The state will no longer pay for some slots for New Haven students at a popular afternoon arts high school, as part of a crackdown on alleged double-dipping into limited magnet-school funds.
As legislators balance a $224 million deficit with cuts to public schools, the Connecticut State Department of Education (CSDE) is looking for dollars wherever it can find them, including from ACES’s Educational Center for the Arts (ECA), the regional half-day arts program on Audubon Street.
Up until now, the state has paid for dual enrollments in magnet programs. That allows students to take their core classes at a regular magnet high school in the morning, then specialize in arts courses at ECA from 1-4 p.m. But the state says it can’t afford that setup anymore.
Four afternoons a week, roughly 310 students travel to ECA from more than two dozen nearby towns. Taught by practicing artists, the students study creative writing, dance, music, theater and visual arts. About half go on to art school after graduation.
The 13 local teens and 23 suburbanites who are currently enrolled in earlier-day general magnet will be allowed to continue at ECA until graduation. But no new morning magnet students will be allowed in — a restriction that parents discovered just days before the school-choice lottery applications for this coming year were due.
Going forward, the only New Haven students who can enroll in ECA will be those from the two traditional high schools, Wilbur Cross and Hillhouse.
“We don’t foresee any programming changing,” said Evelyn Rossetti-Ryan, ACES’s marketing and outreach chief. “The students will need to decide and choose what’s best for them.”
With money running tight at the Capitol, CSDE recently found out it needed to trim $18.5 million from its $328 million magnet account, said Peter Yazbak, a CSDE spokesperson. State officials informed school districts that, by a “conservative estimate,” they should expect at 7.5 percent cut in their per-pupil reimbursements, he added.
And in New Haven, the department will also cut down on dual enrollments. Currently, 36 students cost the state $386,815, Yazbak said. That figure represents $201,955 for the morning magnet schools and $184,860 for ECA.
“We are no longer permitting students to enroll in two magnet school programs simultaneously,” Yazbak wrote in an email. “This is a two-fold issue: it’s not just about the money, it’s also about fairness.”
New Haven Schools Superintendent Reggie Mayo said he didn’t hear about the change until two weeks ago. He immediately asked a staffer to send a letter to parents, but he’s unsure if one made it out.
Parents said they instead found out through word of mouth, after one was tipped off about the change during her son’s interview at ECA. That left several families with eighth-graders scrambling, their vision for the next four years suddenly against the rules.
“We have spent months visiting open houses and having our kids shadow at schools, with the understanding that a choice like enrolling at both New Haven Academy and ECA is an option. Now the rules have been changed, but there is no time to figure out anything else,” said one mom, Tagan Engel, an ECA alumna herself. “My son spent many months preparing his art portfolio for his interview, only to walk out of it and be told in order to go there, he can no longer chose the high school that he has his heart set on. Many will now have to choose between their high school and ECA.”
The worst part is that students now have to come up with a split-second alternative, said Loris Sterling, another mom. She and her daughter were sold on a dual enrollment at New Haven Academy, right down Orange Street, and ECA after hearing it pitched at the magnet school showcase.
“The location of [New Haven Academy] and ECA is perfect. You can just walk down and get there. It seemed safe; I don’t have to worry about her being all over the place,” Sterling said. “To have that pulled at the last minute, my child is not happy. It’s not a decision you make overnight.”
CDSE said this change was overdue. The department has prohibited dual enrollment in magnet programs in the greater Hartford area since 2014. When officials found out dual enrollment was happening in New Haven earlier this year, they cut it off — a decision made by Kathy Demsey, the chief financial officer, Glen Peterson, the choice programs division director, and their staffs.
Besides the money issues, dual enrollment allows some students to hog limited magnet spots, Yazbak said. “If one student is taking up two seats, they are keeping another student out of a program altogether,” he wrote.
Parents have responded that’s not a fair characterization of ECA’s programming. It’s not just another magnet school spot, but “something far beyond what a regular high school offers,” Engel argued.
“It’s an enrichment experience, in the full sense of the word,” Rossetti-Ryan said. “They have academics in their home school, but then they’re able to have a whole other experience, new opportunities pursuing the arts along with like-minded students. It opens their minds and worlds up.”
The nixing of dual enrollment also prevents students from enrolling in smaller schools, Sterling pointed out. Creative students might fare better in a more intimate setting that can accommodate different learning styles, she said. The larger high schools “can work for some kids,” Sterling said, but “you know your child, you know what’s best for them.”
Gregory Baldwin, New Haven Academy’s principal, agreed, saying the dual enrollment has worked well for his school. “It’s an opportunity for kids to have two strong experiences,” he said. “They really have a passion for practicing art at a high level and also pursuing academics here in a place that they really identify with.”
Along with others, Engel’s been calling state officials to ask for more time, putting off the change for at least one more year — conversations that she said have been productive so far.