HARTFORD — The state Board of Education voted unanimously on Wednesday to approve the proposed Capital Preparatory charter school in Middletown over a recommendation from Commissioner Charlene Russell-Tucker for a delay to allow more time for the board to review public comments.
The decision followed 2 1/2 hours of public testimony, the vast majority in favor of the proposed school.
Those who spoke included members of the founding board of the proposed charter and Middletown residents, as well as students from Harbor Preparatory School in Bridgeport and staff members at Capitol Prep. Many also spoke at a public hearing earlier this month at Vinal Technical High School in Middletown.
Nearly all of the speakers were parents of color, and many described instances of discrimination that their children faced in the public schools.
Rev. Andrea Gaskin of Shiloh Baptist Church in Middletown read the testimony of her 17-year-old daughter, a junior at Middletown High School, who described times when she felt belittled and treated as untrustworthy because of the color of her skin.
“Our students are not valued, validated or treated the same. Our students are not disciplined the same, acknowledged the same …. For decades, our children have not been provided the same direction and promise in securing higher education. Our children are not spoken to the same. They are and have been the focus of microaggressive behaviors ….This is not an environment conducive to the cultivation of equity nor excellence,” said Gaskin.
Other parents who sent their children out of the district to Capital Preparatory School credited their children’s success to Capital Prep. Tashique Winborne, whose daughter graduated from Capital Preparatory Magnet School in Hartford said her daughter got a full scholarship to the University of Pennsylvania, which she credited to her education at Capital Prep.
“She is a very intelligent girl, but I believe that in public school she would’ve been overlooked,” said Winborne. She said that she currently has a five-year-old in the public schools, and is getting calls from the school district saying they want to hold her back.
“I don’t want my child to fall behind because of what public school may and may not be offering to her,” said Winborn.
Yvette Highsmith Francis, one of the founding members of the charter school and a Middletown native, told the board that delaying the charter school’s approval would mean that the school would lose the opportunity to be funded in the governor’s budget this year. She said the delay would mean a further waiting period for students – particularly low-income students – to receive a chance to catch up from the learning loss they experienced during the pandemic.
“I don’t need to remind you of the impact that this world climate has on our young people, particularly children who are vulnerable, children who are living in poverty, children who have special needs, children who have been victimized by structural racism. A delay is a denial of the opportunity for many young people in Middletown to recover from learning loss,” said Highsmith Francis.
Dr. Steve Perry, the CEO of Capital Preparatory Schools, which operates schools in Bridgeport, the Bronx and Harlem, said that he didn’t understand why the state Board of Education would force them to wait when they had followed all of the procedures that the state required for a new charter school.
“What happens when a room full of people of color have their voice muted? We’re not talking about our process here, folks, because if we were talking about our process, we followed the exact same process that everyone else followed,” said Perry.
Russell-Tucker said that she made her recommendation because she wanted to make sure that everyone who wanted to comment had their voices heard. She said that board members had received a packet of 42 comments from members of the public over the weekend, and an additional 34 comments this morning.
“This is not the merits of the school at all,” said Russell-Tucker. “This was about this board having the time to honor the voices of the information that you received from the community.”
But Highsmith Francis, who described herself as a fourth-generation resident, said that the school’s founders had performed extensive public outreach to the community since August 2021, including six community forums, setting up social media platforms and hosting weekly Zoom sessions to answer questions about the proposal.
“We are from the community, we are from Middletown. We are flanked by pastors with congregations that have decades of history of serving the community, because they are the community,” said Highsmith Francis. “We have listened, we have responded to, we have organized all levels of the community in varied forums.”
In their recommendation to the board, state Department of Education staff also expressed concern that only 48 of 83 people signed up to speak at the public hearing earlier this month were able to comment during the two-hour time limit.
Perry said that without the approval, he would be unable to obtain the funding that would allow him to being the process of hiring staff and planning for the school.
At one point, Perry accused the board and Department of Education officials of sidestepping their own rules and process both in an attempt to move Middletown residents ahead of other attendees at the public hearing in February and in attempting to delay the approval.
“There is something amiss. There is a foul odor,” said Perry. “With all due respect, the community has spoken. Resoundingly … We have done what your office had asked. And so as a result … the expectation from our people is that you act with fidelity to the law.”
Russell-Tucker pushed back strongly, saying she held to her recommendation for delay and that the state had followed the same process with Capital Prep as it had with other proposed charter schools.
“I will say again what I said before, and I will hope that what I say is not discounted. I shared very clearly the recommendation I made and the reason I stand by that recommendation: for voices to be heard,” said Russell-Tucker.
But members of the board said they did not see any reason to delay the vote to approve.
Board member Erik Clemons said he had been particularly influenced by the testimony of the students from Capital Preparatory Harbor school in Bridgeport, who told the board about their positive experience with the school. Clemons also said he was not impressed by Middletown’s response to Perry, who was born and raised in the town.
“It says to me a lot about a town that will treat its native son the way he’s been treated when coming home to help,” said Clemons, referring to Perry.
Board member Donald Harris said that people in opposition to the proposed charter could have come out to the board of education meeting and spoken against the school.
“We’ve just gone through two and a half hours of public comment. The majority of it was regarding capital prep, but only six people came forward against it,” he said. “[Those in opposition] had that same opportunity to take time off from work and to be here.”
A small handful of people did speak against the proposed school, including Makenzi Hurtado, who represents the teachers at Vinal Technical School. Hurtado urged the state to invest in the already existing schools rather than funding additional schools. Another, Daniel Long, questioned the achievement data for Capital Preparatory Schools, which he said was not as good as other charter schools in the state.
And board member Malia Sieve said that there were some emails that the board received in opposition, most of which expressed concern about the public schools losing funding because of the charter and questioning “whether there’s validity in charter schools” — both, Sieve said, are things the state Board of Education does not control.
The board’s approval of the charter school does not guarantee its being funded by the state. Russell-Tucker said that the board had approved two charter schools four or five years ago, and neither have been funded to date.
Highsmith Francis said that she wanted an environment for Black and Brown students in Middletown that wouldn’t require their parents to fight with the public schools. She said her own son, during his time at Bristol Central High School, was called a racial slur by a teacher. She said the district didn’t believe him, and they had to have 25 other students confirm that this had happened.
“I don’t want that experience for another child,” she said.