Only 1 school district is willing to accept Danbury students in CT's Open Choice program

DANBURY —  As part of the state's approved Open Choice program, beginning in the fall, the city will send its first cohort of eight students to a neighboring school district. However, the district, Redding, is the only one in the Danbury area that has agreed participate in the program, whose primary goal is to reduce overcrowding in city schools and increase diversity in suburban ones.

While state and local leaders are pleased about Redding's participation, they expressed disappointment at the lack of interest in the other districts.

"Eight kids out of kindergarten in another school district might make a difference to overcrowding but it doesn't really make a big difference to Danbury," said Danbury school board chairman Ralph Pietrafesa. "So, we're not depending on this as a solution."

State Rep. Bob Godfrey , D-Danbury said he's "very disappointed" that Open Choice hasn't been as successful as planned.

"We're overcrowded. Not all, but some of our suburban school districts have student shortage," Godfrey said. "Student shortage is the default mark for the state of Connecticut. The increase in population, both before and during and COVID into western Connecticut, has had a huge impact on the school system."

Open Choice

The Open Choice program, which was approved to begin in Danbury and Norwalk in the 2022-23 academic year, would allow students from these city schools to attend neighboring, suburban school districts. As part of the program, up to 50 students from Danbury and 50 students from Norwalk would have been able to attend the nearby schools. No neighboring school districts, however, agreed to partner with Danbury for the current school year. 

The state is re-instituting the program beginning in the 2023-24 school year. Parents with school-aged children in the Danbury Public School district may apply for the opportunity to attend school in a neighboring school district for the entirety of their educational career up through high school graduation. The program is of no cost to families and transportation is provided, according to a release from Cooperative Educational Services, who is coordinating the program.

Danbury students can go to New Fairfield, Brookfield, Bethel, Ridgefield and Redding while Norwalk students can go to Darien, New Canaan, Wilton, Weston and Westport. While the Norwalk program is up and running, some of its neighboring districts, such as Darien, declined to participate. The goal of the program is to reduce overcrowding in large school districts like Danbury, while bringing students into schools where enrollment may be declining. Officials have said this helps suburban school districts to be more diverse, as well.

Open Choice was established with the state in 1997 in the Bridgeport region and has been operating every year since that time. It's also now in Hartford and New Haven areas. The state pays a grant of $3,000 per student enrolled if the number of Open Choice students is less than 2 percent of the total population of the receiving district. There is no cost to parents.

The budget provided $275,000 in the 2022-23 fiscal year and $900,000 in 2023-24 to establish the program, according to the office of state Sen. Julie Kushner, D-Danbury.

Danbury has 12,210 students and that number is expected to go up to 12,289 — a 0.6 percent increase. Danbury schools' population has been increasing for years. 

Redding on board

Jason McKinnon, superintendent of Easton, Redding and Region 9 school districts, said the eight students coming from Danbury will be in kindergarten and first grade.  

The district selected the eight students based upon projected enrollment for those grades.

"Generally, each school district examines class size in each grade level," he said. "We generally try to keep class sizes lower in the elementary grades. For instance, we would like our kindergarten class sizes to be approximately (15-17 students). Therefore, Open Choice seats are identified based on our projected enrollment each year for specific grade levels." 

He added as class size and local demographics are evaluated, the district may ask for a different number of students each year.

"The Board will make that decision each January when the superintendent presents the class size report and annual budget recommendation for the following year," he said.

Redding wanted to participate in the program last year as well but the district didn't have enough spots open to make it feasible, said Eric Nyquist  the coordinator for CES.

'Wasn't even willing to entertain it'

New Fairfield Superintendent Kenneth Craw said when the Open Choice program was discussed last year, the district decided not to move forward with it. 

"Maybe because the program was new," said Craw, who is in his first year as superintendent in the district. Last year, the school's chief was Pat Consentino, who is now interim part-time superintendent of Sherman Schools.

Craw participated in Open Choice with Bridgeport while working as assistant superintendent in Weston for 10 years and prior to that as a principal for four years.

"During that whole tenure, we had a modest number of students from Bridgeport that were part of the program," he said. "It's a program with a good track record."

