Future In Flux, Wintergreen Keeps Evolving

Sam Gurwitt PhotoAs Ingrid Ellinger-Doviak walked through the atrium of the Wintergreen Interdistrict Magnet School, she paused to acknowledge the mementos on the walls.

One photo from 2007 showed a hot air balloon launching from the lawn as students watched in a clump on the grass. It sat on a wall hidden behind long strands of interlinked red, white, and blue construction paper.

Another section of brick was adorned with a quilt depicting a large green caterpillar above the words “Read and Grow.” Hanging from the rafters above was a multicolored banner that read “WIMS Students Appreciate their Teachers!”

Ellinger-Doviak, who serves as the school’s magnet theme coach, looked around, immersed in the memories the photos, plaques, and student art conjured from her 20 years at the school. “The walls really are talkin’.”

Later in her tour, she paused at a large southeast-facing window in the library.

“On a clear day, you can see almost all of New Haven from this window.”

She sighed. “So we love it,” she said. “We love this space.”

And Ellinger-Doviak, her colleagues, and their students may not have that space much longer. The Wintergreen Interdistrict Magnet School (WIMS) is run by Area Cooperative Educational Services (ACES), which operates a network of other magnet schools in south-central Connecticut. WIMS, a K-8 magnet, draws primarily from Hamden and New Haven, but it also has students from towns like Wallingford and Meriden.

Though ACES runs the school, the town of Hamden owns the building. In May of 2018, Hamden notified ACES that it wants to end their agreement and take back the building to incorporate it into the Hamden School District as a part of a broad redistricting plan.

Despite staunch opposition from Wintergreen parents and ACES staff, the Hamden Board of Education voted on Nov. 29 to proceed with the plan, which also involves closing down two district elementary schools.

Though the school board’s plan depends on the town reclaiming the building, the building is town property. That means any decisions regarding its fate are the jurisdiction of the mayor and the Legislative Council. ACES Executive Director Thomas Danehy has been in talks with Hamden Mayor Curt Leng about possibly buying the building; Leng may still decide to sell the school to ACES. That would force the school board to adapt the redistricting plan.

However, talks have not yet produced a result. In a statement to the Independent this week, the mayor wrote that “while we worked ourselves closer over the course of numerous meetings and communications, to date we have not found a financial package that could justify the Town selling this 600 pupil school on 16 acres.”

According to ACES marketing and outreach director Evelyn Rossetti-Ryan, ACES has reached out to the mayor and has heard nothing from him in the last week. She said that there had been “incredibly long lapses” in waiting for responses from the mayor. She added that, though the mayor keeps saying negotiations are ongoing, she’s beginning to lose hope that the town is still seriously considering the sale.

On Tuesday, Leng told the Independent that “about 10 days ago, ACES contacted me and withdrew their last offer from the table. This came as a surprise. I hope they will continue the conversation and based on difficult, but productive, previous discussions, believe they will.”

Leng added that he has prepared a new proposal, and ACES will have it “by week’s end.”

In the meantime, teachers and students and administrators at Wintergreen are hoping to preserve what they consider a special place for learning and community. Wintergreen from the start has had its own model, its own approach to education, which has evolved with time from a cutting-edge tech-adopting school to one with an arts focus.

Early Experimentation

When ACES opened the Wintergreen school in 1998, it did so in partnership with the Edison Project. While ACES essentially served as the school district, the Edison Project managed the curriculum.

The Edison Project, founded in the early 1990s, pursued a for-profit education model in other contexts. It believed that it could raise achievement standards for students, using research-based methods, and turn a profit doing so.

Wintergreen was the first Edison Project school in Connecticut; at the time it was at the cutting edge of pedagogy. While Connecticut’s public schools had 180-day school years, Wintergreen had a 205-day year. The school day was longer too by half an hour. Like other Edison Project schools, it had a technology focus. According to a New York Times article from 1998, students in their second year received desktop computers that they took home, and which their families were also supposed to use.

As a magnet school that drew from multiple districts, it was devoted to diversity of all kinds. It also promised closer contact between educators and families. Capping off the innovation, Spanish was offered starting in kindergarten.

When ACES began its 20-year lease with Hamden, the building was smaller than it is now, and in a state of disrepair. The grass was overgrown; cats lived in the dilapidated rooms. The first year, the school offered only kindergarten through fourth grade. Over the following summer, ACES expanded the building and did extensive renovations so that grades 5-8 could be added in the fall. It has since added a playground, an HVAC system, and carpeting, among other things.

