New Haven residents urged the Board of Alders to accept Mayor Toni Harp’s proposal to build a new public elementary school on the campus of Southern Connecticut State University at a Finance Committee hearing on Thursday.
In last spring’s city budget submitted to the alders, Harp proposed building a new Strong Magnet School to replace its current location in The Hill. But after a protracted budget fight, alders rejected the proposal, even though the lion’s share of its funding would have come from the state. Harp re-proposed the school in her budget for fiscal year 2017, forcing the alders to reconsider the issue. The proposal to bond $10.6 million in funding for the school’s construction is identical to the proposal Harp presented to the alders last spring.
Residents who spoke at Thursday’s hearing at the Augusta Troup School on Edgewood Avenue said a new Strong School on the campus of SCSU would be a vast improvement to its current cramped quarters in The Hill.
Emma Woods, a special education teacher at the Strong School who works with autistic children, said her small classroom hinders her ability to help students.
“They need to learn how to … take in the world around them, how to function in a socially acceptable way,” Woods told the alders. “You can imagine that this would be difficult under the best circumstances. Now imagine it with a gym class happening right outside your door.”
Whenever a student becomes aggressive, Woods said, she must move all other students into the hallway due to the classroom’s small size. She said a larger classroom — like those the proposed new Strong School would house — would have enough space to cordon off aggressive students without disrupting the rest of the class.
Charles Warner Jr., a school climate specialist at Strong, said approving a school on the SCSU campus would allow the city to fulfill its promise to encourage matriculation to college among public school students. Warner, a graduate of Hill Regional Career High School and Morehouse College, said a new Strong School would provide its students with the resources and facilities he enjoyed as a teenager.
“These young people need an environment where they can be challenged daily to achieve,” Warner said. “New Haven has made a commitment to push its young people until they attend college, and this is right in with that.”
Warner noted that many cities across the country have developed lab schools on college campuses. The University of Chicago; Columbia University; and the University of California, Los Angeles all have lab schools on their campuses, he said.
SCSU Dean of the School of Education Stephen Hegedus said the Strong School proposal represents “a groundbreaking effort … to make a concerted effort that will impact the lives of our children in New Haven.”
Hegedus said a school on SCSU’s campus would allow students in the New Haven Public Schools district, NHPS teachers and SCSU undergraduates to work closely with each other in the same environment. Wood added that being on a college campus would provide her access to new educational methods and techniques currently unavailable at The Hill location.
Will Clark, the NHPS chief operating officer, compared the proposed Strong School to the existing Troup School. The Troup School, he said, is a cornerstone of Edgewood; the Strong School, if built, can be the same for its neighborhood in Amity.
Carlos Torre, a former BOE president and current member, spoke in favor of the Strong School proposal, arguing that its approval would benefit students, parents and the Elm City.
But New Haven resident and budget watchdog Ken Joyner was dubious of the proposal.
“This is the identical proposal that the aldermen rejected last year,” Joyner said. “Now, the City has come before you in this budget proposing to make a new attempt to bond the $10.6 million for the Strong School without providing to you any documentation for why this proposal is any more valid than the one they proposed last year.”
Joyner’s remarks on the Strong School were part of his extended testimony on the city’s capital budget — funds allotted to construction. He criticized the city for a “lack of accountability” on its spending plans, and especially its apparent inefficacy in addressing the city’s $808 million debt.
The Finance Committee will hold its next meeting in City Hall on Monday evening.