Support and Skepticism in Achievement First Debate

Toll AF

A proposed Achievement First school expected to reduce New Haven’s in-district class sizes, has been billed as a public/charter collaboration, but among residents who attended last night’s Board of Education meeting, a dividing line has been drawn.

The issue is over whether or not New Haven Public Schools should be directing funds-a projected $700 for each of the 550 students that will attend Elm City Imagine, the proposed Achievement First school-to a charter network when the district’s own educators describe having to work with less resources. The state will be covering most of it, to the tune of about $6 million-or, $11,000 per student.

But a dip in class sizes-by an anticipated 3 students for every classroom at 5 to 9 of the district’s most “highly challenged” schools-will create more budgetary wiggle room, says Achievement First President Dacia Toll.

“If these 550 students were to stay in the district, New Haven would spend a lot more money to educate them,” Toll said.

New Haven teachers and parents-many from the New Haven Educators’ Collective, a group opposed to the proposal-packed the back of the John S. Martinez School cafeteria where the meeting was held. Other attendees wore stickers that voiced their support for Elm City Imagine. More than 40 people-of at least 100 that attended-came to the podium during the public comments segment for a debate that saw many from both sides speak out.

“I believe in more quality options,” said New Haven Alder Daryl Brackeen Jr., a life-long New Haven resident who attended the city’s public schools. “This is not shutting the door on other opportunities within the New Haven school district.”

Jennifer Wells Jackson, a New Haven resident who works as a literacy coach, was among those who disagree. She says that the district should be focused on providing its own schools with “21st century technology”, academic support for struggling students, counselors, and social workers.

“These are my children,” Jackson said. “We need to ensure that students that are performing low receive the assistance that they need.”

There’s nothing wrong with creating more options, but that does not need to happen at the expense of students in the district, opponents of the plan say.

“I’d like to refocus on the 21,000 students we have in the [New Haven] school system,” said Megan Ifill, a city resident and parent. “I would encourage the Board to not get distracted by one school for such a small segment of the population.”

Eric Maroney, a New Haven public school teacher, likened the proposal to “the Keystone Pipeline of education”.

“Or, a commitment to continuing in the wrong direction,” Maroney said.

That being what he and other opponents of the proposal see as a step toward school privatization at the expense of more vulnerable populations such as English Language Learners, (ELL) and those with special education needs. Achievement First itself has drawn criticism from those who allege that they do not properly accommodate those students.

“‘Why do charters remain attractive to administrators and the corporate backers?” Maroney said. “The answer: money.”

Between 5 and 10 percent of those who attend at Achievement First’s New Haven schools fall are ELL students, compared to 13 percent in-district, according to Toll. But she does not attribute that to outbound transfers.

“It’s not because students are leaving, it’s because they are learning to read and write in English,” she said during a presentation given prior to the meeting’s public comments segment.

In New Haven Public Schools, 11 percent of students receive special education services, while between 6 to 8 percent of Achievement First’s New Haven students fall into that category. Toll could not say for sure, but she suspects that might not necessarily indicate a negative trend either.

“I think we’re serving slightly fewer special education students than the district,” Toll said. “It is possible that we’re identifying fewer students in the first place. It is possible that we’re serving elementary students so well, they don’t get identified.”

Garries Torres

Two percent of New Haven Achievement First students transfer back into district, according to Toll’s data. That’s double the rate of other charter school companies, noted Board President Carlos Torre.

“There you’re comparing apples to apples,” Torre said. “You’re talking about 100 percent more.”

Achievement First is “in motion on that” and seeks feedback from the parents of transferring students, Toll said.

“It’s primarily a school culture/discipline concern,” she said. “That’s been our Achilles heel.”

School discipline-particularly its rate of suspensions-has brought the charter network some heat before. At Achievement First’s Hartford Academy, Inc., for instance, 61.1 percent of disciplinary “sanctions” were out of school suspensions, according to a 2013 Connecticut Department of Education report. Elm City Preparatory School in New Haven was even higher, at 82.2 percent.

Within prekindergarten to fifth grade, 32.5 percent of students at Achievement First Hartford Academy, Inc. had at least one suspension-in school or out-or had been expelled.  That number was 26 percent for Elm City Preparatory, and 13.8 percent at Amistad Academy.

At the middle school level, 49.4 percent of Hartford Academy students had been suspended or expelled, while it was 28.2 percent at Elm City and 41.9 percent at Amistad.

Among high school students at Elm City prep, 40 percent had at least one suspension or expulsion. Amistad came in at 28.4 percent for grades 9 through 12.

Prior to the meeting, Achievement First submitted a letter to the Board of Education that was signed by 50 community leaders supporting the charter school proposal, which has drawn fire from the New Haven teacher’s union, as well as other residents.

“I don’t want to be a selfish parent,” said Vaughn Potter, a city resident who attended private school growing up and sends his own children out of district. “I’m glad they’re opening another school to give other kids the same options my kids have.”

Students in kindergarten and first grade-plans are to expand to second and third grade in proceeding years-will start their 10-hour day with a morning goal setting and motivational session, Toll says. Until 5 p.m. dismissal, they will engage in small group work-class sizes range from the 6 to 8 range for core subjects like reading and math, to as many as 40 for time spent rotating between “self-directed learning” stations-“goal team” meetings, and “enrichment periods” that include everything from physical fitness to martial arts, coding, and robotics.

Every 8 weeks, students will be given a 2-week period to delve deeper into a topic of particular interest, Toll says.  “We want to unleash student motivation more than we have,” she said. “[At other Achievement First schools] students are doing one thing at the same time, and there’s not a lot of chances for a voice and self-directed learning.”

The Board of Education will send the proposal to each of its three committees for further discussion before taking action on it.



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