Hamden resident Kyle Blake had a daughter at the Ridge Hill School when Wintergreen opened in 1998. Though she loved Ridge Hill, it had become overcrowded. Wintergreen seemed like a good opportunity, so she decided to apply.

When her daughter was accepted, Blake became head of the PTO at the school. It was a small, close-knit community back then. Blake said the principal kept a spreadsheet with every student in the school and checked off each time a student participated in a certain activity, like a leadership role or a chance to broadcast from the school’s TV station. By the time each student graduated, the principal made sure the students had a chance to try every opportunity in the school. Blake also loved how well the arts were integrated into the curriculum.

Blake recalled how the school would spend a few weeks every year studying a single topic in depth, with each grade level taking on a different aspect of the subject and educating the others. That tradition, she said, no longer exists.

Blake’s daughter graduated in 2003, the year that ACES decided not to renew its contract with the Edison Project. Edison was struggling financially, losing contracts all over the country. ACES would take full control of the school and continue the curriculum that Edison had begun.

Blake opposed ACES taking over the curriculum. “I thought Edison was really really a cut above,” she told the Independent. She did not have the same faith in ACES that she’d had in Edison.

From Tech To Arts

Over the 15 years since Blake’s daughter graduated, some parts of the original Wintergreen vision have stayed intact, while others have been victim to budget cuts. The school has also made up for some losses with new additions to the curriculum.

Among the losses are the longer school year and Spanish starting in kindergarten. The school year is now the same as Hamden’s public schools; Spanish is offered only to 7th and 8th graders.

Both were partly the result of budget cuts, and have made members of the Hamden school board concerned that Wintergreen is no longer the school they originally supported in 1998.

Yet other parts of the original vision have remained. The school still relies heavily on technology; the devices have been updated since the days of the desktop. Every K-3 student gets his or her own iPad, while third-through-eighth graders all get their own Chromebooks. Starting in sixth grade, they can take them home, and they have the option of purchasing them.

As a magnet school, Wintergreen is supposed to offer something that other schools don’t, to attract parents from multiple districts. While the longer school year and the technology focus used to be Wintergreen’s two main unique features, the longer year no longer exists, and the technology focus is no longer as unique as it was in the late ‘90s.

In the last two years, Wintergreen has begun to champion the arts as its focus, although the arts have been an integral part of the curriculum since the beginning.

According to Ellinger-Doviak, who has been at the school since it opened, the arts focus in the early years came from creative teachers. It happened “kind of naturally.”

ACES Assistant Executive Director William Rice said that the school had always had theatrical productions twice a year, as well as bands. “These performing arts were permeating through the program,” so they decided to ramp up the arts focus, which already existed, and officially make it the school’s theme, Rice said. Influenced by research that showed the benefits of arts education for students’ development, the school has tried to bring the arts into every subject as much as possible.

The school has both strengthened the arts offerings that already existed and added new ones. This year it added dance class for the first time. In fifth grade, every student picks an instrument to start. Students have two specials classes, now called “essentials,” every day. These include art, music, physical fitness, and dance. The school also recently began a partnership with Crayola to help them integrate art into the classroom.

The theatrical productions have continued, and picked up steam. Last year, the school put on a production of Beauty and the Beast at the Educational Center for the Arts (ECA), an arts magnet school in New Haven run by ACES. Principal Todd Solli said that the growing focus on the arts will allow further partnerships with ECA, and will allow some Wintergreen students to feed right into ECA upon graduation.

A Girl Named Sally

At around 2:30 p.m. the other day, first-grade teacher Amy Perrone rang a small chime to let her students know that snack was over. After she had given each table a squirt from a translucent spray bottle, her students grabbed paper towels and wiped off the tables. A girl and a boy pin-wheeled around one of the tables, singing and chasing each other as they slid their paper towels across the surface.

Once the tables were clean, Perrone called the class over to the corner to sit in a circle for “second step.” She and her colleagues use second step, a social and emotional development program, twice daily to help students navigate their relationships and build community.

This time, they were discussing a story about a girl named Sally.

Like Ellinger-Doviak, Perrone has been at the school since the very beginning. This year she was ACES teacher of the year.

