Open Schools program scaled back

It was Tuesday evening at the Celentano Museum Academy on Canner Street, and all was chaos and noise. Loud music and screams sounded from the gym, kids raced the hallways and the school’s roaming security guard did not seem to care. School, of course, had ended.

“Just another day,” Tiant Ellison, the on-site supervisor, said. “Every other day something happens with boys.”

As part of the New Haven’s Open Schools Initiative — which keeps four elementary and middle schools open during the year from 4 to 8 p.m. — these boys and many students can be found at school after hours Monday through Friday playing basketball, getting homework help and even taking dance and martial arts classes. But the city’s budget shortfall has forced officials to change plans — only eight schools are expected to be open this summer, Deputy Chief of Staff and Director of Youth Services Che Dawson said, despite a January statement by Mayor John DeStefano Jr. indicating plans to add 10 schools to the initiative.

DeStefano pushed heavily to establish the program in 2007. The number of open schools open fluctuates throughout the year depending on demand and space availability, said Dawson, who is also director of the city’s Department of Youth and the Open Schools Initiative. The schools to remain open this summer, including Beecher School and Ross/Woodward School, were announced Monday.

“Young people needed a safe place in the community to go to — a safe place to engage in recreational activity where they are off the streets,” Dawson said. “We wanted to maximize the use of some of our biggest resources in the community, which are the public schools.”

Over 700 kids between the ages of 9 and 18 participated in the Open Schools Initiative during its first two months, and Dawson said about 50 to 100 students stop by the schools on a nightly basis. He said after-school supervision is provided by part-time employees, such as Ellison, with their supervision teams. Ellison’s team is comprised of an assistant director and two student workers.

“I just wanted to help some kids out and get some money in my pocket,” said Derrell Stinson, a 15-year-old student worker and member of Ellison’s supervision team. “They are good and I’m usually here to help out. It’s all fun and I feel like I’m making a difference.”

Overseen by the newly created Department of Youth, Open Schools is part of the mayor’s broader Youth Initiative program, which is aimed at supporting students with community resources as a response to increased incidents of violence between city youth in the past several years. The Youth Initiative program includes Youth @ Work, the group that helped connect Stinson with the Open Schools Initiative.

“A large part of the violence reduction plan is giving our kids positive choices after school, on the weekends and during the summer,” DeStefano wrote in his 2008-’09 budget. “This program provides youth activities in a safe, supervised and structured environment.

At a Youth Services Meeting on Wednesday, aldermen and city officials discussed the lack of recreational environments for students after school hours. Budgetary concerns have forced the city to cut back on community centers and social places for students in recent years, including the Chapel Square Mall, which was closed in 2006.

“One of the things that came out was a lot of anger on part of the young people, and they sort of looked at the alderman though it was our fault, saying that we took away their mall,” Ward 7 Alderwoman Frances “Bitsie” Clark said at the meeting. “These kids have nowhere to go.”

Anthony Draper, 16, agreed, saying that before Open Schools began, teens did not have a safe place to spend time after school, which he said often led to boredom or promoted risky activities.

Administrators said the Open Schools Initiative will expand in the coming years to keep more schools open during the year.

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