For the nearly eleven thousand children enrolled in Danbury Public Schools, there are 13 elementary schools, three middle schools and just one high school. Unlike districts in New Haven, Bridgeport, Hartford and Stamford, Danbury schools do not offer a charter school option, inter-district magnet or urban-suburban programs.
The relative lack of educational options in Danbury stands in sharp contrast to the state’s commitment to expand significantly the opportunities for students in Hartford, with increased urban-suburban funding, expanded interdistrict magnet schools, by opening a technical high school and increasing athletic and extracurricular programs.
That commitment to Hartford students is part of the state’s most recent effort to settle Sheff v. O’Neill – a decades-old Connecticut Supreme Court decision that found that Hartford Public Schools have failed to provide students with the equal educational opportunity guaranteed by the State Constitution.
“The issues in Danbury and the Sheff case all fall under the umbrella of opportunities for students,” Ruben Felipe, the executive director of the Connecticut Charter Schools Association, explained to CT Examiner. “In the same spirit of better outcomes for black and brown students, we need to work toward more options for students in Danbury.”
But so far every attempt by the city, the legislature and by local parents to expand educational opportunities for young people in Danbury – the expansion of the Open Choice program to Danbury, the opening of a career academy and the formation of the city’s first charter school — has been delayed.
Pointing to overcrowding in the Danbury Public Schools, Mayor Dean Esposito told CT Examiner that he supports all of the options currently on the table.
“We’re getting new people coming to Danbury every day,” said Esposito. “Obviously with the projections for growth in the next few years, we have to take action now to be able to relocate some of the children and get them in an adequate spacing.”
But a proposed grade 6 to 12 Danbury charter school, which was approved by the State Board of Education in 2018, has been stalled by a decision in the state legislature and by Gov. Ned Lamont not to include funding for the school in the state budget.
John Taylor, who runs Booker T. Washington Academy in New Haven, is slated to lead the Danbury charter school. Taylor did not respond to a number of calls from CT Examiner.
Sandra Ferreira-Molina, deputy CEO of the nonprofit Latinos for Educational Advocacy and Diversity, or LEAD, told CT Examiner the presence of the charter school could create competition that would raise the standard of education in the area. Ferreira-Molina also expressed the hope that the school would provide additional extracurricular activities.
“It’s another educational option. It’s a school that would be right in downtown Danbury.
It would be a neighborhood school,” she said.
Ferreira-Molina also emphasized the need for more options in Danbury, particularly for children who thrive in smaller schools. She pointed out that the Danbury Public Schools were already overcrowded.
“We’re asking for educational options,” she said. “If I can’t send my kid to a private school or if I can’t send my kids to a parochial school, what else can I do?” she said.
During a public hearing on Feb. 17 before the legislature’s Education Committee, a number of Danbury residents, some members of LEAD, testified in support of funding the charter school.
“I would like to ask you to finance our school so that our community has an opportunity to have a school of quality for children and young people,” said Catalina Toro. “The future of our children would be much better. It’s important for me and many women that I represent.”
“As a father of three kids, I think it’s great to have a charter school,” added LEAD member Ronny Torres. “We want the best education for our kids.”
“Without educational options our youth will have the choices of drugs, and life on the streets, eventually becoming statistical numbers of people who end up in jail,” Yocasta Morel, a hair stylist and mother of two children in Danbury, said in written testimony. “Schools like the one we want to open in Danbury teach all children and believe in the potential and talent of every person, because they are forging the future.”
Desi Nesmith, deputy commissioner of academics and innovation at the state’s Department of Education, told legislators during a budget presentation on Thursday that the state hadn’t included funding in the budget this year, because the charter school was not slated to open until fall 2023.
But State Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, said that the debate over the charter school has been going on for years.
“This is a chicken-and-the-egg kind of thing,” said Osten. “I’m sure they need start-up costs to happen.”
Ferriera-Molina told CT Examiner that the charter school originally requested $1.3 million from the state. She said they also requested the state provide enough “seed money” to begin hiring and recruitment for the school.
An update to the current budget instead calls for trimming state funding for charter schools.
State Rep. Antonio Felipe, D-Bridgeport, said in the Thursday budget presentation that the Office of Fiscal Analysis recommended reducing funding by the equivalent of 162 seats based on projected enrollments. Statewide about 11,000 students are now enrolled in charter schools.
