A program allowing students from urban areas to attend nearby school districts expanded its offerings in Fairfield County this school year, but availability was limited and local administrators say they wish they could provide after school programming.
The state legislature voted to expand the Open Choice program in 2021 with the addition of Norwalk. Both Westport and Weston public school districts agreed to take in students for the 2022-23 school year. Eric Nyquist, an Open Choice coordinator, estimated that the program received about 75 applications from Norwalk families.
But Nyquist said Open Choice was unable to place Norwalk students in Weston this school year, but said he is certain they will be accepting new students in the future.
Weston Public Schools Superintendent Lisa Barbiero told the CT Examiner that the district offered kindergarten openings to Norwalk, but Open Choice was unable to fill the spots. She said that by the time Weston had an opening for first graders, it was mid-August and there were no buses or drivers available through the program.
Barbiero added that Weston is committed to participating in the program and currently has 29 Open Choice students from Bridgeport enrolled in their schools.
“The only downside is the transportation, especially as the students move through the district to the high school,” she said. “They wish to participate in sports and our theater program. Unfortunately, Open Choice does not provide transportation after school.”
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, research shows that consistent participation in afterschool programs help to lower dropout rates and close achievement gaps for low-income students. For older students, engagement may also reduce risky behaviors.
Nyquist said it is a personal goal of his to provide afterschool programming for Open Choice students in the future. He explained that the program is looking into providing late buses for some high schools.
Thomas Scarice, the superintendent of Westport Public Schools, said he longs to provide more ways to create a sense of belonging for his district’s Open Choice students.
“Access to our schools is great, but there’s a very strong sentiment in the Westport community to provide more of a wraparound approach so kids truly feel a part of the community,” he explained.
As Open Choice was unable to place in Weston and nearby districts like Darien rejected the program, Westport will be the only district taking Norwalk students this school year. Scarice said that in addition to the 56 students already in the school system, Westport has accepted eight kindergarteners from Norwalk and five from Bridgeport.
“It’s been a longstanding program and a very strong community commitment,” he said.
Dr. Alexandra Estrella, superintendent of Norwalk Public Schools, said she looks forward to collaborating with Westport. She explained that the district joined the program because she aims to foster parental choice and encourage diversity amongst Connecticut schools.
While she acknowledged that challenges such a lack of afterschool programing may need to be addressed, Estrella said she doesn’t see the pros outweighed by the cons.