Open Choice Expansion to Danbury and Norwalk is Hobbled by Suburban Buy-in

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The expansion of a program to allow urban students in Danbury and Norwalk to attend suburban schools in Fairfield County has met a variety of challenges as the wealthier surrounding towns debate whether to enroll the students. 

In 2021, the state legislature set aside $1.175 million over two years to expand Open Choice – a program that currently serves children in Bridgeport, New Haven and Hartford – to include Danbury and Norwalk. 

In theory, Danbury children would be able to attend schools in Ridgefield, Redding, New Fairfield, Bethel and Brookfield, and Norwalk children would be able attend schools in Westport, Weston, Darien, New Canaan and Wilton, beginning in the 2022-23 school year.

But for the state’s Open Choice program to work, it still needs the approval of local districts, and that has been a sticking point for several towns, including New Fairfield and in Darien, where the program has sparked a heated debate among parents.

As of now, Danbury will delay the rollout of its Open Choice program for one year, according to Eric Nyquist, who said the delays were the result of too few suburban districts being willing to participate in the program next year. Nyquist is the Open Choice coordinator at Cooperative Education Services, the agency responsible for the program in the Fairfield County region. 

“I know part of this is to increase diversity, which is great, but the good news is, from what I’ve seen, I think our district is becoming more diverse organically,” said board member Greg Flanagan.  

Nyquist said the program would go forward in Norwalk. He said the districts of Weston and Westport, which currently take students from Bridgeport, would begin taking students instead from Norwalk. Nyquist said that although he was not sure how many seats would be available for families living in Norwalk, he was “confident” that there would be enough to run the program next year. 

Nyquist said the lack of participation from suburban districts was due to a variety of circumstances, including concerns about cost and space. 

In December, New Fairfield’s Board of Education voted unanimously against participating in the Open Choice program with Danbury. Board members voiced concerns about the potential cost of special education and what they saw as an amorphous understanding of who would be responsible for paying for services.  

“I do not feel in confidence that I can support something that has the prospect of delivering to us a very large price tag down the road without anybody being able to definitely say whose responsibility it is to pick up that bill,” said Samantha Mannion, a member of town’s board of education, at its December 2 meeting. 

Other members said they felt Open Choice would not help with the goal of improving diversity in the district.

“I know part of this is to increase diversity, which is great, but the good news is, from what I’ve seen, I think our district is becoming more diverse organically,” said board member Greg Flanagan.  

State Rep. Patrick Callahan, R-New Fairfield, told CT Examiner that he felt the state’s Open Choice program was a way of “social engineering” a district. Callahan also said that New Fairfield was in the process of building a new high school, and that the town taxpayers couldn’t absorb the cost of educating additional children from Danbury. 

Callahan, who represents New Fairfield and Danbury in the state legislature, said that an influx of new students was already putting pressure on New Fairfield’s existing schools.  

“I do not feel in confidence that I can support something that has the prospect of delivering to us a very large price tag down the road without anybody being able to definitely say whose responsibility it is to pick up that bill,” said Samantha Mannion, a member of town’s board of education,

“When COVID hit, we had an exodus from Manhattan,” said Callahan. “More and more people are working remotely, and they are staying now.”

Even supporters of the Open Choice program said that space is a problem for the schools. 

Bethel Superintendent Christine Carver, who has worked in several districts with an Open Choice program, said that Bethel hadn’t even begun discussions about participating in Open Choice, because Bethel schools are filled as it is. 

“Our enrollment is, like, bursting at the seams,” said Carver. “We do not have the space.” 

Westport Superintendent Tom Scarice, whose district already enrolls 67 children from Bridgeport, said he fully supports the mission of Open Choice. Scarice said the program  provides good experiences for the Bridgeport Open Choice students and adds diversity to the schools. He said Open Choice  was well-received by the community. But Scarice said that he was not aware of discussions to partner with Norwalk.

Scarice said that, like other districts in Fairfield County, Westport’s enrollment was growing, and the district had already added between 12 to 13 elementary classrooms. 

“[We are] already accommodating a lot of families that are moving to our community, and that has been stretching us,” said Scarice.  

“You need to determine if the intangible benefits are enough to offset the costs,” said Zerbe. “I believe that they are.”

But space is not the only issue that suburban school districts have raised about the proposed expansion.

In Darien, where discussions are ongoing, some parents have argued that the district does not have the funds to spend on the program. 

“Good intentions can be limitless. However, Darien Public Schools’ budget isn’t limitless,” said Jonathan Dunn, a local parent, at a January 11 board of education meeting. 

Another parent, Amy Zerbe, said that Darien schools had the space to welcome Open Choice students.

While agreeing that the state would not provide enough funding to cover the costs for Darien, Zerbe urged board members to consider the benefits. 

“You need to determine if the intangible benefits are enough to offset the costs,” said Zerbe. “I believe that they are.”

“The emotional and social impact” 

According to current state law, urban schools still receive state funding for students participating in Open Choice, and suburban schools receive grants of between $3,000 and $8,000 per pupil, depending on the number of students that the district accepts. 

