Enrollment at charter, magnet schools on the rise in New Haven

Education officials in the city have long agreed that school choice — which allows families to select from schools in their neighborhoods, magnet schools with specialized curricular themes and charter schools, often through a lottery process — is an advantage of the district.

According to data provided by district officials, city enrollment in local charter schools has grown to be nearly equal to suburban enrollment in the district’s magnet schools.

From October 2014 to October 2017, city enrollment in charter schools grew from 1,957 students to 2,682.

In that same time period, suburban enrollment has fluctuated between a low of 2,812 students and a high — in 2014 — of 2,912 students.

“We are one of the few districts in the state that is growing,” said New Haven Public Schools Chief Operating Officer Will Clark in an emailed statement.

“Post Oct. 1 count (which was up) another 170+ have been added from hurricane areas, primarily Puerto Rico.”

Enrollment is important for public school districts, as it is tied to state and federal funding, which keeps them operational. Additionally, keeping classrooms full helps to keep after-school programs running and creates a need for more jobs within the district.

Although charter advocates argue they are underfunded, having been flat-funded by the state at $11,000 per student for years, public school districts are financially responsible for ancillary costs like transportation.

Magnet schools were conceived in part as school integration tools, competitive schools that feature attractive curricular options for suburban families, creating schools that are more racially and economically diverse than traditional “neighborhood” schools.

The state funds magnet schools on a per-pupil basis.

This funding tends to create an additional financial incentive for cities like New Haven.

Clark said he believes the growth in charter enrollment has to do with the creation of more charter schools.

One such school is Booker T. Washington Academy, which opened its doors in 2014 and has added a grade every year since.

Sherri Davis-Googe, district director of choice and enrollment, reported to members of the school board in April that about 2,000 suburban families applied to a new magnet school for the 2017-18 school year.

“As an organization, we are certainly encouraged and pleased to see so many parents are choosing this option for our kids,” said Kerisha Harris, spokeswoman for the Northeast Charter Schools Network. “Our strong belief is charter growth in general should be fueled by demand.”

Harris reported that “preliminary data” for the 2017-18 school year is that names on the wait list for New Haven-area charter schools “exceeded 2,100,” a number reportedly similar to that of suburban families seeking to enter New Haven magnet schools.

Harris said much of the growth can likely be attributed to the addition of grade levels in some of New Haven’s charter schools in recent years, but other charter schools, such as Common Ground High School, stand to grow more.

“They have a beautiful, brand new building, a working farm and top honors.

“They would love to open up and have more students and offer this educational option to more kids,

“Bbut they can’t grow past the current amount of students they have. They have the space for it and the room,” Harris said.

Charter advocates have argued that the “flat-funding” of $11,000 per-pupil means expanding is not a possibility. Officials at Common Ground say the overhead for the building Harris mentioned is $7.5 million.

Teachers at Common Ground work for 85 percent of the pay scale of teachers in the traditional schools.

Clark said that although the situation of students enrolling in charter schools represents funding going away from the district, officials can pursue multiple avenues.

“The dilution of major funding streams from the state and federal government is a challenge for all schools districts and any diminution of our funding or other re-purposing toward Charters would only heighten those concerns.” Clark said. “We continue to be aggressive in seeking out grants and revenue in order to have diverse streams of funding to support and sustain our programming and growth.”

In the last four years of data, preschool-enrolled charter students rose from four to 87, but district schools still teach more suburban preschool students: 243 in 2017. There was a drop, however, to 153 suburban kindergarten students in New Haven magnet schools that year.

“What I always find interesting in the magnet numbers is the perception of a big bump at pre-K and K and then a drop off. While that is certainly true of Pre-K, that largely is a creature of lack of pre-K in and around New Haven more than anything else,” Clark said.

According to NHPS data, suburban magnet enrollment in the district does fall after preschool, but there is an observable bump around sixth or seventh grade, from 187 sixth-graders to 240 seventh-graders in 2017 — as families prepare to send their students to magnet high schools.