New charter schools: Heading to a city near you?

Two organizations vying to open charter schools in Waterbury and Windham are expected to get final approval this week from the State Board of Education.

“I assume there will be action” Wednesday, State Board of Education Chairman Allan B. Taylor said during an interview.

The expected opening of these new charters defies the odds; only two new charter schools have opened in the state in the previous seven years, although 27 applications were filed.

And the expansion is not likely to end there. The state budget approved by the General Assembly this week provides $10.2 million to open four new charter schools overseen by the state over the next two school years.

“Obviously this is an area I had a pretty big disagreement with the legislature on,” Gov. Dannel P. Malloy told reporters Monday, explaining how he was able to get all the money for new charter schools included in the final adopted budget.

With the two new schools, 450 additional charter school seats would be added to the 6,451 seats in charter schools already available throughout the state — a 7 percent increase in enrollment.

But Connecticut is still behind the national trend; only 1 percent of public school students in Connecticut attend charter schools, reports the U.S. Department of Education. Nationwide, 3.6 percent of all public school students were enrolled in charters in the 2010-11 school year, the most recent year for which data are available.

It’s not for lack of demand: According to the most recent report by the State Department of Education, charter school enrollment would double if everyone on the waiting list got a seat.

Taylor said growth of charter schools has been restrained because of how they’re funded, which is largely with state money.

“That almost inevitably creates limited growth,” Taylor said.

The first school of choice in Waterbury (kind of)

For the last four decades, Children’s Community School, a private, non-parochial school on the east side of Waterbury, has served about 140 students from low-income families. Tuition is $350 a year.

“We are the only alternative in the city at this point,” said Barbara L. Ruggiero, who applied for the charter on behalf of the school.

On Thursday, the state board is expected to give her the nod to open a new state-funded charter school that will enroll 114 students in preschool through first grade in the coming school year. In five years, enrollment is projected to swell to 250 students in a school that serves preschool through Grade 5 students.

“We wanted to offer a strong successful academic model,” Ruggiero said during an interview.

Students who win the lottery to attend the new  Brass City Charter School will have a longer school day and a longer school year. Students will attend school nine hours a day, and they will have about 20 more school days every year than traditional public schools, she said. Class size will also be small — 17 students –- and a free four-week summer program will be offered to every student.

(See the full application for Waterbury’s Brass City Charter School here.)

The charter school in Windham that is also expected to win state board approval will be run by Our Piece of the Pie, a Hartford-based nonprofit that helps provide tutoring and counseling for vulnerable urban students.

The high school will open with 120 students in the 2014-15 school year; the following year, the school is expected to enroll 200 students.

With four of 10 Windham students failing to graduate in four years, the school will target students most at risk of dropping out. The school would graduate students based on their mastery of a subject matter, rather than social promotion.

(Read more about Path Academy in Windham here.)

It remains to be seen where the remaining two state charter schools will open. The State Department of Education has held a public hearing already on the possibility of opening a school in Norwalk (See that application here). In the state’s most recent request for charter applications, seven groups applied.

Same school, expanded enrollment

Charter schools each year are required by state law to get permission from the State Board of Education to increase the number of students they enroll from year to year.

The state budget approved by the Senate Monday night provides another $22 million in new funding to expand enrollment in existing charter schools on top of the money for new charter schools, Malloy said. It is unclear how many additional seats that will pay for. This year, the state provided about $65 million in total for charter schools.

Rep. Toni Walker, the co-chairwoman of the legislature’s powerful budget-writing committee, said that legislators were able to resolve their differences with the governor’s office to provide funding for new charters. In the budget approved by the Appropriations Committee, no funding was provided for new state charter schools.

“We decided it was important,” the Democrat from New Haven said during an interview.

Walker added that funding was not originally provided because of concern about quickly a new charter could get up and running.

“In these times, we don’t have the luxury of letting money lay dormant… When we appropriate it we want it to serve people immediately,” she said.

Kelly Donnelly, a spokesman for the State Department of Education, said, “We are pleased that, as part of a broader reform agenda involving a variety of governance and management models, public charter schools are advancing. The funding provided in the final budget adopted by the General Assembly will expand educational choices for families in some of the state’s lowest performing districts.”

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