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Protesters, officials urge Darien to restore its Open Choice schooling program with Norwalk

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Darien Public Schools district headquarters in the lower part of Town Hall, Darien, Connecticut.

Connecticut Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff wants Darien to reverse a vote scuttling a proposed collaboration with Norwalk schools. Last week, the Darien Board of Education voted 5-to-4 against the plan with some members citing concerns over higher cost and class sizes.

Open Choice is a state program that encourages local governments to offer students, who are often from communities of color, the option of receiving an education in the predominantly white, well-funded and high-performing suburban schools. The program would bring 16 Norwalk students to the district chosen via lottery.

Duff joined a rally in Darien on Sunday to highlight how diversity is one of the most underappreciated aspects of the local school system.

“We want to have diversity, we want to have equity, we want to have inclusion, we want to make sure that we have friends who are welcomed in this town,” Duff said.

Duff said the Open Choice program is a win-win for urban and suburban students to gain exposure to new experiences in nearby districts. Applicants to the program have historically been students of color.

Norwalk Mayor Harry Rilling said allowing his students to go to Darien schools would bring more diversity and equity to the state’s racially segregated schools.

“Reconsider and say, 'you know what, welcome Norwalk, welcome to our town, welcome to our schools, and play with our children, get to know each other and love each other like we all should,'” Rilling said.

As a first-time Open Choice participant, Darien would have received $4,000 from the state for every student admitted. The grant would have changed to $3,000 per student in subsequent years.

The program is active close to Darien, with six suburban districts educating close to 300 students from Bridgeport.

Clare is a former news fellow with WSHU Public Radio.