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A Danbury charter school faces barriers to open

A frustrated teenager sits against the lockers in a school hallway. (Getty Images)
Getty Images
A frustrated teenager sits against the lockers in a school hallway.

A Danbury, Connecticut charter school is struggling to get funding after being approved to open in 2018. It’s part of a statewide struggle to approve and fund charter schools in Connecticut.

WSHU’s Ebong Udoma spoke with CT Mirror’s Jessika Harkay to discuss her article, “A Danbury charter school, approved but unfunded, causes tensions,” as part of the collaborative podcast Long Story Short.

WSHU: Hello, Jessika. Could you tell us about this Danbury charter school that was approved back in 2018, but has yet to be funded? What void was the charter school supposed to fill in? Why the holdup in funding?

JH: Yeah, I mean, it's super interesting. Back in 2015, there was a change in the Legislature. So initially charter schools from the 1990s up until 2015, were able to receive that funding right after they received the initial approval by the state Board of Education. And so the legislative change now makes it a two-step process where first you have to receive that initial approval from the board. But now the Legislature has to approve the funding into the schools.

And so since that change in those laws, a charter school hasn't been built in Connecticut since 2015. And sure enough, a charter school approval process is very, very extensive. In the article I wrote, they submitted a 700-page application for this school. And it's just kind of explaining, this is our school model. This is our curriculum, this is how we're going to discipline students if it comes down to that. Here's the support we have from our community. Here's the opposition to it. So you have to kind of cover all of your bases there. And so the school actually started, I think it's application in 2016. Right after that change. Sure enough, it was reviewed by the Board of Education. It was approved in 2018. And it's been waiting for funding since.

And so back to your question of what role would it fill, Danbury is one of the very few communities in Connecticut that is experiencing a huge population growth, especially of Latino immigrants coming into the community. So you also are seeing that equal level of English language learners coming into the schools and now you have overcrowded schools, you have one high school with over 3,000 students — the biggest high school in the state.

And people are asking, okay, what can we do to kind of alleviate this pressure? At this point, a lot of people are fighting for this charter school just because it's going to offer a smaller environment, it would cap each class size at 110. Students start with sixth grade and add a new student every single year, all the way up until 12th grade and the school would be capped at 770 students. A lot of people are arguing that it could be a good environment for people who are English language learners who may not do well in a school with 3,000 students. So the conversation really became, what is a good alternative for this school?

And so again, now that you have this two-tier approval system, that's where the school has been stuck for funding. And you have some people who are in opposition to the school, some of the local delegation leaders, including Senator Julie Kushner, and then you have some of her other co-workers or lawmakers who aren't supportive of the school. She is anti-charter school. And so she kind of argues on that front, maybe we should build a second traditional public high school so then we're helping more students than just 770. And they have that in the works. I think that's going to be built by 2025 as a second high school. But there's still the argument of, okay, we're going to have the second high school that's going to have 1,400 students, that's still a pretty big environment. What if someone needs something a little smaller? So it's kind of a back and forth battle of, is this the best fit for some students or not?

WSHU: Well, you give an example of one particular student, Barbara Luna Merchan, who is now 13 years old, who was very excited about going to a smaller charter school. Could you just tell us about her experience and what she had to say to you?

JH: Yeah, absolutely. I think she was a super interesting character, just because she's kind of gone through all of those struggles. She moved to the United States from Ecuador when she was nine years old, and moved to Connecticut when she was 10. She didn't speak any English. She was in these big class sizes. I think her mom said there were 30-35 students in her elementary school class. So she was in this environment where she felt like she didn't have this individualized support. Sometimes you need a teacher to sit down with you and be like, where are you struggling? How can I help you? But when you have 35 kids in the class, it becomes impossible to do that because there's only one teacher, and you can't give all of those students the time that they really need. So that's what she talked a lot about.

She was saying that for the first few years living in Danbury, she felt invisible in her school, that she wasn't learning any English. She wasn't comfortable raising her hand because she didn't know how to answer questions. She didn't really know how to ask for help, just knowing that there's one teacher, 35 students, how can I ask the teacher to come give me all this attention? And so sure enough, the pandemic breaks out. And she's still not fluent in English. And she was talking about, 'I didn't really have a teacher at that point, my teacher was Google Translate' was a quote that she told me. And I said, oh my God, imagine being 10 years old and you're trying to figure out how to multiply and trying to figure out word problems. And you have to go back and forth between Google Translate. She said that she was spending hours well into the night trying to translate everything, and her mom was trying to help her as well.

And so two years into the pandemic, she got more comfortable with English, and went back to school. And again, you have that problem of overcrowding and more students keep piling into the schools. She was talking a lot about bullying, that she always sees fights breaking out at the school that she's scared to go to the bathroom, she often holds her bathroom breaks until the end of the day in hopes that nothing happens when she's in there. She sees girls smoking in the bathroom, little things like that. She said, 'you know what, I love school. But I don't like the environment I'm in and I'm willing to try anything else where I can feel comfortable going to school. I enjoy learning. I want to enjoy where I'm learning.'

WSHU: Now, Jessika, there's a bill that you talk about here that's passed two legislative committees this year, and might be going to a floor vote that might give some future for charter schools in Connecticut. Could you just tell us a little bit about what that bill does, and how it would help this problem where we have no new charter school funded?

JH: That bill, Senate Bill 1096, was proposed by Senator Douglas McCrory, who is a Democrat from Hartford. It would basically reverse that 2015 legislation of that two-tier approval and go back to that one-tier approval where once you receive that approval from the state Board of Education, you're kind of good to go. It would also start up a grant account with the state that would help fund money into these charter schools when they're first built.

WSHU: Okay. And basically, that is awaiting action on the Senate and House floor?

JH: Right. Yes.

WSHU: Okay. So if that does pass, there's a future for this charter school in Danbury?

JH: Yeah, I would say so. Again, it's like a weird gray line — this school has been waiting for over five years. I know there's conversation amongst like the state Board of Education of okay, is there an expiration date that we should start installing if this new legislation goes through? Should it be grandfathered in as a charter school that was already approved? So it's an interesting conversation that I think has a lot of leeway on both sides that no one really has answers to yet, but I think what the people in Danbury are saying is that they hope it's grandfathered in because it's been approved for so long. And I guess that's also a matter of what's written in the law at the end of the day.

WSHU: And the big fight in the Legislature is whether we should continue to have more charter schools or not.

JH: Right.

As WSHU Public Radio’s award-winning senior political reporter, Ebong Udoma draws on his extensive tenure to delve deep into state politics during a major election year.
Molly is a reporter covering Connecticut. She also produces Long Story Short, a podcast exploring public policy issues across Connecticut.