Update 5 p.m. Friday: Superintendent Garth Harries said the Board of Education has decided to postpone discussion on Elm City Imagine until a later date, likely the subsequent full board meeting Feb. 9.
The Achievement First (AF) charter organization is taking steps to start a new experimental school—while its proposed financial partner, New Haven Public Schools, hasn’t yet officially decided to participate.
The charter network’s CEO Dacia Toll held an early informational session for parents about the school, Elm City Imagine, Wednesday night, the same night the AF board approved a three-year lease for part of a building at 495 Blake St.
Superintendent Garth Harries told the Independent Thursday that NHPS’s Board of Education will thoroughly discuss the proposal in two public committee meetings over the next couple of weeks, potentially culminating in a full board vote Feb. 9. He later said that schedule would be delayed.
AF and the district are hashing out a memorandum of understanding detailing the components of the financial partnership. In a previous interview, Toll said that NHPS would put up $2,000 per student, $500 in operating funds and the rest through in-kind services; the state puts up about $11,000 per student. AF would be responsible for day-to-day management.
Harries said in an earlier interview that the district would use Elm City Imagine to reduce overcrowding and mid-year transience in existing schools. The proposal has drawn criticism from the teachers union and charter critics.
The Board of Education’s Teaching and Learning Committee will discuss the overall proposal at its next meeting on Jan. 26, Harries said Thursday. The Finance and Operations Committee will look over the formal memorandum of understanding Feb. 2, before the full board vote Feb. 9. He said Friday afternoon that that schedule would be delayed and discussion on the proposal would begin Feb. 9 at the earliest, pushing the vote to a later date.
“Some of those steps are dependent on the prior steps,” he said. “From my board’s perspective, it’s more important that we make the right decision.”
Students can apply to enter the lottery for New Haven charter and magnet schools starting Feb. 4 through March 13.
“I am hopeful, but I don’t know,” Toll said Wednesday night when an AF board member asked her whether the district will approve Elm City Imagine.
“We are eager to resolve this before the lottery so families can participate,” she said to the Independent. “It’s the fairest way to make sure all kids get to participate.”
At the info session, she encouraged parents to attend the upcoming Board of Ed meetings to show their support for the proposed school.
If approved, Elm City Imagine would open August 2015 with 90 children in each of kindergarten and first grade, and then add a grade each year through fourth grade. Toll said she had sent a “postcard to all eligible kids in the city of New Haven ... all pre-K and kindergarten kids who are eligible for school next year,” inviting their parents to Wednesday’s info session.
She and Katherine Baker (pictured)—the proposed school’s proposed principal—explained the basic structure of Elm City Imagine and its educational model, to which AF refers as “Greenfield.” Baker spent the last four years as principal of AF Bridgeport Academy and has been working on the plan for the new school.
The Greenfield model includes an extended school year with a calendar alternating eight weeks of regular classes with two weeks of career “expeditions”; longer school days with staggered teacher schedules; and small-group instruction that stresses technology use. AF plans to expand the Greenfield model to other schools, starting with Elm City College Prep Middle School’s fifth grade next year.
Students will start the day at 7:15 a.m. and end at 5 p.m., an hour longer than the current schedule at AF schools. The schedule includes two hours of small group learning and two hours of “self-directed learning,” based on the Montessori style. Students will have one half-day per week, likely on Wednesday. Many of the ideas for Greenfield come from existing programs in other schools, Toll said.
“It’s a ton of time, but we think it’s all very valuable,” Baker said.
Toll said students would have less intense versions of the expeditions in kindergarten and first grade, so as to not interrupt their instruction in reading or disrupt a continuous schedule. Younger students may focus on specific careers during half-days over the course of a week.
By the end of year, all students will be able to read basic books, Baker said, showing a passage from a fictional picture book as an example: “Kate throws the ball.” At least half will be able to read at a higher level, she said, showing a more complex passage from a non-fiction book on cheetahs: “Cheetahs belong to the cat family.”
One parent asked whether the administrators had thought about “down time” for the students, especially kindergarteners, during the long day. “When she gets tired, she gets mean,” she said of her granddaughter.
Baker said the current AF schedule has no nap time built in, but that they could “build it in for individual students,” who seem to require it. “We’re going to make those adjustments.” The schedule also includes an hour of physical activity, either dance or martial arts.
Holly Hermes raised her hand to ask about the proposed school’s “philosophy on homework,” whether kids would have to spend hours working after an already long day. Baker reassured her that the homework load would be drastically reduced.
“A lot of things kids typically do outside of school, we’re able to fold into the day,” Baker said.
Hermes said she and her husband Eric heard about the info session from their alder in East Rock, Jessica Holmes. Their daughter will start kindergarten next year; the couple has already toured private schools and is starting to check out public schools.
They said they were happy with the response to their question and the amount of planning that had gone into the overall Elm City Imagine proposal.
Leaving the info session with two of her children, Rachel Brooks said the school “looks promising.” Two of her children are already in AF charter schools, so she is accustomed to the idea of longer days. “I’m just looking forward to seeing how it goes,” she said.
Finding A Home
The Elm City College Prep Board of Directors on Wednesday night approved a three-year lease agreement to use part of the building at 495 Blake St. for Elm City Imagine. AF will pay $394,812 for the use of 33,000 square feet next school year, then $564,000 for 42,000 square feet in the 2016-17 school year, then $606,000 for 42,000 square feet in 2017-18, said Lisa Desfosses (pictured), who heads AF facilities.
After those three years, AF can decide to extend the lease five additional one-year terms—if the new facility is not yet ready by lease end, she said. The building would eventually house Elm City Imagine’s kindergarten, first-grade and second-grade students, as well as fifth and sixth graders from Elm City College Prep Middle School, in order to test out the Greenfield model in the same building.
Metropolitan Business Academy used to occupy the lower level of the building, which Desfosses said is “kind of a maze now.” A sprinkler malfunction required the flooring to be stripped and AF will take down and replace the walls as part of its construction plan, Desfosses said. AF is getting about $400,000 in “tenant improvements” from the landlord, Blake Street Center Associates, LLC.
After two years, the fifth and sixth graders are expected to go back to Elm City College Prep Middle School, which AF plans to convert entirely to the Greenfield model, said Achievement First spokeswoman Amanda Pinto. Elm City Imagine will grow to a K-4.
The building is too small to combine the two into a K-8 “Greenfield” school, Desfosses said. And it’s too pricy. “It would be an expensive property to purchase,” she said Wednesday.
AF has 60 days to back out of the lease after signing, for specific reasons. After the three-year lease is up, it would have to pay four months worth of rent to terminate the agreement. “There’s a possibility we could recoup some of the expenses from subletting,” Desfosses said. The agreement includes a clause allowing AF to sublet to any other nonprofit organization, instead of using the building for its own schools.
She said she hoped the district would respond within those 60 days.