She explained that more and more parents seek out Wintergreen because of its environment, an environment that is “hard to describe because it’s more of a feeling.” People have each other’s backs at Wintergreen, she explained. She added that it’s a restorative environment, where teachers help students work through their problems and fix any harm they’ve caused.

One only has to step into the school to feel what Perrone means. Many of the classroom doors remain open, and students skip, singing, down the halls. “It’s nice to hear kids singing and happy,” Ellinger-Doviak said when asked about the open doors.

A wide range of events, offerings, and traditions help foster the sense of community that is so apparent at Wintergreen. The school hosts numerous events throughout the year for families. Every year begins and ends with a food-truck palooza, in which local food trucks set up outside the school alongside bouncy houses, laser tag, and other games for families. Every Halloween the school hosts a “trunk-or-treat” in the parking lot, where families decorate their cars’ trunks according to a theme and then kids trick-or-treat among them. Every May, the school hosts an international festival, where families come in and set up booths representing their cultures through food, crafts, and other cultural practices. There is also a school-wide television broadcast every morning led by the students.

Wintergreen prides itself on its diversity. The school has a total K-8 population of 547 students. Of those 547, around 44 percent are African American, 21 percent are Hispanic/Latinx, 19 percent are white, 4 percent are Asian, and 12 percent are of another or unspecified race. 72 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.

For many students and parents, the school’s diversity is a highlight. William Rice, the ACES assistant executive director, said he chose to send three kids there in part because of that diversity.

Jaiden Patrick, Anthony Hernandez, and Gabe Roman sat around a table in Joe Whiting’s 8th-grade language arts class one afternoon last week. They, too, spoke of how they like the diversity. They also liked the fact that even in eighth grade, they still have a lot of friends from kindergarten. The three of them were in kindergarten together, and here they were, eight years later, still friends and still in the same class.

The arts focus is also very attractive for many parents. Marie Chiban, who has a son in first grade, said she believes that the arts “are important skills for the brain development.” She said her son loves to go to school, and he has recently begun to love reading and writing. “I feel that when we’re happy learning, that’s what matters,” she told the Independent.

Money’s Tight

When the town announced its plans to take the Wintergreen building back from ACES, it took many parents by surprise. Over the course of the fall, parents began to voice their opposition to the town’s decision. Many parents, eager to express their love for the school, have shown up to school board meetings en masse to protest the town’s decision.

New Haven resident Sandra Fitzpatrick, who has two kids at the school, said that at first, ACES did not appear to put up a fight to keep the building. But when it figured out that parents would be willing to fight, it began to help them organize. It made “ACES WIMS works!” shirts, and began to keep close contact with parents about the redistricting plans.

From the town’s perspective, however, the partnership with ACES does not make sense anymore. The district is struggling with decreased state funding for public education and declining school enrollment. It also has been notified by the state that three district elementary schools have “racial imbalances.”

In order to deal with all of these pressures, the board decided it needed to close two schools and incorporate the Wintergreen school into the district. Using the building as another district school would be a significant boon for the town. It would allow all the special-needs students to be under one roof with access to adequate resources. It would also be home to students from the Church Street and Shepherd Glen schools, which are supposed to close. Planning documents also note that the Wintergreen building is in much better condition than many of the town’s public elementary schools, thanks to the work ACES has done on the building.

Incorporating the Wintergreen school will allow the town to save money on the tuition it pays ACES to send Hamden students there. Under the current arrangement, ACES leases the building from the town essentially for free (technically $1 a year). The state provides some funding, while the town pays the rest, based on the number of students it sends there.

The town has operated under the assumption that 70 percent of the Hamden parents who send their children to Wintergreen will send their children instead to district schools if WIMS relocates. That would save the town a significant amount because of the tuitions it would no longer have to pay. However, a survey conducted by WIMS parents showed that only around 5% of Hamden Wintergreen parents plan to send their kids to Hamden public schools if ACES has to relocate WIMS, meaning the savings would be significantly less than the town’s models predict.

The tuition the town has had to pay ACES has increased over recent years because of decreases in state funding for magnet schools. Last year, ACES received $7,900 per student from the state. As a result of plans to drop state funding further, ACES budgeted for a 7.5 percent decrease in state funding for the 2018-2019 school year

That meant it had to increase the amount it charged the town. “Even though we get decreases on the state side, it’s never apples to apples on the town side,” Rice said. That is, ACES simply has to absorb some of the losses itself. Nonetheless, ACES did modestly increase the tuition that the town pays.

