simplistically accept what they, with the help of this publication, are saying about themselves, facts, outside, objective research, independently gathered, (and contradictory to their story line) third-party results, be damned.

The capitulation of local publications like this one to the travesty of releasing public funds to private institutions without public oversight to perform government services that are suppose to be available equally to EVERYONE, as said publications, like this one, seek the favor of the powers that be is equavalent to how the national media rolled over and played dead during the lead up to the Iraq war.

After over 2 Trillion dollars have been spent and millions of lives lost on a war rooted in lies, the effects of said lies, coupled with the media capitulations, remain incalculable.  This comparison would be little more than hyperbole if one did not consider the lives lost to the streets of New Haven, the potential never realized, the dreams crushed, and the crimes committed by the un and undereducated who cannot find legitimate employment, not to speak of their inability to get into college, all due to the fact that we are playing with our childrens’ education with little, if any, intention to provide a quality one for all of them, eapecialy those who are cast away by the the Acheivement First Enterprise (you know, “the least of these”) while lying about it, with the help of this publication.

The Rev. Mr. Samuel T. Ross-Lee

posted by: liveworknNewHven on July 24, 2014  9:21am

HSC already does mastery based learning and expeditions, on a public school budget, but nice job AF trying something kind of new

posted by: Thomas Alfred Paine on July 24, 2014  11:52am

As a nation we will live to regret all of these charter schools if this nation is to remain a democracy. EQUAL access to a quality education is the right of each and every young person in a democracy. Charter schools are elite pseudo-public schools which usually cater to the best and the brightest in the community. Special ed students, students with learning disabilities, students with emotional and disciplinary problems are usually not welcomed there.
SCHOOL CHOICE cannot be school choice for everybody. There is simply not enough room in these charters for everyone who may want to attend. This is why some parents become so anxious and desperate when their kids cannot be admitted.
It is now generally implied that charter schools and magnet schools are superior to the regular old public schools.
Shall we abandon our public schools for charter schools and take funds and resources away from the public schools where the masses of our people must go? We should pour our energy, focus and resources on improving and strengthening our public school system, not creating more charter schools run by private entities using tax dollars under the guise of being PUBLIC schools! Too many of our people and our political leaders have been hoodwinked and bamboozled into embracing this charter school movement without really critically examining this issue.
Public education in America is being undermined by this privatized charter school movement. When we privatize public education, we weaken the public schools. When we weaken the public schools, we weaken democracy in America!
Face this fact: charter schools are PRIVATE schools. If a group wants to start a private school they can do so with PRIVATE funds.  Many of these schools do outstanding work, but I do not want to support them with my tax dollars to the detriment of public schools.
Mark my words, we will look back on this era with great regret if we continue to perpetuate the idea that the American public schools are inferior.

posted by: middle on July 24, 2014  12:31pm


Charter schools were initially envisioned as small experiments to test different kinds of education. I’m glad to see that AF is pushing outside their standard model.

If they are successful with their new model, other New Haven schools can try it out; if they are unsuccessful, they spared the rest of the schools from a faulty plan. Either way, the rest of the district benefits.

posted by: Brutus2011 on July 24, 2014  1:08pm

Charter schools ARE not public schools.

This is at best a half-truth which is in fact the most pernicious kind of lie.

However, we must solve the problem of the lack of a proper learning environment in our schools.

We, as a community, allow those who administer our public schools to continue to not do their jobs and solve this fundamental issue.

It is time we community folks stand up and remove those on the BOE and those at the NHPS central office for essentially a dereliction of duty.

Mayor Harp, are you listening?

posted by: SSSS on July 24, 2014  2:37pm

Not sure if my first comment went through, so feel free to delete if it did…

I’m hearing two contradictory arguments from the “AF is a travesty crowd”

1. AF is a travesty because it is a corporatist entity that has no concern for our children and

2. AF is a travesty because not all of our children can experience it.

These seem to be mutually exclusive to me…which is it.

For me personally, I have grown more negative on charter schools over the years (and completely agree with Mr. Ross-Lee’s point that they leave the neediest behind).

However, they do exist, and this type of innovation seems to be the exact reason for their existence, so I don’t really understand the uproar in this case.  They get a set amount per pupil, they can do as they wish, and as always, parents are free to not send their children to the school if they please.

posted by: Samuel T. Ross-Lee on July 24, 2014  9:31pm


In what way have you grown more negative on charter schools?  Your comments seem a criticism - and a simplistic and misleading one at that - for those of us dislike them completely.

To be clear, I don’t dislike charter schools because “all of our childeren don’t get to experience them”.  I dislike that they LIE, with the help of publications like this one, about who they are, what they do, how well they educate compared to public schools, and that they are stealing resouces from the institutions that are charged with educating ALL of the students in our city.  And this is only a partial list.

