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Despite Some Worries, Open Choice Pupils Soar

June 18, 2005
By REGINE LABOSSIERE, Courant Staff Writer

Tennille Cintron was asked last August if she'd like to take her daughter out of the Hartford school system and place her in Ellington schools.

Cintron, 28, who lives in Hartford's South End with her husband and their children, had been looking for a way to send her 7-year-old daughter, Jada Lewis, to school outside the city. Jada was having trouble reading, and even though Cintron spent time with her at night reading, Jada was still lagging. In Hartford schools, "There's so many kids and not enough teachers and not enough resources," Cintron said.

"Of course I said `yes,'" she said. "It was like a miracle to me."

So Jada became a member of Ellington's first class of Open Choice students, who finish their first year of classes on Monday.

Ellington is the most recent town in Greater Hartford to join the decades-old program. Open Choice, formerly called Project Concern, is a voluntary desegregation program that allows Hartford parents to enroll their children in suburban schools.

There are six Hartford students at Center School and five at Windermere School.

Just about everyone involved, from parents and the superintendent to the program coordinator, says the program has been extremely successful.

"It's gone very smoothly right from the beginning," said Superintendent Richard Packman, who initiated bringing the program to Ellington.

The board of education agreed to take part in Open Choice years ago, but a lack of space prevented it from doing so. The board decided last year it would have enough room.

"I'm still very excited about Ellington opening up their doors to us. They've been exceptionally receptive," said Nessa Oram, Open Choice program director at the Capitol Region Education Council.

Oram said that the program buses more than 800 students from Hartford to 28 of 35 towns in the capital region. CREC is looking at Portland and Hebron as future possibilities. She said that CREC probably wouldn't be able to bring Hartford students to many more towns because state statistics show that other towns are sufficiently diverse.

Cintron and other parents said they were happy to have their children participate, but adult worries entered their minds. Would their children be able to wake up by 7 a.m. and handle the 45-minute bus ride? Would students of Ellington, known as a homogenous community, cause problems for their minority children? Would their children be able to adapt from being a majority in Hartford to looking like almost no one else in the new town?

Catrina Wright, 32, said she was "totally relieved" when she was told that her daughter, Jazz-Min Murphy, now 8, could attend Windermere. But Wright still wondered how Ellington folks would perceive her daughter, she said, hinting at possible racism. "I'm being realistic. It can happen."

Wright said that her daughter was shy the first weeks of school and thinks that her shyness had more to do with skin color than just first-day nerves.

"I think she has opened up and warmed up," Wright said. "I do believe she was uncomfortable. Anyone would be uncomfortable."

Not every parent had the same concerns. Herself a product of Project Concern, Tameka Woolcock, 26, had no worries about sending her 6-year-old son, Kristopher Beasley, on a bus to Ellington.

"All that race stuff, I don't have time for it," Woolcock said. Children "don't notice it unless you point it out. By them starting so young, that's not Kris the outsider. It's just Kris."

School officials agreed. Center School Principal Carole Schloss and Windermere School Principal Frank Milbury said they've made sure that the new students were treated the same way any other student would be treated. But Schloss and Milbury have their own methods. Schloss is known for her mothering personality.

"She's always seeing me," Kristopher said about Schloss, who admittedly adores him. "She sees me and she goes like, `Is that Kristopher? Come over here!'"

"They have just acclimated beautifully," Schloss said. "They're Center School kids, and everybody sees them that way. ... I think we feel very proud that they have acclimated to our school and to our community with no major problems whatsoever."

Milbury is known for getting down to business. He said that any student who comes to his school comes to work, regardless of ethnic or geographic background.

"These kids come in here and do a good job. There's no nonsense, and I think that they are learning," Milbury said. "Every one of these kids has made progress."

Woolcock knew that sending her son to Ellington would be better for him. He has septo-optic dysplasia, which impairs his vision and affects the way Kristopher learns. Woolcock said the special learning programs Ellington offers have changed the way he learns and have made him more confident.

"The school is just excellent. They keep on top of everything," Woolcock said. "He started way behind everyone else, and now he's with them."

Cintron said she's impressed with the work Jada has done in the past year and is even more impressed that Jada often reads for fun now when she didn't used to.

"I want more books," Jada said. "I like the work we do. ... I'm just happy."

Wright said that Jazz-Min also has benefited by attending Windermere. Jazz-Min even said that she wants to move there to spend more time with the friends she's made during the school year.

Having a network of Ellington families linked with Hartford families would benefit the students, parents and school officials said. Students would be able to stay in Ellington more often and go home with an Ellington student until the parent can come.

Schloss had appointed Center School mom Jennifer Barone as leader of that network, but the plan didn't go as smoothly as they had hoped.

"Our thought was that we could match family with family," Barone said. "Because kids are so young, it just didn't quite happen. We're going to try it again next year."

The average cost of the program is $8,952 per child, Packman said. The Open Choice program and state grants help pay for the students. Packman emphasized that the program comes at no additional cost to Ellington because teachers and running the schools already are paid for. Packman said that the district would receive four new students next year, making 15 Open Choice students in Ellington.

Minus a few early jitters and minor quirks, the students are comfortable. To some parents, that's all that matters.

"When we're on vacation, he's eager to go back," Woolcock said of her son. "If he's sick, he wants to go back. So that tells me something. You know how most kids say, `I want to stay home today'? Never, ever, ever."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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