Alisha Henderson, Hartford resident and U.S. Air Force veteran, is sending her 4-year-old daughter to Enfield’s STEAM Academy preschool through the state’s Open Choice program.
“So far it’s been an amazing experience,” Henderson said, adding that “it feels like a partnership” with teachers and staff.
Henderson’s daughter, Novella, started at the Stowe Learning Center academy in September after Henderson’s niece had success with the Open Choice program.
“Once they come to Enfield, they are Enfield students,” Superintendent Christopher Drezek said of Open Choice students. “These are our children. They are staying with us until they graduate from Enfield High School. … We have had great success with these children.
He cited the commitment it takes for students and families to attend school in Enfield, which is about 20 miles from Hartford.
All Hartford students who want to attend suburban schools would have that option as part of the settlement of a decades-long lawsuit – Sheff v. O’Neill — aimed at desegregating Connecticut schools that will come before the legislature this year.
Statewide, more than 2,300 students have participated in Open Choice in each of the past three school years, according to the Department of Education.
While transportation costs may be paid for by the state, Henderson drives his daughter to school, as it is on Henderson’s way to Springfield University.
When her classes are long, Henderson said, Enfield also has after-school programs for her daughter, another perk of the school system.
Henderson said she also liked that the school had black teaching assistants, providing role models for her daughter to look up to, especially a black teaching assistant, a rarity in Connecticut.
“It’s nice to have a black male authority figure in the classroom,” Henderson said. “I really love that my daughter had the opportunity to participate in this program. … We are here and we love it.
“A large majority” of Open Choice students at Enfield are members of minority groups, Drezek said.
He praised their commitment to making the daily commute from Hartford as well as attending parent-teacher organization meetings and school events.
“I really believe in the (Open Choice) program, which is why you see our participation growing so much over the past few years,” Drezek said. “These children are here because they want to be here and their families want them to be here.”
Some students head to Hartford
Enfield, South Windsor and Windsor Locks are among the towns in the region that attract the most students to their districts, ranging from around 100 to around 120 each year.
Glastonbury, which predicts a decline in enrollment from local students, has attracted between 54 and 58 students from the Hartford area in recent years.
While Open Choice is known to send students from the city to suburban neighborhoods, some districts send students to schools in Hartford. Manchester and Windsor send a handful of students each year; East Hartford sends the most among school districts in the region, between 16 and 17 over the past three school years.
Because some cities in the region, such as Manchester and Windsor, already have a diverse student population, they don’t tend to bring in many students from Hartford.
Districts that take in Hartford students receive a state grant of $3,000 to $8,000 per student, depending on the percentage of total enrollment in a district versus the number of students brought in.
While it varies from year to year, Drezek said “a big driver” of the city’s Open Choice attendance is due to Enfield opening up its preschool program to Hartford students.
He said when younger students have older siblings, Enfield welcomes them as well, but generally tries to bring students who are already moving from elementary to middle school or middle school to high school to make the transition easier for them.
Diversity brings benefits
Drezek noted, however, that the COVID-19 pandemic and related safety precautions around keeping class sizes to a minimum have complicated Open Choice registrations over the past two years.
He said he did not yet know how many Open Choice pupils would attend Enfield Public Schools in the next school year, as did Windsor Locks Superintendent Shawn Parkhurst, who said the decision would be made in consultation with administrators and the school board, depending on class size, staff and budget.
Nonetheless, Parkhurst said, “We will try to fill all the seats we have available,” adding that the majority of Windsor Locks Open Choice students come from the Hartford area “and are part of our wider school community.”
“The benefit of having a diverse student body provides great opportunities for everyone,” he said. “Each student brings a unique set of strengths and opportunities to our students, staff and the wider community. Open Choice students are part of the life and fabric of Windsor Locks, just like the students who reside in our city.
South Windsor Superintendent Kate Carter said her school district was “proud” to welcome the 102 students enrolled in city schools through Open Choice.
“Although we are the fastest growing K-12 school district in the state and all of our schools are at full capacity, we remain committed to this program and welcome students and families to our inclusive community and to increasingly diverse,” she said.
At its January 25 meeting, the South Windsor School Board approved 20 additional kindergarten places for the upcoming 2022-23 school year.
A plan submitted last month, which has yet to be approved by the General Assembly, would end 33 years of litigation and judicial oversight in the Sheff v. O’Neill lawsuit which sought to address racial segregation in Hartford schools .
If approved, the plan would ensure an integrated education for every Hartford student who chooses to participate in the voluntary Open Choice program.
In 1996, the Connecticut Supreme Court sided with the plaintiffs, agreeing that the system at the time resulted in inequality for Hartford students, a violation of the state constitution.
The following year, the Legislature took the first of a series of steps to make education more equitable and inclusive, providing the option to attend regional magnet schools and suburban schools through Open Choice.
There were no magnet schools in the state when the lawsuit was originally filed.
The new agreement would commit $1.24 million in additional funding for magnet schools this fiscal year, rising to $32 million annually by fiscal year 2032.
It would also expand existing magnet schools, open a new magnet school, and provide greater access to suburban schools through Open Choice.
East Hartford’s Goodwin University would open a new technical high school magnet and pre-kindergarten program in Rocky Hill.
Goodwin already operates four magnet schools on its campus: Riverside Magnet School for K-5; Connecticut River Academy, which includes middle and high schools; and the Early College Advanced Manufacturing Pathway, a half-day program that partners with area high schools to provide college-level training in advanced manufacturing.
If the plan is approved, the magnet school will open in 2024, said Salvatore Menzo, the university’s superintendent of magnet schools.
He said the technical high school would teach various areas of technology and advanced manufacturing, and work with employers to provide internships and apprenticeships, preparing students for work immediately after graduation or attending a traditional university.
“We are very excited about this opportunity,” Menzo said.
Like Open Choice, he said, preschool would bring together children from diverse backgrounds.
“It provides a tremendous opportunity for students to grow socially, emotionally, and academically,” Menzo said.