MIDDLETOWN — LaToya Dickerson, a parent of five children and a Middletown resident, stood in front of a packed auditorium at a public hearing at Vinal Technical School on Wednesday night to speak in support of opening a state-funded charter school in Middletown.
Dickerson said that four of her five children had attended the Middletown Public Schools, and that it had been a struggle to get them to attend school.
“They do not like the school system at all. And it’s hard for a mother who in her household school is a priority to force her children to go to school every day just to let them know that school is important,” she said. “Middletown actually is not a bad place…I actually love it here, but the school system is not good.”
In March of last year, Capital Preparatory Schools, which operates charter schools in Harlem, the Bronx and Bridgeport, submitted an application to the state Board of Education to open a charter school in Middletown. The school, if approved, would be scheduled to open in the fall of 2024.
The application names two potential locations for the new school — the former Connecticut Juvenile Training School on Silver Street, which has been shut down since 2018, and a parcel of open land located between the Cross Street AME Zion Church and Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church on West Street.
At the public hearing, a well-organized show of support for the the plan, including students, parents and staff bussed in from Harlem, the Bronx and Bridgeport, lined the bleachers, led cheerleading routines at the front of the auditorium and waved signs reading “I am College Bound” and “Who you rep? CPREP!”
Student after student, mainly from Harbor Prep in Bridgeport, stepped up to speak, several recounting how they had shown little interest in schooling until they came to Capital Prep, where they were able to raise their GPAs, earn leadership positions on sports teams and acceptance to multiple colleges. One student, Aiden Henry, said he was going to be able to graduate, at 15, with an associate’s degree through dual enrollment at Housatonic Community College.
Mark Davis, a parent of two elementary-age children, who attended the meeting, in a letter to the state Board of Education described the meeting as a “Capital Prep pep rally” in which few Middletown residents had the opportunity to speak.
“It just feels to me like there hasn’t been proper disclosure to the community, and there hasn’t been proper opportunity for community input,” Davis told CTExaminer.
At one point at the Wednesday night meeting, state Board of Education officials attempted to change the sign-up order so that more Middletown residents would have the opportunity to speak, an attempt that was met with protest from Capital Prep staff, students and supporters.
In its application to the state of Connecticut, Capital Prep Middletown is described as a “college preparatory, early college academy and affective experience within which students focus on the study and application of social justice.”
The application narrative noted that Dr. Steve Perry, the founder of Capitol Preparatory Schools, was raised in Middletown and attended Middletown Public Schools.
“[Perry] witnessed first-hand what members of the community still experience today: black, Hispanic, and economically disadvantaged students are not provided access to the courses and supports necessary to lead to college acceptance and graduation,” the application reads. “The district only operates a single high school, and it is not meeting the needs of many residents who are desperate for alternative options.”
Perry, who spoke at the public hearing, also highlighted what he saw as the district schools’ failure to offer opportunities for historically marginalized groups.
“We should not have to beg you for the opportunity to educate our children,” Perry said.
A number of members of the founding board of the proposed charter school also shared stories about their struggles to get their children the education they felt they deserved in the Middletown Public School system.
Anita Ford Saunders, a Middletown resident and current president of the Middletown NAACP, told listeners that she constantly had had to intervene to make sure her two sons were challenged academically, and that her children were often the only students of color in their AP classes. She also told a story about a time when her son was photographed with a rope thrown over his shoulder — the schools, she said, responded that it was part of a Western-themed motif.
“There was no one there culturally competent or sensitive enough to know that putting a rope over the shoulder of a young black child could have been misconstrued as something more terrifying and traumatic,” said Saunders, who is also a founding member of the Middletown charter school.
Sana Cotten, a Middletown resident who is also on the founding board of the school, read from an essay that her son wrote, in which he said that his teachers at Middletown saw him as a “problem child” and a “delinquent.” She said that after the district gave her the option to place her son in a special program for problem children, she insisted he be tested for a learning disability. He was diagnosed with ADHD and given an Individualized Education Plan – which she said the school failed to comply with.
“In all honesty, it didn’t matter to them because they saw him as a delinquent rather than a student with a disability,” said Cotten. “I support Capital Prep Middletown because I want my grandson, who was born four days ago, to be given a chance, and I want to have a different experience than his father. I want him to be seen as a student headed to college rather than a delinquent headed to prison.”
Their testimonies were punctuated with cheers, clapping, pom-pom waving and feet stamping from the students in the room.
Also among the speakers in support of the proposed school was former Middletown City Councilman Edward Ford Jr, charter founding board member Bishop Dr. W. Vance Cotten Sr. of Shiloh Baptist Church, and Middletown Board of Education member DeLita Rose-Daniels.
Rose-Daniels, who is also on the founding board for the charter, said that her own children attended Capital Prep Schools, although they did not complete their education there for “personal” reasons.
“My children graduated from Middletown High. I have had to fight to be seen, to be heard. My children have been policed in Middletown High. My daughter has been arrested in Middletown High. I have hit brick walls in Middletown High,” Rose-Daniels said.
Not everyone spoke in favor of the proposal.
Former Board of Education member Lisa Loomis-Davern pointed out discrepancies between Perry’s claim that Capital Preparatory Schools send 100 percent of their graduates to four-year colleges, and data from the state Department of Education.
According to the department’s data, last year, Capital Preparatory Harbor School in Bridgeport sent 72 percent of its graduates to a two or a four-year college — a percentage still higher than both the state and the Middletown Public Schools, which together sent about 66 percent of students to college. But Capital Preparatory School also graduated a lower percentage of students in four years — 86 percent, compared to a 93.3 percent graduation rate in Middletown and 90 percent in the state overall.
In addition, data from the state shows that Capital Preparatory Harbor School students have consistently scored lower than both the state and the Middletown Public School District in the state’s standardized English and Math assessments.
Paul Angelucci, vice president of the teachers union for technical schools, said he felt the state should invest more money into remodeling Vinal Tech rather than spending funds on a new charter school.
Middletown Resident Diana Martinez said that although she didn’t blame parents for wanting a better education for their children, the state needed to have a plan in place to make sure that the opening of a charter school did not mean fewer resources for the children who stay in the traditional public schools.
“This new school cannot and certainly does not intend to house all of our kids, and it does not change the systemic failures that created the interest in this charter in the first place,” said Martinez. “What is the Department of Education’s plan for those who do not get accepted into this charter school, for those who choose not to apply, and for those of us who are not typically ideal charter candidates, like English language learners or those of us with special needs?”
According to the application, the school would begin by enrolling 380 students in grades 6 through 12, then expand to grades K-1 after three years, adding a grade each year after until all grades were filled. The ultimate enrollment would be approximately 1,150.
The State Board of Education will vote on whether to approve the charter school at its Board of Education meeting on March 1.