Open Choice Program Rumors Dispelled

Eliza Llewellyn, Staff Writer

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Despite a tight budget and a Westport News article forecasting a decrease in the Open Choice Program, which transports students from Bridgeport to schools in Westport and other surrounding districts, the program will continue, and is, in fact, slated to take on five first-graders next year.

Over time, there has been a decrease in the number of Bridgeport students accepted to the program.

According to Julie Horowitz, coordinator of the Open Choice program in Westport and a social worker in the district, there had been over 200 students involved several years ago. There are currently 175 involved, a number that includes students attending schools in Westport along with Fairfield, Trumbull, Stratford, Weston, and Easton.

Westport has a commitment to continuing the program, although budgetary restrictions surrounding enrollment numbers are now taken into account when accepting new students.

Open Choice, which also operates in New Haven and Hartford, was established in response to the 1989 Sheff v. O’Neill case, which requires that the state of Connecticut work to correct the socioeconomic inequity in its schools.

The program has been active in Westport for 15 years.

“The commitment is absolute,” Superintendent Elliott Landon said.

A Westport News article published in February said that the program has become endangered due to tighter spending on teacher salaries and overall cost-cutting and suggested the possibility that no new Open Choice students would be accepted for the 2012-2013 school year.

According to Landon, the 2011-2012 year was an anomaly in that no Open Choice students were accepted.

Due to projections of large class sizes, the district “exercised caution instead of moving forward,” Landon said. Last year was the first year in Landon’s 13 years as superintendent that the district did not accept new students, and the program is slated to resume enrollment next year.

The decision for the number of students depends strictly on class size, as a higher number of students require more teachers. Teacher salaries make up the main expenses of the district.

“If all classes were averaging 22 students, we wouldn’t take any [students from Open Choice],” Landon said.

The tight budget has put new pressures on the program. Within the past three years, the district has dealt with more conservative budgets and thus has had to cut back on staff.

Prior to three years ago, the district would have accepted Open Choice students regardless of enrollment numbers, Landon said.

However, with fears of teachers being laid off and class size limits that have already been increased, there is less flexibility to add students, Landon said.

Beyond enrollment, the program has few costs to Westport schools. Transportation is covered by state subsidies. State grants also give the district $3000 for each student accepted into the program, money that covers extracurricular activities and other enrichment programs.

“The cost to the district would be zero or very close,” said Dr. Mark Ribbens, who has coordinated the Open Choice program for three years.

Westport’s enrollment of Bridgeport students has been steady, ranging from 36 to 42 students within the district.

Although programwide numbers have decreased, the Westport school system had offered to extend the program by accepting students in kindergarten instead of first grade.

“We were hoping [the program] could start in kindergarten and offered to take students in kindergarten for next year,” Landon said.

However, not enough other districts involved in the program committed to the earlier start; still, the students will still be entering the schools in first grade, according to Ribbens.

Westport currently enrolls 38 Bridgeport students.  The program provides students with opportunities not available in Bridgeport schools.

“A friend of my mother’s is involved in the Bridgeport Board of Ed and suggested to her that she apply to get me in the program because of the poor quality of education in Bridgeport,” Lamont Johnson ’14 said.

Gardenia Washington, mother of Mikell Washington ’12 heard about the program through a preschool teacher. The program gave her children a chance to attend stronger schools.

“I don’t know how I would have been able to afford to send them all to private school,” Gardenia said.

The few spots in the program are coveted; Horowitz often gets phone calls from parents wanting to get into the program.

“They are looking to get out of Bridgeport schools and specifically attend Westport schools,” Horowitz said.

According to Washington, over 600 students applied one year.

“I really feel blessed having [my children] in the program,” Washington said.

Principal John Dodig emphasized the gaps between Bridgeport schools and Westport schools.

“Open Choice takes kids from an environment where there are fewer opportunities for kids in education and brings them to a community that is about as far apart as you can get,” Dodig said.

The program gives students like Washington a chance to attend schools with more resources than those in Bridgeport.

“Some of the stuff we’re doing in 6th grade, [Bridgeport students] are doing in high school,” Washington said.

He feels like the program has given him opportunities to succeed in education and extracurricular activities like wrestling.

Johnson also appreciates the program: “The range of classes to choose from is astounding, the staff all seem to care about each individual student, and most students openly accept us even though we come from completely different walks of life,” he said.

Shanaisha Chanteese ’14 also felt the program was beneficial despite the jump from Bridgeport to Westport.

“I don’t get treated differently,” Chanteese said. “It just took me and [Westport students] a while to get used to each other,” she said.

Washington sees himself as no different from any other Westport student.

“I think [some students] feel that I’m less fortunate, but I don’t think of myself that way,” Washington said. “I think of us as all on an equal playing field.”

According to Dodig, the program’s success is rooted in that it treats Bridgeport kids identically to Westport kids.

“The same percent will play the cello, be artists, or play football,” Dodig said.

However, the students enrolled in the program deal with a different life than the average Westport student. Each morning, they wake up early for the bus ride to Westport. Johnson has been involved in the program since first grade and deals with the commute every day.

“I wake up at 5:30 in the morning, which is probably the latest of the Open Choice high school students, since I get picked up last,” Johnson said.

Transportation also is an issue in the afternoons. A late bus is provided at 5:30 p.m., but that’s often before sports practices and other activities end. This puts the kids on a different schedule from peers in Bridgeport.

Contrary to what might seem problematic, according to Chanteese, keeping up with friends in Bridgeport is possible.

“There’s Facebook, texting, calling and we can always hang out after school,” she said.

Washington said that it can be hard to schedule times to get together with friends from Bridgeport.

However, his attendance in Westport schools has not alienated him from Bridgeport peers,

“They want me to do well,” he said.

Both Bridgeport and Westport students benefit from the program, all argued.

“Open Choice is a positive for residents of Westport as it creates a more diverse atmosphere,” Ribbens said. “Everyone wins with this kind of program.”

 

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