Teachers Plan “Experiential” School

MOLLY MONTGOMERY PHOTONew Haven 20 years ago spawned a new test-score-focused set of charter schools known as “Achievement First” that challenged the approach of traditional public schools.

Now two women are trying to launch a private high school with a “Learning First” approach that also seeks to take education in a new direction.

Elise Dardani and Christian Brownrigg are quitting their jobs as public school teachers to try to start the school, called Parker Cove, which they hope will open its doors in New Haven next September.

An open house will take place at the school, at 938 State St., this Thursday at 6:30 p.m.

So far they’re having trouble finding parents ready to shell out over $40,000 a year for their kids to attend a small new school. But the duo is giving it their best.

If they succeed in attracting students, ninth graders will learn alongside twelfth graders in a single classroom composed of ten students or fewer. Dardani will serve as the sole teacher of a non-traditional curriculum driven by four questions she and the students decide together at the end of each school year. The emphasis would be on interdisciplinary courses of study and on “holistic” and “experiential” learning that stresses “five parts of self: intellectual, social, emotional, physical, spiritual.”

The website promises the school will address this question: “How can education support happiness and fulfillment?”

Grooming students to perform well on standardized tests would be lower on the priority list.

“We have a culture that overemphasizes achievement and consequently underemphasizes learning,” Dardani said in an interview. “High school students absorb the message that performance and results are paramount. They can become fixated on the outcome, and they miss out on the fulfillment and real learning that happens when they value their learning process.”

Teaching at Darien High School and the Norwalk Center for Global Studies, Dardani said, she wished that the curriculum was more conducive to making connections, so that students wouldn’t stop thinking about algebra after the bell rang to signal class’ end. And not just connections between school subjects – connections between school and life, mind and body. Parker Cove’s curriculum will emphasize these connections.

“It’s really important for us that our students learn to take care of their whole self, which, as far as we’re concerned, is comprised of five parts – their intellect, their physical and emotional wellness, their social connections, and their spirituality, or really the degree they feel connected to something that’s larger than themselves,” she said.

They have rented space for the school in what used to be a vintage clothing store. The space consists of two main rooms –  an entrance hall with walls that Dardani said she hopes will display art from students and New Haven residents, and a classroom where the students will gather around a set of tall rolling tables with white-board tops. Dardani and Brownrigg’s private collection of books, which are currently stacked against the back wall, are the start of the school’s library. Light from large windows floods the space.

“We want the aesthetic experience of high school not to be fluorescent lights,” she said.

Dardani said she and Brownrigg wanted the school to be located in New Haven because they felt the city is alive and hope to encourage interaction between the students and the city. They plan to invite artists and speakers to visit the school and will encourage bicycle trips and internships around New Haven.

Tuition is steep – $42,200. The project is funded by founding couple and will begin as a for-profit institution. The pair are hoping to turn it into a nonprofit once it is more established. As of now, they will try to offer merit scholarships, and they are also hoping to offer financial aid in the future.

The application pool opened in October. Applications, which include a resume, an essay, two letters of recommendation, and a creative supplement, are rolling, but Jan. 15 is the priority deadline.

So far, no one has applied.

“Ideally, our learning community will be comprised of students from diverse cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds,” Dardani said.

One New Haven teacher and activist who has worked on alternative models to test-score teaching, Leslie Blatteau of Metropolitan Business Academy, questioned the need for a private school to address that need

“When we’re really working hard to support and protect public schools, I think the creation of a new private school that’s clearly exclusive in its size and in its cost – I just wonder what that message is about the belief in the public schools that exist down the road, literally down the road, [alternative public magnet] New Haven Academy is down the road from where this school is supposed to be,” Blatteau said.

She said that public schools would love to have Parker Cove’s freedom in curriculum, but that they are under the obligations and pressures imposed by standardized testing.

“Private schools get to do what they want, charge what they want,” she said. “But there’s no ultimate accountability. There is more freedom, certainly. But with that freedom comes a legitimate turning-your-back on the community. There’s no way you can have a private school that’s inclusive.”

In response to Blatteau’s objections, Dardani said, “For us, it’s not about public vs. private education. In an ideal society all students would be educated in one system of public education that was adequately funded, locally controlled, and universally high quality. However, that’s not the system that our society has created, and we feel that the best way that we can contribute is to do something small and innovative, which means that we need to do something independent.”

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posted by: Bill Saunders on December 5, 2018  4:17pm

From what I have seen in my research, schools like this need no ‘accreditation’, they just need to satisfy the State Student Attendance requirements to basically ‘fly under the ‘radar’‘.

From the ‘calendar’ I’ve seen, the two week spring break is a nice ‘perk’, and seems aimed at a certain ‘target market’. Whether this market exists or not, remains to be seen….

posted by: 1644 on December 5, 2018  4:37pm

The concept sounds very similar to that of Hammonasset, which failed.  Hammonasset had very strong financial backing and what should have been a feeder school in the Country School.

