Despite wind and snow, hundreds of community members filled the auditorium of John S. Martinez Magnet School on Monday evening. Parents, educators, students and local officials convened for the Board of Education’s community hearing regarding New Haven Public Schools’ controversial proposition for a collaboration with the charter school group Achievement First.
At the heart of Achievement First’s proposal is their plan for the new, experimental K-5 charter school, “Elm City Imagine.” Pending approval by the Board of Education, the school would open its doors this fall to welcome its first kindergarten class. Since its announcement in January, the organization’s proposed partnership with NHPS has sparked considerable debate, prompting media campaigns both for and against the project in the days leading up to Monday night’s meeting.
Taking the stage at the beginning of Monday’s meeting was Achievement First CEO Dacia Toll, who attempted to address what she called the “understandable misinformation” about Elm City Imagine, which she said stemmed from recent media coverage of the issue.
With members of the Board of Education, including Mayor Toni Harp, taking the front row, Toll walked audience members through the Elm City Imagine design. She also gave responses to the most contentious “equity issues” that had come to the front of the debate, such as high suspension rates, significant numbers of student transfers and fewer students enrolled in special education as compared to traditional NHPS public schools.
“We have worked really hard to come up with, I think, creative and thoughtful solutions to those challenges,” Toll said.
Transience — the rate at which students leave AF public charter schools in favor of traditional, local public schools — was one major criticism brought against the proposal.
In a January interview with the News, President of New Haven Federation of Teachers David Cicarella said charter schools, like those run by Achievement First, routinely expel students with disciplinary issues. This, he said, causes undue burden on traditional public schools, which must accept all students regardless of their behavior.
“Sometimes it’s been said that we send kids back, or we kick them out,” Toll said at the Monday evening meeting. “Ask any Achievement First educator — we don’t do that. But some of them still do [transfer], and that’s their right.”
Toll cited a rate of transience around 2 percent across all charter schools run by Achievement First, about 1 percent higher than that of the general charter school community.
Harp praised Toll and Achievement First for responding to and using recent criticism in a way she said was likely to lead to progress.
Following Toll’s presentation, 43 community members participated in a public comment session, speaking either in favor or against the proposed collaboration with AF. Educators and parents from both traditional public and Achievement First charter schools took the stage in two-minute increments to express their opinions.
Keisha Redd-Hannans, principle of Celentano Magnet School in New Haven, expressed concern for the financial capacity of the district as a whole and was greeted with applause from fellow opponents of Elm City Imagine when she questioned the dedication to public education of NHPS Superintendent Garth Harries ’95. Redd-Hannans said the money that would otherwise go to Elm City Imagine should instead go towards currently struggling public schools.
In her presentation to the audience, Toll announced a decrease in NHPS’ contribution per student should the partnership be approved, putting the revised figure at $700 per student, down from earlier estimates closer to $2,000. The remaining amount, Toll said, would come from state grants and private fundraising.
“This is about ensuring there are schools that meet the needs of all students. I’ve looked at the opposition, and frankly, it looks political,” said Gwendolyn Samuel, of Meriden, Conn., chairperson of the Connecticut Parents’ Union. Although she personally supported Elm City Imagine, Samuel added that the decision should be left up to the community of New Haven.
Following further discussions in the upcoming Feb. 17 meetings of the Governance and Finance & Operation Committees of the BOE, the board is slated to set a date for a final vote on the partnership.
Correction: Feb. 10
A previous version of the article incorrectly attributed a 1 percent rate of transience to traditional NHPS public schools. That figure belongs to the general charter school community, outside of those run by Achievement First.