GUILFORD – The Board of Education unanimously approved the launch of an Open Choice program, which allows city students to attend public schools in nearby suburban towns.
Superintendent Paul Freeman said the program would start in the 2024-25 school year, with a small rollout of about six first-grade students.
In year two of the program, he said, Open Choice would expand by adding students in both first and fifth grade. In year three, students would be added in first, fifth, and ninth grade.
Regina Sullivan, who is the president of the local teachers union, was originally scheduled to appear before the board to express the teachers’ position on Open Choice, but was unable to attend, and forwarded her comments to Freeman.
Speaking on Sullivan’s behalf, Freeman called Open Choice the logical next step, and told board members that diversifying the student population through Open Choice would be a healthy and positive experience for students.
Freeman said Sullivan couldn’t think of a single teacher who would speak against going in this direction.
“It’s the right work to be doing,” he said. “We’ll be inviting students into our classrooms who would benefit from being here. Creating more diverse environments. Not only talking about it but making every effort we can to help create more diverse environments.”
He said Sullivan reminded him that this isn’t the first time Guilford Schools has launched a program like this, noting Guilford High School’s participation with the ABC House.
ABC House, or Guilford A Better Chance, describes itself as an education program that allows women of color from underprivileged communities to attend high quality public schools and a preparatory college track program.
Board member John Dellaventura said that starting off with first graders is the right age, making it more impactful for the students.
Family Equity Liaison for Guilford Rydell Harrison fielded questions from the board providing information on Open Choice before the vote.
He said it was important to set up infrastructure in the program that will support new families coming into Guilford Schools, providing clear communication and help navigate their experience.
Having been a superintendent himself, twice, in Watertown and Easton, Redding and Region 9 school districts, Harrison said he’s observed his teachers’ ability to face the challenges of bringing students from one school district to another.
“What they saw was the positive impact on the existing students in the district,” he said. “If we can create classroom opportunities for them to learn alongside people whose experiences that may be different, it creates great learning opportunities on both sides.”
Harrison said, after having reviewed Guilford schools for Open Choice over the past two years, if Guilford isn’t ready to participate in Open Choice, no district is.
“We are asking the right questions,” he said. “You have fantastic leaders who are not so arrogant to believe that we already know everything. It puts us in a learning posture. By starting with six students gives you an opportunity to learn. A willingness to work with families that have historically been marginalized shows a district ready to work with Open Choice.”
Harrison advised board members that they to consider beginning outreach, particularly for afterschool programs, as well as encouraging families that participate in Open Choice to voice their concerns about their children feeling like they’re a part of the community.
“Grassroots efforts make it feel real and genuine,” he said. “I think that one of the pieces that will have to be in the forefront is access to programs, after school programs. We want these students to have the full Guilford experience. It’s a 24-hour experience. How do we open up avenues to this experience?”
Harrison also warned against making Open Choice feel like charity.
“The challenge is when it seems like it’s not reciprocal,” he said. “Like charity. There are mutual benefits for our existing students as well. That’s not just important from the student perspective, but from the instructional perspective. It’s important to reiterate that it’s important for all of us. You don’t want to have terminology. Once you walk in through the doors, you’re all Guilford students. Make sure there is a real clear embrace as full participants.”
Board member Kristen Peck said that she has spoken with other districts participating in the program, and that their experience was that it had been a great benefit for the students. But Peck told the board that one local teacher had expressed worry about handling additional work.
“I think this board is good at recognizing the value of a statement like that from a teacher,” Freeman said, but said that the district couldn’t wait for the perfect moment because it isn’t attainable.
“Public education is always a work in progress,” he said. “As the leaders in the district, we need to validate those concerns and remind them that we’re going to go slowly and thoughtfully and they’ll be surrounded by support. But we can’t wait to be perfectly ready, as we never will be perfectly ready.”
Though they ultimately voted in favor of Open Choice, board members Kristy Faulkner and Moira Rader said that they wished there had been more community outreach before the vote.
“I wish we heard more from the community, but we have to take that leap,” Rader said.