Now, your obvious capitulation to them based on their existence seems quite pathetic to me. Following your “reasoning”, even though we have “grown negative” towards something that we think is fundamental wrong, we should just throw our hands up and accept the fact that they/it is “here”, and whatever “experimentation” they can muster out of the fact of their presence, we should be glad about?  Is THAT your postion on other things with which you have “grown negative” about over the years?

Should we simple accept sex trafficking and see if we can experiment with immigration policies through said trafficking? 

Should we simple accept the reality of underpaid workers and experiment with budgeting on a non-livable wage?

While we’re at it, let’s accept unequal pay for women, and experiement with women’s ability to survice the disrespect inherent in that demeaning behavior.


Dr. King said it best: “Injustice ANYWHERE is a threat to justice EVERYWHERE.” (Emphasis mine)

So, I think I’ll ignore your advice to simple throw my hands upmand accept this travesty of equality, morality, and justice.

The Rev. Mr. Samuel T. Ross-Lee

posted by: Don in New Haven on July 24, 2014  9:55pm

Why try to re-invent the wheel?

Rather than waste time experimenting, why not visit a school that already does what you are trying to discover how to do. Go to Paris, France and visit EIB The Victor Hugo School. See first hand how education is properly done.


Homeroom is at 8:30 am and academics begin at 9:00 am. The school day ends at 6:00 pm daily, except on Wednesday when the school day ends at 3:30 pm.

Although the school has 12 grades, students in 9th and 10th grades complete enough credits in science, math, history, language, social studies, and other subjects to satisfy New Haven graduation requirements and academic requirements for admission to most US colleges and universities.

Classes are taught in English and students have French language class, daily. Other possible languages include Japanese and Spanish. So, students may take classes in 3 languages in their normal schedules.

Sports (physical education) class is one day per week for 2 hours. Students who want to participate in sports, such as swimming, for example, join a sports club which meets after school in the evenings, and on weekends.

Forget your experiments. Just go to Paris and visit the school. You will save time and money by getting the correct answers quickly.

posted by: ElmCityVoice on July 25, 2014  6:30am

Thank you Samuel T. Ross-Lee. I think it’s time to take our message further than this board. Charters have huge lobbyists at the state. Public schools have no one. It may be time to take bus loads of kids from New Haven, Hartford, Waterbury, Bridgeport and anyone else who is willing to play a part in returning our public schools to their rightful owners.

posted by: Theodora on July 25, 2014  7:42am

Charters would be unnecessary if the district made sure that all good students of the city were permitted to be in the magnet program. Instead, the magnet schools are full of non-city kids whose parents are not invested in New Haven. The result is that the average city student gets inferior instruction, thus struggles to keep up with any competition. I simply do not understand this district and the way it harms residents.

posted by: SSSS on July 25, 2014  8:46am

Mr. Ross-Lee.  Fair points…let me clarify.  No, of course I do not believe we should throw up our hands on injustice…perhaps I miscommunicated. 

I “have grown more negative” on charter schools because I understand that do not have the responsibility to take care of every student, and can simply kick out those that they do not wish to serve.  That is morally wrong, and it should be fixed.

That said, I do not believe we should call for the end of charter schools because of this, we should aim to fix that particular problem.  I still believe in the innovative possibilities that they bring, and as I have repeatedly said, I trust parents to choose whether they would like to send their children there or not.  On this I’m sure we disagree, but please note that I am not simply supporting the status quo and “throwing up my hands”.  Also note that I am not a “charter school advocate” nor am I affiliated with a charter school in any way.

posted by: THREEFIFTHS on July 25, 2014  10:24pm

Are Charter Schools Todays Version of Sub Prime Mortgages?


posted by: Teacher4Life on July 28, 2014  12:01pm

So sick of Toll and other white “education reformers” thinking that they know what is best for minority children.  They smile as donation after donation rolls in and they can freely spend it on the latest experiment such as this.  Where is the outrage at this “disruptive change?”  These are young children’s lives we are talking about, not lab rats.  There is no undoing any damage done to them during this process. 

This is a clear effort by Toll and AF to rebrand itself as a a child-centered organization of schools that encourages student independence and free thinking.  Walk into any AF school and the truth will be seen - Students being demeaned and disciplined for not meeting ridiculous expectations, unacceptably high suspension rates, unacceptably low Special Education numbers and alarming Special Education noncompliance, predominately white leadership that is filled with hubris and a deep disconnectedness with the school’s children and families, burned out teachers, high teacher turnover, etc. 

Will Toll and others AFs ever dare look outside of other charter schools and perhaps loop in African-American leaders into determining what is right and best for the population of children AF serves?