Those grants fall significantly short of the per-pupil cost of educating a student in suburban schools. In Weston, for example, the average cost of education for a student is $23,170.

But Nyquist said that looking at the per-pupil cost was misleading, given that fixed costs, like teacher salaries, don’t change by adding one or two students into a classroom. 

“If they added ten new students to their district next year … they wouldn’t be going to the town council and saying, ‘Hey, we need $210,000 more because we had ten new students,’ because they’re not adding new teachers and new busing and new classrooms,” he said.

“If they added ten new students to their district next year … they wouldn’t be going to the town council and saying, ‘Hey, we need $210,000 more because we had ten new students,’ because they’re not adding new teachers and new busing and new classrooms,” he said.

Casey Cobb, a professor of education policy at UConn’s Neag School of Education, said that while Open Choice slots were not as sought after as spaces in magnet schools, families in urban districts are interested in the program. 

“Families that apply to Open Choice, the numbers are pretty strong. So it suggests that some families are interested in pursuing this option,” said Cobb. 

Cobb said that while he did believe there was an advantage to diversifying schools, there have not been any in-depth studies about the effects of the Open Choice program on participating students’ academic achievement or future careers.

“There’s a lot of anecdotal stories about higher college-going rates of Open Choice students and such, and a lot of testimonials from recent graduates that had joined the program … but there hasn’t been a systematic data collection and research strategy,” he said.  

Gabriela Czaja, a parent in Darien, raised concerns that students from Norwalk would feel socially isolated in Darien schools. Czaja said she had moved from Norwalk with her children so she could send them to school in Darien. While the move brought educational advantages, she said, it also sacrificed her children’s social life. 

“What I worry about in a program like Open Choice is the emotional and social impact on children,” Czaja said during the meeting. “I know they will get a good education in Darien, but that’s not everything. Kids also need to have friends and play groups and feel comfortable which that program does not give them. The children from Norwalk coming to Darien schools will always feel like an outsider.” 

“What I worry about in a program like Open Choice is the emotional and social impact on children,” Czaja said during the meeting. “I know they will get a good education in Darien, but that’s not everything. Kids also need to have friends and play groups and feel comfortable which that program does not give them. The children from Norwalk coming to Darien schools will always feel like an outsider.” 

But according to Nyquist, parents generally expressed positive feelings about the program, and felt their children were offered opportunities they wouldn’t have otherwise. Nyquist said that one Open Choice student became the class valedictorian. Nyquist also said that parents were happy that their children got to know children from outside of their home districts. 

Nyquist said he also saw the advantages for the suburban districts. 

“The hope is that by diversifying at a young age, especially, that their kids could get to hear different perspectives,” he said. “I know for me personally, I want my daughter in a classroom where there’s lots of different perspectives – where we don’t only hear one side of everything, where you get to know people from different races and cultures and socioeconomic backgrounds. To me, that’s a really wonderful thing and it adds to a classroom.”

The ‘fabric’ of the community

Carver said in her experience before coming to Bethel, the program works best when the students enroll in the program at a young age. This way, she said, they and their families can integrate into the “fabric” of the neighboring community. 

Cobb said that it’s helpful to have a sizable percentage of students enrolling from the same district, and could lessen the “minoritization” of students.

He also said that it could be helpful for teachers to undergo “culturally relevant” training in how to best serve a diverse body of students.

“We just can’t assume that all teachers are readily equipped to serve students from all different backgrounds,” said Cobb. “Even though they may be very well-intentioned, there’s just some skills there that are often missing.”  

Carver said that one of the biggest challenges for Open Choice students is the distance from home. 

West Superintendent Lisa Wolak said that students from Bridgeport who attend Weston schools aren’t able to stay after school without transportation, a particular challenge for high schoolers.

Wolak said that a partnership between Weston and Norwalk would be better than Bridgeport because of proximity. 

“If the districts decide to participate, great. I think it’s a very good program. I think it does some very positive things,” he said. “But, you know, it’s up to each individual district to decide when they’re comfortable participating.” 

“It would be so much easier for students to participate in afterschool activities,” said Wolak. 

State Sen. Bob Duff, D-Norwalk, a main proponent of the Open Choice expansion in Fairfield County, said he saw the program benefiting both urban and suburban districts. 

“I think it’s really a win-win,” he said. “[It] provides Norwalk students with an opportunity to see another community and get that experience and vice versa with our suburban counterparts,” said Duff. 

Cobb said there are ways to encourage districts to implement the program that go beyond just increasing financial support. One, he said, is for former students and teachers to share success stories about students who have been part of Open Choice. 

“It kind of demystifies it in a way, because I think a lot of people have all these assumptions about what it would be like to participate in the program,” said Cobb. 

Nyquist said that he planned to continue working with districts in the Danbury area and answering any questions he could, in the hope of being able to run the program in the Danbury region next year. 

“If the districts decide to participate, great. I think it’s a very good program. I think it does some very positive things,” he said. “But, you know, it’s up to each individual district to decide when they’re comfortable participating.”