After a years-long effort to start a new charter school in Dixwell-Newhallville, Reverend Eldren Morrison got state approval on Wednesday to open the school next fall.
Morrison’s proposal for Booker T. Washington Academy in New Haven was among the four charter school proposals that the Connecticut State Board of Education approved by unanimous vote at its meeting on Wednesday. Two of the approved schools — Booker T. Washington and Great Oaks Charter School in Bridgeport — are set to open this year, while the other two, in Bridgeport and Stamford, will open the following fall.
The Board’s approval was met with enthusiasm from parents, educators and community activists who had crowded the State Department of Education building on Wednesday to advocate for the proposals.
“It was such an exciting atmosphere,” said Booker T. Washington Academy board member Chaka Felder-McEntire. “You can’t shout and scream in [the building], but everyone was definitely very excited. There were a lot of hugs and a lot of handshakes.”
As a Pastor at Varick Memorial AME Zion Church, Morrison first came up with the idea for the charter school back in 2008, with the goal of boosting the academic achievement of minority students.
In his proposal for the school, Morrison teamed up with Family Urban Schools of Excellence (FUSE), the organization that runs the Jumoke charter schools in Hartford. The school’s gubernatorial board has hired FUSE to implement the Jumoke model, which focuses on strong family outreach and development of the “whole child.”
“Being out in the community and seeing that our kids weren’t reading at grade level, I was realizing that we had really failed our own kids,” Morrison said. “I thought that we can definitely do a whole lot better.”
He added that the school is named after the founder of the Tuskegee Institute, a historically black college in Alabama. He called Washington the “epitome of the example to set for kids.”
The school is set to open on Blake Street this September, with 300 students in grades pre-K through 3. The school will add on one grade level each year to serve up to eighth grade by 2019.
Charter schools are tuition-free schools that admit students on a blind lottery system, accepting all students regardless of academic ability. Charter schools operate independent of the public school system, but they must perform up to state education standards in order to stay open.
Michael Sharpe, Chief Executive Officer of FUSE, said that charter schools provide an important alternative education option.
“Kids should be able to go to a great charter school, a great private school, a great public school or a great magnet school,” he said. “If you look at any model of things that are successful in America, it’s based on the fact that people have a choice. People should have that same choice when it comes to education.”
Sharpe has worked for charter schools for over 18 years, and he said the Jumoke model is successful because of its rigor and focus on enrichment activities. Students have the option of coming to school for part of the day on Saturday, when they focus on language arts, mathematics and English. After school, kids can choose from a range of enrichment activities, including debate, strings ensemble and cooking club.
Sharpe said that both the after-school program and the Saturday sessions will be part of Booker T. Washington’s model. The new school’s proposal also calls for smaller class sizes, teaching assistants in every classroom and more parental engagement, all of which Morrison said he believes will improve academic achievement.
In addition to increasing academic achievement, Booker T. Washington will have a positive impact on the Dixwell-Newhallville neighborhood, Morrison said.
“I think this is part of the solution to youth violence issues,” he said. “A school like this will get the kids before they grow and start copying the bad elements that they see around them.”
FUSE currently operates five different charter schools in Hartford.