Multiple Choice

T he good news is New Haven Public Schools offers dozens of school choices.

The bad news is New Haven Public Schools offers dozens of school choices. 

There are so many choices, in fact, that it takes a 43-page catalog to list them all. “With choice comes challenges,” admits Sherri Davis-Googe, director of the district’s Office of Choice and Enrollment.

So, what are parents and kids to do? One answer is school expos, which were held at three different locations in late January and early February. If you missed them, but you’re in the market for a new school in New Haven, get yourself some sticky notes and a copy of the aforementioned School Choice Guide—magazine-sized for New Haven residents, or a skinnier 5 ½” by 11” edition for suburbanites—or download one here. The guide lays out the school choice process and detailed information on New Haven’s 36 elementary and middle schools and 19 high schools.

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There are magnet schools, interdistrict magnet schools, charter schools, neighborhood schools, a vocational school and another outlier: the interdistrict Educational Center for the Arts (ECA), administered by Area Cooperative Educational Services (ACES). When it comes to high schools, “comprehensive” describes the two large high schools—James Hillhouse and Wilbur Cross—with a wider range of programs.

On January 25 all of them were present at Hillhouse, where the athletic track was covered with school expo booths and families seeking the best lane for the marathon their kids will run through public school. Michael Roberts was there with his daughter Kayla, shopping for high schools, and was impressed by what he saw. “We just went to Hillhouse,” he said of his education. “That was your district, that’s where you went. That’s it. We didn’t have this. So, they’ve got a great opportunity.”

Dash robots controlled by kids on iPads were zipping among the feet of visitors to West Rock STREAM Academy’s booth. (“STREAM” stands for science, technology, reading, engineering, arts and math.) A teddy bear peeked through the window of a cardboard school bus at the East Rock Community and Cultural Studies Magnet booth. Student photography decorated the booth for Betsy Ross Arts Interdistrict Magnet School.

Serving grades 5 through 8, Betsy Ross offers students weekly classes in dance, music, visual arts and theater once a week, as well as an arts emphasis of their choice, according to the school’s artistic coordinator, Sylvia Petriccione. Student Laila Smith enthusiastically described her theater classes—vocal warm-ups, improvisation, rehearsals, learning scripts—and frequent school productions. “Everything is really energetic and everyone’s really involved,” she said. “Any art is a fun class because you get to do what you came to Betsy Ross to do.”

New Haven’s magnet schools offer a full academic curriculum but organize studies around a theme. At Betsy Ross, it’s creative arts. Other magnet themes include architecture and design (Bishop Woods), environmental studies (Barnard) and classical studies (Ross Woodward), to name a few. An “interdistrict” designation means that a magnet school is open not only to New Haven residents but also to students from the suburbs. Because those magnets draw from across districts, the School Choice Guide says, they support “efforts to reduce racial, ethnic and economic isolation.”

Charter schools also have “specialized educational programs,” but they’re run by boards outside the purview of the New Haven Board of Education. “To ease the process for [New Haven] families, we let them also apply through us,” Davis-Googe explains. These schools include Elm City Montessori Magnet (a magnet/charter hybrid), Amistad Academy, Booker T. Washington Academy, Elm City College Preparatory, Achievement First Amistad High School and Common Ground—a “high school, urban farm and environmental education center.” Meanwhile, neighborhood schools are for New Haven residents only and offer the choice of going to school close to home with lots of other kids from the same area.

The Sound School Regional Vocational Aquaculture Center gets its own designation as the district’s only “vocational” school. Over at the Sound School booth on expo night, senior Giovanni Roman and junior Kyle Driebeek were eager to talk about their studies in agriculture and aquaculture. In addition to core academic courses, Sound School students choose one of those two areas, with a science or a technology concentration. “Anything you learn, you can take it out of high school, put it into a job and hit the ground running,” Roman said.

“Or college!” a parent volunteer was quick to add. “We’re a college preparatory school.”

This may all sound like a wonderful smorgasbord, but by page 9 of the School Choice Guide, things get complicated. There are “preferences” for neighborhood residents and siblings in some schools but not others, and a preference isn’t a guarantee. Students get seats via a lottery. There are waitlists. There are students who get none of the four choices on their application, and there’s a chart to explain what happens next. A pullout poster of school open house dates is downright overwhelming. It’s easy to conclude, with this kind of uncertainty, that one choice, for families who are moving to the area or can afford to send their kids elsewhere, might be to avoid New Haven altogether.

It’s also wise to keep in mind that what you read in the School Choice Guide is promotional. For data on test scores, reading proficiency, graduation rates and more, the Connecticut State Department of Education’s EdSight portal is the place to go (click the Performance tab). Its spreadsheets aren’t exactly user-friendly, but drilling down into them provides a fuller picture of the academic strengths and challenges of many schools.

While NHPS struggles with the problems of any urban school district, it also has a lot to recommend it beyond school choice: free preschool, services for English learners, an Office of Youth, Family & Community Engagement and, in conjunction with four major sponsors, New Haven Promise, a program that “provides scholarships for up to 100% [college] tuition for residents and graduates of New Haven Public Schools and approved charter schools,” as the guide explains.

So, there’s good news and bad, sometimes both at once. Help is available to parents at the Office of Choice & Enrollment, where staff will answer questions in person and even help fill out online applications, Davis-Googe says. March 4 is the final application deadline for both paper and online applications. Families will be notified of their school placements for next year on April 4—magnet or charter or neighborhood or none of the above.

Unlike a multiple choice exam, there’s not one right answer. But one thing is certain: many New Haven parents will be studying up.

NHPS Office of Choice & Enrollment
54 Meadow St, Fl 1, New Haven (map)
Mon-Fri 8:30am-4:30pm
(475) 220-1430 or (475) 220-1431
www.newhavenmagnetschools.com

Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel.

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About Kathy Leonard Czepiel

View all posts by Kathy Leonard Czepiel
Kathy Leonard Czepiel is Daily Nutmeg’s associate editor. She’s also a fiction writer, writing teacher and book club troubleshooter at KathyLeonardCzepiel.com. Her favorite New Haven scene is a packed summer concert on the Green with dinner from the food trucks, and she loves that there’s always something new to discover here.

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