Principal Todd Solli was hopeful, though, that funding will stabilize. In February, he went to D.C. to lobby lawmakers to stop pulling funding from magnet schools. He said that many politicians had confused magnet schools with charter schools. While charter schools are for-profit, magnet schools are non-profit, he explained. The trip appeared to be successful, and he does not anticipate any more declines in funding.

Lagging Scores

Many town officials have also been dissatisfied with the Wintergreen school’s performance. Indeed, based on the state’s assessments, WIMS has trailed behind Hamden public schools recently. The state uses the Next Generation Accountability System to keep track of school performance. The system takes 12 factors into account (though not all apply at the primary school level), including standardized test scores, growth in test scores, and how many students are chronically absent. By using a point system, the scores on the various assessment factors are aggregated to give an overall score for each school and for each district, represented as a percentage.

The results of the 2016-2017 school year were released in February, 2018. While the Hamden School District overall received a score of 72 percent, Wintergreen received a score of 61.6 percent, and was the lowest-scoring elementary school in Hamden. The only school in the district that scored lower than Wintergreen was Hamden Middle School. The district elementary schools had scores ranging from 62 percent (Ridge Hill) to 82.3 percent (Bear Path).

The Shepherd Glen School can be used for a more direct comparison. Like Wintergreen, it has a diverse student body and a high percentage of students who qualify for free or reduced lunch. Should the town take the Wintergreen building, it will close, and many of its students will instead go to Wintergreen.

Shepherd Glen had a total score of 75.3 percent. Its English Language Arts index, which is based on a conglomeration of standardized test scores, was 4.9 points higher than Wintergreen’s, and its math index was 13.3 points higher, though Shepherd Glen trailed by 2.8 points on science.

On the Smarter Balanced assessment, a test administered to students in grades 3-8, about 51 percent of Shepherd Glen students were at or above grade level in English language arts, while Wintergreen had only 41.7 percent at that level. Wintergreen fared even worse on math. While Shepherd Glen had about 42 percent at or above grade level, Wintergreen had only 21.5 percent.

However, it should be noted that seventh and eighth graders are included in Wintergreen’s scores while they are not in Shepherd Glen’s. Were Hamden Middle School students to be included in the Shepherd Glen scores, they would likely be lower, as the middle school was the lowest performing school in the district. 

In addition, not all parents love Wintergreen. One former Wintergreen parent told the Independent that she pulled her son from the school after he was bullied. She said she had friends who had also been dissatisfied with the school. While one still has a child at the school, two others decided to leave the school and send their children elsewhere.

Building “Doesn’t Make A School”

Nonetheless, ACES and many Wintergreen parents remain committed to the school. ACES has promised that it will continue to operate the program, even if it is forced to do so in a different location. 

Mayor Leng said that he and the town “owe it to the parents, students and staff at the school, and our taxpayers, to fully explore every single option.”

“Hamden and ACES came to the table in good faith to work on a potential agreement,” Leng wrote to the Independent. “While the window is closing, there is still an opportunity for a successful sale, which would save Wintergreen Magnet School and provide Hamden the financial resources to save Shepherd Glen. If the financial package is right for the Town and the BOE, it could be a win-win.”

But if he and ACES don’t come to an agreement, ACES will have to find another location for the program starting in the next school year.

“Our hope is to have the school stay there,” Rice said, “but we are actively analyzing other possibilities.” He said he could not discuss details because that could jeopardize real estate transactions.

If it comes to that, the Wintergreen staff will do everything it can to keep the Wintergreen program alive and well. Though he would like to keep the building, Principal Todd Solli said, “it’s not a building, what makes a school.” Rather, it’s the students, the families, and the staff.

For Ellinger-Doviak, the town’s decision could end her 21 years in the Wintergreen building. It would be sad to lose a place with so many memories. “This has been a part of us for so long. It’s the Wintergreen School,” she said of the building.

But in the end, she added, it’s really just a space. “We’ll make it happen; we’ll still be Wintergreen.”

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posted by: Sabrina-in-NewHaven on December 22, 2018  4:40pm

Wintergreen has been a model for innovation and forward-thinking child-centered schooling here in Greater New Haven. It is a shame that this model can not be replicated. The idea of a magnet school is great and all but the ultimate goal should be for every child to have an experience that is academic and enriched with arts, dance, music and STEM exposure. If Wintergreen can be vulnerable to this type of decision making it is no wonder other schools are losing.