Brookfield school superintendent John Barile said Brookfield has growing enrollment and needs to access the transition to its new school — Candlewood Lake Elementary School, which will open in the fall. 

"(Open Choice) has been a conversation of post pandemic, analysis of enrollment, especially in the younger grades, and also the complexities of transitioning three schools being consolidated into one Candlewood Lake Elementary School," he said. "And so, from the start, we knew we needed to open up Candlewood Lake Elementary with Brookfield students first — whether that was the current year or next year, before we fully entertain bringing out students from other communities." The district spent $78 million on Candlewood Lake Elementary School, he said.

He added with "the migration of  younger families coming in from New York and moving into the school system, we have been seeing upward pressure on our elementary grades. So we want to be very mindful of that."

He said in the next budget cycle, he'll be asking for an updated enrollment study.

"Once we have the future projections of an updated enrollment study and the school is open and functioning and we know what we have with our space, we then can consider recommending or moving forward with a program like this," he added.
Brookfield's current enrollment is 2,600 students.

Bethel Superintendent Christine Carver said the Board of Ed "wasn't even willing to entertain" the program due to increasing enrollment.
"Our enrollment has grown by 9 percent over the past several years and we don't have the space even if we wanted to even entertain the open space program, so we wouldn't have the space to offer seats ... we literally don't have the space to even consider the program."

She added the only way it really works is if you have space to put kids in without creating additional sections of class.

"The Bethel district enrollment is 3,267, a 9 percent increase over the past six years," Carver said. "We just had another enrollment projection study done and it's actually set to increase by 5 percent more over the next 10 years."

She said she thinks Bethel is "very appealing" for people moving into the district for several reasons, including "the downtown, the restaurants, and the schools and is affordable when compared to the neighboring communities. A lot of housing has gone up both in terms of single family homes but also condos and different types of apartment complexes. So all of that has kind of contributed to (the increase in enrollment)."

Ridgefield school chief Susie Da Silva said the education board hasn't discussed Open Choice as an agenda item recently.

When it was last discussed, she said "Some of the discussion points were associated costs, residual impact of the pandemic on our RPS students and being sure that we could meet our students' needs and understanding the impact of class size," she said.

Ridgefield school's enrollment is 4,568 with 56 preschool students. Enrollment projections for next year are expected to drop to 4,411, not including the number of preschool students.

Danbury Career Academy

Area leaders hope the Danbury Career Academy will be the answer to Danbury's overcrowded schools.

The academy, to be built at 40 Apple Ridge Road at the former Cartus Corp. site, will be funded by the state. It will be for students in grades 6 to 12 and will be opening in 2025-26. The school was set to open in 2024 but recently announced it has been delayed a year due to negotiations to buy the building taking up too much time.

State Sen. Julie Kushner, D-Danbury said the Open Choice program was never considered a solution for overcrowding and added she's not happy with the academy's delayed opening. 

"I'm disappointed in the city's administration that they didn't get it together on a timeline that was promised to the voters to open the new Career Academy in the fall of 2024," she said. "I'm very disappointed that they weren't able to manage the project in a way that we could be on time. It's disappointing but nonetheless, to me, this is a really key solution to our problems of overcrowding and I think we need to continue to address this as a community and as a state."

She added the Career Academy is not just about adding a new school and more seats, "It also is a program that will change the curriculum across the entire district."

Still time to sign up

All Connecticut towns that share a border with Danbury are eligible to participate in Open Choice under the legislation. Seat offerings have not been finalized by districts at this time and communities are still discussing their ability to participate and the number of seats that will be available from each district, said Jacqui Owens, family & community outreach coordinator, at CES.

Nyquist said while he's been in contact with all the school districts that were named in the legislation to let them know the program is running next year, CES can't "force" any district to participate. 

"Nobody wants to force any districts to do a program that they're not excited about doing. We extended the offer to all of the districts in that area. We continue to dialogue with them, we continue to meet with them," he said. "We still have a little bit of time here to see if anybody else wants to participate. If not, then we'll be happy to have these eight students attend Redding schools to start next year."

He added he thinks the program is "great."

"We have some kids who it has been amazingly life changing for," he said. "Every year, parents are calling and saying, 'We're so grateful for the program and it's worked out so well for my child and they're so happy and they're succeeding.'"