Contrary to Blatteau’s statement, independent schools have much greater accountability than public schools.  Unlike public schools, they must convince parents that their children are gaining an advantage worth the considerable tuition. This school must, for its parents, outperform not only the local public schools, but a host of independent and religious schools within commuting distance, as well as residential schools everywhere.  It main competitor might be Putney.

posted by: JohnTulin on December 5, 2018  4:39pm

Whatever the over/under is on applicants, I’ll take the under!

posted by: Carl Goldfield on December 5, 2018  5:44pm

On the one hand I can’t help but admire their chutzpah ($42,200 !!!!! for an untested startup ?) and their discrimination in choosing to locate in New Haven.  On the other hand if you have the wealth to pay that kind of tuition why not Hopkins - beautiful campus, classrooms, student center, labs, gymnasium, playing fields, gourmet lunches etc. and so forth.

posted by: Politics 101 on December 5, 2018  5:45pm


When the thing people are buying is exclusivity and proximity to wealth, no, there is no accountability for the quality of the education.

posted by: Teach623 on December 5, 2018  7:35pm

“Ideally, our learning community will be comprised of students from diverse cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds”.

“Tuition is steep- $42,200”

posted by: Bill Saunders on December 5, 2018  8:09pm

I have absolutely no idea how any one teacher can meet the needs of ten students of age 13-18, in one classroom, four grade levels, that addresses every student’s needs and interests.

I don’t know why any ‘Senior’ would want to be lumped in with ‘the Frosh’...

I don’t know why any parent would send there kid here while there are better private Institutions with real Track Records….Jonathan Hopkins costs only ‘$1600 more, with real faculty, curriculum and campus.

posted by: Billy on December 5, 2018  8:50pm

Thank you, Leslie, for your spot on analysis. 

There is absolutely no need for any more parents of privilege to leave the public school system because it doesn’t work with their idea of what their precious children deserve above and beyond what the rest of our kids deserve.  Why not stay and work to improve the schools?  Why do you get to opt of probably the most important public institution in your community?

My kids have had a great experience in NHPS.  There have been challenges to be sure, but they have thrived in school communities where the real struggles and assets of their community are part of the learning environment every day.  That ain’t going to happen sitting next to kids whose parents are paying $42K a year!  We all know that.

posted by: Eva G on December 5, 2018  9:28pm

I went to Hopkins for several years. I graduated from Hammonasset. I went to a college that is known for being academically demanding but weird as hell and tiny tiny tiny. I live a few blocks from the former Vintanthromodern. Hypothetically, I’m an IDEAL candidate “parent who’s looking for this kind of school for my kid”—or would be if I were sitting on 42K/yr for my kid to go to a private school.
But I cannot quite see myself knocking myself out to send my child to this school, as it’s currently presented to me, and am mystified as to how it will get any traction. I’d love an explanation, really, but am skeptical as all getout.

Hammonasset finally closed in 1991. Had it held on a few more years, the Cold Spring contingent might have grown into sending their graduates to Hammo, but it didn’t work out. It’s kind of a shame, I’ve often thought; CSS parents, who clearly want a certain type of school, would probably have loved Hammonasset, if not the schlep to Madison (which sucked). I graduated from Hammonasset in 1988, and while I had complaints about attending the school, the quality of the teachers was never one of them. I had great teachers there, truly great, and the administrators cared deeply about the kids. It was night and day from Hopkins, for me. Hammonasset had problems, as every school does, and there’s no doubt in my mind there were a lot of entitled little jerks who just took advantage of the place the way high schoolers will. But I think, looking back, it was a victim of cultural timing more than anything else. In today’s world, a Hammonasset would be a welcome place, and for a kid like me in the 1980s, it was the best way to get through high school, period, in a time and place (for me personally, not for everyone) where there were *not* a lot of options. (I could go into more detail but won’t bore you further.) 
I don’t see Parker Cove as being an instant Hammonasset, sadly. I look forward to seeing how this story evolves though.

posted by: THREEFIFTHS on December 6, 2018  9:42am

An open house will take place at the school, at 938 State St., this Thursday at 6:30 p.m.

Notice the school is on state st?This is where the gentrification vampires are taking over.So she sould have no problem in geting the Elite who can afford the high rent that will put there children in this school

posted by: wendy1 on December 6, 2018  10:21am

It sounds good.  I wish I could donate like I did for other schools but I’m tapped out.  Small private schools worked well for my family.

posted by: heightster77 on December 6, 2018  12:47pm

One word of advice, “don’t quit you day job” This will never materialize

posted by: westvilledad on December 6, 2018  2:26pm

what’s going to last longer - this or the cat cafe in westville? maybe they can join up.

posted by: Mark Oppenheimer on December 6, 2018  4:07pm

Kudos to anyone interested in educating children. I have no idea if it will thrive or not, I have no idea if it will be great or not. But we obviously need more and different models and lots of flowers have to bloom. I have three children in NHPS right now, one in a private school, and I am grateful to anyone who wants to be an educator in a country that devalues and underpays them, even at the best schools, and at all grade levels (including university). I do believe in public education, but I’m not going to get angsty about this tiny private startup threatening our public schools (even as I hear @leslieBlatteau’s concerns).