No Explanation for End to New London Urban-Suburban Open Choice Program

NEW LONDON — Despite being identified as a priority district in 2001, funding for the Open Choice program in New London was eliminated. Open Choice is credited with helping to integrate suburban schools, and for providing educational opportunities to urban students unavailable in their home districts.

New London schools are instead provided with Interdistrict Cooperative Grants that allow any student in the state to attend New London schools. The state continues to fund Open Choice programs for Hartford, Bridgeport and New Haven.

“There is no explicit reason we can find on why New London chose to stop participating in the Open Choice program when the last student graduated in 2013,” said Peter Yazbak, communications director for the Connecticut Department of Education.

“The Interdistrict Cooperative Grant differs from Open Choice because it is statewide and involves districts that are not eligible to participate in Open Choice and also allows non-profit organizations to join with school districts to provide a rich and diverse opportunity for students,” explained Yazbak. “Open Choice is restricted to New Haven, Bridgeport and Hartford and to the school year, while the Interdistrict Cooperative Grants collaborate with schools and communities to give children experiences on various themes throughout the year and on weekends.”

Casey Cobb, professor of education policy at the Neag School of Education at the University of Connecticut, suggested that the Open Choice program could help districts manage the demographic pressure of declining enrollments.

“There would be a benefit of having open choice reintroduced in the New London area, especially as the surrounding districts are losing students,” said Casey Cobb, a professor of education policy in the Neag School of Education at the University of Connecticut. “But, you’re always going to have the tension around the incentives. Suburban districts may not think they’re that great.” 

Unlike Open Choice, which supports students leaving urban districts to attend school in suburban or rural districts, Interdistrict Cooperative Grants support students from suburban and rural districts enrolling in urban schools.

For the 2019-20 school year, the Open Choice program reimbursed participating districts $3,000 to $8,000 for each student enrolling in a suburban district.

This school year, New London magnet schools enrolled 557 students from out of district, according to the Department of Education. That’s more than 15 percent of the total school enrollment. 

Every student attending one of the five magnet schools in New London brings $3,060 in state funding as a district resident, or $7,272 as a non-resident.

This movement of students from suburban to urban programs is a recent phenomenon, according to Cobb.

“One upfront benefit of the New London Schools model is that when you open it up to students of other areas and other perspectives and backgrounds it brings different forms of social and political capital into the school,” Cobb said. “The district is looking for affluent, middle class, white families to break up the isolation in the city.”

The C.B. Jennings International Elementary Magnet offers suburban children the opportunity to become bilingual in elementary school. The Nathan Hale Arts Magnet and New London Visual and Performing Arts Magnet provide creative students an opportunity to explore and learn. 

Unlike Hartford, where many more students are leaving than entering the city schools, in New London the district gains 557 students, their families, and the resources they bring with them, said Cobb. This includes parent involvement and afterschool programming that might not otherwise be available in an urban district. And New London doesn’t lose top performing students to suburban districts through Open Choice.

“Also, the schools are getting state funding to support magnet programs which saves more resources for their own students in other schools,” Cobb said.

The gap in performance between the magnet schools and other schools in New London is stark.

The Winthrop STEM Elementary Magnet School scored a 76.5 out of 100 on the Next Generation Accountability Index, more than 2 points above the state average. The Harbor Elementary School, the school option that enrolls only New London students, scored just 43.7 points. District wide, New London schools scored 63.2 points on average.

Drawbacks of the magnet system

In contrast to Open Choice programs, New London magnet schools lack kindergarten through 12th grade classes for every subject track. The arts track ends at 10th grade, and the dual language track ends at 5th grade, leaving students from out-of-district to return to their home school and in-district students to switch to the traditional schools.

“Once you enter Open Choice, you are in this district for the long haul, when you are in the magnet school, you grade out, you have to get back in the lottery or return back to your own district if the program ends,” Cobb said. “People will speak with their feet.” In other words, families choosing New London arts or language programs often choose to leave the district when those programs end. 

This departure is evident when looking at the performance of the New London High School which scores a 52.3 on the Next Generation Accountability index. In comparison, the science and technology program which allows students to complete kindergarten through 12th grade scores a 62.7 at the high-school level.

“The elementary programs are really appealing to monolingual English parents who think it’s going to be a great experience for their kids,” Cobb said. “And then they can return to their home high school for the academics.” 

The New London School District was unavailable for comment on this story.

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