With clearance from the state board of education, New Haven’s newest charter school managed to open its doors Wednesday morning — five days ahead of schedule.
The state first approved the charter school, Booker T. Washington Academy, as a pre-K to 2 school with 225 students. But after a scandal led BTWA to sever ties with the organization it had originally hired to run the school, the state placed new limitations on BTWA, including a later start date and limited enrollment of 120 students in kindergarten and first grade.
But this week, the State Board of Education granted the school’s request to open earlier than the planned Sept. 15 date because the school had completed all required documentation and demonstrated that it was prepared to welcome the new students, said school director John Taylor. Taylor said that despite late bus arrivals on Wednesday morning, the first day of school was a success.
“It was great news to be able to tell the parents that we could open up early,” Taylor said. “The first few days are all about establishing the classroom environment. The schools that get that right are the higher performing schools.”
Taylor explained that the first few days of class are dedicated to teaching students proper behavior in the classroom, such as the protocol for switching between classrooms or preparing for lunch.
Following the school’s opening on Wednesday, the State Director of Northeast Charter Schools Network Jeremiah Grace issued a statement in support of the school, noting that the founders of the school have “overcome obstacles that they never expected but have emerged victorious.”
The obstacles sprung up over the summer during a scandal involving the Hartford-based company Family Urban Schools of Excellence that was originally charged with managing the school. The board cut ties with FUSE after it became apparent that the company’s CEO, Michael Sharpe, had a criminal background and had lied about his educational achievements.
Because the state had originally approved BTWA’s proposal assuming its affiliation with FUSE, BTWA rushed to put together a revised proposal for the state to review before the beginning of the school year. The Board hired Taylor and the consulting firm Yardstick Learning to manage the school to replace FUSE.
Though the last-minute scramble for new management created some anxiety, school founder Reverend Eldren Morrison said that it had a limited impact on the school itself.
“What happened at FUSE was certainly a tragedy,” Morrison said. “But I don’t think the fallout was so dramatic for us because the school year had not started and we were able to really go back to the tenets of Booker T., like making sure our kids get the best education possible.”
Taylor said that while the FUSE scandal likely caused some parents to pull their kids out of the school, he did not notice a “mass out-migration” after the fallout. He did note that because the state board required the school to limit enrollment to K-1, some parents who had originally enrolled their pre-k or second grade-aged children in the school were forced to pull out.
In early August, just after the state approved of the revised charter, the school only had 74 students enrolled, but during the last few weeks of the summer, the school’s board members canvassed, did radio ads and attended community functions to fill the remaining 48 slots.
Currently, the school has 120 students enrolled, roughly 90 percent of whom are minority students, Morrison estimated.
A pastor at Varick Memorial AME Zion Church, Morrison said he first decided to open the charter school to provide better academic opportunities to minority students in the Dixwell-Newhallville neighborhood.
BTWA is currently leasing a building on Greene Street from the charter school network Achievement First, but Morrison said the school will move to 400 Blake St. next year, once construction on that site is complete.
BTWA was one of two charter schools to open in New Haven this fall. Elm City Montessori School opened at 375 Quinnipiac Ave. as a local charter.