State may get new charter schools

Charter schools may soon be on the rise in New Haven and statewide.

Twenty-four groups across the state interested in opening new charter schools sent letters of intent to the Connecticut Board of Education in advance of the Board’s formal request for proposals scheduled for later this month. Of the 24 letters, four concern plans for schools in New Haven.

Though charter school enrollment in Connecticut has increased steadily since the first charter schools opened in 1997, less than 2 percent of all public school students in the state are currently enrolled in charter schools. The number of students on waitlists has consistently outstripped enrollment increases, a pattern illustrated by figures released from New Haven’s enrollment lottery. Last year, 528 families vied for 80 kindergarten spots at Amistad Academy, while Elm City College Prep saw 307 students competing for 57 spots. Both are charter schools that accept only New Haven residents.

Leaders of the four New Haven charter initiatives emphasized the flexibility and increased parental choice afforded by charter schools. But before the proposals can become reality, they must first be approved by the state Board of Education, a hurdle complicated by uncertain funding and resistance from teachers unions.

 

BEATING THE ACHIEVEMENT GAP

The four charter schools proposed for New Haven spawn a range of grades and focuses, but all seek to provide new options for parents who Eldren D. Morrison, the pastor at Varick Memorial A.ME. Zion Church, said currently lack quality school choices for their children.

Morrison’s brainchild,  the Booker T. Washington Academy, will serve pre-K to fourth-grade students primarily in the Dixwell neighborhood, which Morrison described as the “crime quarter” of the city. He said his proposal is a response to his neighborhood’s critical need for early childhood education and will act as an anchor in a community that’s being torn apart by violence.

As achievement gaps can be traced back to the third and fourth grades, Morrison said better school choice should start with young children. He added that smaller class sizes — in conjunction with family support services — will help raise expectations for the city’s youth.

The Whitney Young Leadership Academy for Boys — another New Haven charter school proposal — aims to tackle the problem of violence and the widening achievement gap by focusing on an older age group, said Valerie Shultz-Wilson, president and CEO of the Urban League of Southern Connecticut. ULSC began devising the plan for a new urban charter school after a 2007 black male achievement summit in Stamford, Conn., heightened concerns about the high incarceration rate among black boys. The proposed all-boys school would serve grades nine through 12.

“[The] dropout rate needs to be reversed for boys of color in this city.” Schultz-Wilson said. “We’re looking at a group of high-school-age boys who are either dying or being locked up because they’ve been failed by the system.  Put simply, we don’t have the capacity to incarcerate them all.”

The third proposal, for a math and science academy, is the work of Ismail Agirman and Fatih Mercan GRD ’11 and boasts an advisory board that includes Deputy Connecticut House Speaker Kevin Ryan and Yale Police Department Chief Ronnell Higgins. Tentatively titled Connecticut Academy of Math and Sciences, or CAMS, the school would serve grades seven to 12 and emphasize science and engineering skills.

“CAMS would have longer school days and a longer school year,” Mercan said. “Time is the biggest factor in math and science education, and New Haven kids are really lagging behind.”

With a range of education resources already in place, New Haven-based SmartStart Education LLC is well-situated to spearhead the charter school initiative, said SmartStart president Isaak Aronson. A private education consulting group that runs its own online high school, SmartStart has had plans for a local charter school promoting empowerment, self-efficacy and college readiness for a number of years, said Aronson.

Aronson said the charter school model allows for greater flexibility in curriculum and hiring practices than that of the traditional public school.

“The public school system works for a lot of kids, but it’s monolithic in the sense that the New Haven Public Schools standardizes the curriculum across the whole school district,” Aronson said. “A charter school can offer parents more specific choices and also adapt more quickly to children’s specific needs without getting everything sanctioned by the school district.”

 

AN UPHILL BATTLE

Charter schools, which receive less state funding than traditional public schools, face an uphill battle procuring funds, particularly from cash-strapped state legislatures.

Jo Lutz, the director of the Connecticut Charter School Network, now merging with the New York Chapter into the Northeast Charter School Network, said charter schools receive around 25 percent less funding from the state than other district schools receive.

The state Board of Education’s current budget proposal includes funding for at least two new charter schools, estimating that each will seat around 850 students at a cost of $11,500 per person. But charter schools — which have their own line item in the state budget, recently cut to $10,200 per student — do not benefit from the education cost sharing formula that allocates money to other public schools, Lutz said.

“Funding is the biggest thing that has held charters back, and that’s why we’ve been a historically slow-growing charter state,” Lutz said. “But I’m optimistic because when you want to find funding for something in the state budget, you usually can.”

Schultz-Wilson said the Whitney Young Leadership Academy for Boys aims to draw on the resources of ULSC’s corporate partners and philanthropists in addition to state funding. ULSC’s proposal draws on the example of similar same-sex schools in Baltimore and Chicago, she added.

Though charters are granted by the state Board of Education, the schools operate independently of both local and state boards. While charters are public and receive public money, they are not subject to school district statutes and regulations. New charter schools would also circumvent the need to hire unionized teachers, Aronson said.

But according to New Haven Federation of Teachers President Dave Cicarella, NHPS teachers are not forced to belong to the union.

“Union membership is optional,” he said. “But the service fee to the union is mandatory because we still provide services to teachers who don’t wish to belong like negotiating their contracts.”

Cicarella said he was “very worried” about the prospect of new charter schools in the city.

“Charter schools say to their teachers, ‘Here’s the contract and here’s what we’re going to pay you,’ and we have a concern about that,” Cicarella said.

But Aronson said that a teachers union would prevent a charter school’s administration from making flexible curriculum and staff changes. If an individual charter school had to negotiate with a union, he said, the union would certainly win.

According to Lutz, teachers in three of the state’s 17 charter schools are unionized.

Clarification: Jan. 28

A previous version of this article stated that Jo Lutz is the director of the Connecticut Charter School Network. That organization is currently in the process of merging with the New York chapter of the network into the Northeast Charter School Network.

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