Connecticut’s charter school movement showed its political muscle Wednesday by bringing more than 6,000 parents, teachers, community leaders, and students to form a sea of neon green T-shirts across the New Haven Green—while remaining coy about the details of its school-reform agenda.
Led by charter schools and their advocacy groups, participants at the “For Every Child” rally called for state leaders to address the systematic issues leaving 40,000 students in “failing schools” by increasing access to good schools — though they made no specific policy demands.
ConnCAN—Connecticut Coalition for Achievement Now—organized the rally. ConnCAN CEO Jenn Alexander said at Wednesday’s rally that is is too “early in the [legislative] session” to list specifics. But she said state legislators should take “bold and significant action” to better the school system statewide.
ConnCAN has been at the forefront of lobbying for the creation of more charter schools, including most recently New Haven’s Booker T. Washington Academy. The group is affiliated with Families For Excellent Schools, which buses thousands of charter-school parents to political rallies to push for pro-charter legislation.
Ben Cruse, principal of Achievement First Summit Middle School in Hartford, emceed Wednesday’s rally, introducing the long list of community leaders from various Connecticut cities who took the mic to address the crowd.
“I think the state legislature should do its best to make sure great schools are funded,” Cruse told the Independent before the speeches began. Charter schools should serve as “incubators” for good ideas that can then be attempted in other types of schools, he said.
Amistad Academy junior Ebony Pitts was one of two students who took the microphone to talk about their charter school experiences. She started at Elm City College Preparatory Elementary School in first grade, after attending a “failing school” in New Haven.
Her older sister also attended a “failing school” and skipped many school days because she was raising her siblings, she said. Even so, the school “pushed [her sister] to the next grade,” she said. Her siblings lack the support system she has at Amistad.
New Haven students outnumbered those from other Connecticut cities. And some parents showed up independently of a school group.
As pop music blared from the speakers, Pat Solomon held up a sign that read “For Every Child.” She said her son attended Newhallville’s Lincoln-Bassett in the early ‘90s, when it was one of the district’s top schools; it has since become a “turnaround” school struggling to reverse low performance measures. Despite the fact that most people at the rally were affiliated with charter schools, Solomon said the event was pertinent to students from all schools.
“If the school system was on point, we wouldn’t need charter schools,” she said.
Hartford State Rep. Doug McCrory spoke to family members like Solomon who are outside of the charter school network. “Do not let the system divide you,” he said. “Neighborhood schools and charter schools” should work together, he said.
The language of the rally’s message had been debated by its organizers, said Pastor Eldren Morrison, who founded the Booker T. Washington Academy. The schools have not only failed their students; the city and state have also “failed” the schools, he said.
“We need to keep pushing [the district] to do better,” he said.
Common Ground Principal Liz Cox said she agrees with this statement. More accurately than describing specific schools as failing, “I think we can say a multitude of schools are struggling more than others,” she said. “Someone needs to take a look at changing that.”
Charter schools got the message out to parents through text messages and phone call blasts, she said.
One Common Ground parent, Lincoln Wilson, also has children at a magnet school and a public school in New Haven. Compared to Wilbur Cross High School, Common Ground is “more like a prep school,” he said, mainly because of its smaller size.
He tried to get his daughter currently at Cross into Co-op High School but she did not make it through the lottery system.
“With the lottery system, there’s less of a chance for many students who want to go to charter schools,” he said.
Amistad Academy parent Kimberly Hart (pictured) said she heard about the rally from other parents at a school council meeting. They said they had gone to a similar rally in New York, which “brought a lot of attention” to charter schools.
“Every year, we have to fight for funding,” she said. “There’s a chance we might not get it.”
This story was reported by The New Haven Independent.