That proposed funding reduction also poses an obstacle to a recommendation by the state Department of Education to add 132 seats within three existing charter schools. Those seats are not included in the budget proposal, according to Kathy Demsey, the department’s chief financial officer.
According to Ruben Felipe, there is currently enough support in the legislature to permit the opening of Danbury Prospect. The issue, he said, instead comes down to Danbury legislators who are philosophically opposed to charter schools.
“The approval process for charter schools is extremely complicated and detailed, including a demonstration of support to show that the community wants the school. If the school is approved by the state board, why should they be denied that opportunity?” Felipe asked.
But State Sen. Julie Kushner, D-Danbury, told CT Examiner that she feels the charter school would only help a small segment of the population.
“I think that’s my real concern — about pulling students out and giving a small group of our students, like 10 percent of our students, get an opportunity to have a better education because we’re spending more money on one school versus really focusing on spending the necessary resources on all of our schools,” said Kushner.
Kushner said a better solution would be the career academy. Kushner said the academy would accommodate 1400 students, about twice the number proposed for the charter school. In addition to providing more seats for students, Kushner said that she believes the career academy would provide a better curriculum for students.
“It’s not just about addressing overcrowding. It’s looking at the whole of the, uh, looking at everything we need to do to provide a better education. So it’s curriculum and hiring teachers that are representative, that are diverse, that look like the population we serve,” she said.
Esposito told CT Examiner that he supported both the charter school and the career academy. He said the academy would employ a normal high school curriculum, but place an emphasis on science and technology, and connect students with area businesses.
“That concept is really obviously a new concept throughout the state,” he said. “The concept of the career academy, working together with the community as far as businesses and giving those students the opportunity to see firsthand how business works,” said Esposito.
In April 2021, Danbury approved a $99 million bond for the school – but the estimated cost of buying the property and building the academy has since grown to $144.5 million. Kushner said the state agreed last year to pay 80 percent of the costs.
But negotiations have stalled with developers of the building where the city originally planned to locate the school. Esposito said the city was looking at other locations, and that he hoped to have a space nailed down within the next few weeks.
Esposito said he also saw the charter school as a good opportunity for students in Danbury.
“It’s a downtown location. It’s going to give us a better scenario for the concentrated area of where our children are in the city of Danbury,” he said.
Ferriera-Molina said that LEAD, too, supported both the charter school and the career academy.
“I think it’s wonderful. And that’s what we hear from all of our families. You want to open the career academy? Wonderful. We want to open a charter? Even better. We want choices,” she said.
Another option floated for Danbury has been an expansion of the Open Choice program, which would allow Danbury students to attend schools in the surrounding districts of Ridgefield, Redding, New Fairfield, Bethel and Brookfield.
But a lack of suburban districts willing to take Danbury students has delayed that program for at least a year.
Kushner said that she believes the communities outside of Danbury were concerned about whether they would receive enough funding to cover the costs of the additional students.
“I think there are challenges in making sure that we’re providing enough resources to the receiving communities to make sure that they can afford to do that,” she said. “I think that’s a legitimate concern, but hopefully one that we can address and move forward.”
Eric Nyquist, who directs the Open Choice program for Cooperative Education Services, a regional partnership of 17 districts in Fairfield County, expressed hope for a rollout of Open Choice for Danbury in the 2023-24 school year.
“The hope is that through this year we can work with those districts who still had some lingering doubts or questions, talk to them and provide them whatever information they need so that they can make a good decision for their district,” said Nyquist.
But Felipe said that even if Open Choice can offer an urban-suburban option for Danbury students, it would be far from equivalent to a charter school.
“The problem with Open Choice is it only provides an opportunity for a small amount of students,” he said.
Kushner said she believed that the lack of magnet, charter and other school options in Danbury was a testament to the high quality of Danbury’s traditional public schools.
“I think we have a great foundation in our Danbury public schools. And the real issue has been whether or not we as a community have invested enough to build the schools, to have the necessary room and space,” she said. “And I think that if we build the space out and if we create new schools, then we’re going to be in a position to also match those with the exciting, innovative curriculums that we need … It’s really our job to figure out how we invest in these programs and move them and transfer them so that every student has that opportunity.”