GUILFORD — A change in state law could allow Guilford schools to begin an Open Choice program with New Haven Public Schools as soon as September 2023.
The Open Choice program allows students from urban school districts such as New Haven, Bridgeport and Hartford to send a number of students to nearby suburban districts that agree to receive them. Districts that participate in the program receive state funding to support the education of the students they accept into their schools.
Recently, the program has been a point of contention in Fairfield County, where an attempt to launch an Open Choice program between Danbury and its surrounding districts had to be postponed due to a lack of participation from neighboring suburban districts.
Norwalk will begin participating in Open Choice in the fall of 2022 in partnership with Westport and Weston.
At the same time, the recent settlement of Sheff v. O’Neill sets aside funding for as many as 150 additional seats for Open Choice in the Hartford region, depending on the participation of surrounding districts.
Guilford Superintendent Paul Freeman said that before the bill had passed through the legislature, Guilford fell within the New London region, where an Open Choice program no longer exists..
Freeman said that while discussions about the program were “very preliminary,” he was excited by the idea of participating.
“Guilford continues to be a predominantly white community, and our students would benefit. All of our students would benefit from being in a more diverse environment,” said Freeman. “Diversity is enriching. It makes the experience better for all, not just for those who might otherwise not be able to attend Guilford because of an address that they carry.”
New Haven already partners with the districts of Bethany, Branford, Cheshire, East Haven, Milford, North Branford, North Haven, Regional District 5 and Woodbridge, for a total of 91 open seats in the 2022-23 school year.
Freeman said that the number of children the district takes will depend on the space available in classrooms, since the district would not hire new teachers or staff in order to participate in the program. He said that, with the exception of Lakes Elementary School, the elementary schools in Guilford all had space to accommodate additional students.
Freedman said the district’s goal would be to begin taking students in the lower elementary grades to allow them to grow up alongside the other students who enter the Guilford Public School system.
Dr. Kathleen Balestracci, chair of the Board of Education in Guilford, said that while the district hadn’t yet begun conversations about the Open Choice program, she was personally in support of the idea.
“We are not a particularly diverse community, at least racially,” said Balestracci, adding that the Open Choice program would give the schools the ability to bring in more diverse students along with “shared opportunities for learning for our students and for students that we welcome in.”
Freeman said that, if the community agreed, he hoped that Guilford would be able to partner with New Haven in the Open Choice program starting in the year 2023-24.
“I’m excited about it as one more opportunity to continue the work that we’ve been doing to really leverage the benefits of diversity and public conversation about diversity,” said Freeman.