Open less than a year, Integrated Day is one of only six charter schools in the United States endorsed by the National Education Association. NEA President Bob Chase has called it "a successful collaboration between teachers, parents, and educators."
But Integrated Day is the school that almost wasn't.
In fact, it wasn't even supposed to be a school at all. Three veteran public school teachers in Norwich merely wanted to expand their alternative program, called Integrated Day, beyond their basement classrooms in a local elementary school. When that idea went nowhere, they decided to take advantage of Connecticut's new charter school law and create a school of their own.
No dice, said the school board. Even the local teachers' union opposed the charter, although both the NEA and its state affiliate, the Connecticut Education Association, had backed the proposed school. Undaunted, the teachers turned to the state board of education, which, against the wishes of the district's superintendent, approved the school anyway.
"All we were asking for were three new classrooms, and we ended up with a whole new school," says Joan Heffernan, one of the three founding teachers and now director of the school. (She also teaches a combined 5th and 6th grade class.) Heffernan makes it sound easy, but the fact is, she and her colleagues fought a difficult battle to get what they wanted. And they're not the first teachers to discover that starting a charter school is hard work. "When people try to do something different, they are often opposed by school boards and local teachers' unions," says Joe Nathan, director of the Humphrey Institute's Center for School Change at the University of Minnesota and a longtime proponent of charter schools.
Hanging on a wall near Integrated Day's front office is a framed certificate, issued by the state board of education and dated August 7, 1997. The document officially recognizes the center as one of a dozen charter schools sanctioned by the state of Connecticut. It's just a piece of paper, really, but without it, the school would not exist.
Norwich, population 35,000, is an old Connecticut mill town, once one of the country's largest but now struggling to get back on its feet after losing a number of manufacturing jobs in the past decade. Although only two-and-a-half hours from New York City, it is worlds away from the state's Gold Coast, the wealthy suburban enclaves to the south and west. "This is the other Connecticut," says John Conway, chairman of Integrated Day's governing board and a professor of English at nearby Connecticut State University. "We're not Fairfield, Wilton, or Weston."
Nine years ago, Heffernan—a 48-year-old dynamo not much taller than some of her students—joined forces with a like-minded colleague, Joyce Werden, to create an alternative program at their school, Norwich's Buckingham Elementary. They called it Integrated Day, and it offered a developmental approach to learning, with students grouped in multiage classrooms and subjects linked thematically throughout the curriculum. Students were expected to complete a number of independent research projects during the school year, and the resulting reports were displayed prominently on the classroom walls. Desks were arranged in groups, not in tidy rows, and each classroom had a carpeted corner area for the "morning meeting," a daily ritual where students were encouraged to talk about their feelings toward one another. Instead of grades, students received written evaluations of their work.
The program proved popular, and a few years later another teacher, June Morrone, was brought on board. Eventually, Integrated Day would serve more than 60 students at Buckingham, and in 1992 the program was expanded to another Norwich school, Moriarty Elementary. But only students living in the schools' attendance areas were eligible to apply. Children attending any of the other eight elementary schools in the 4,000-student, K-8 school system were unable to take advantage of the program.
"We wanted to open up enrollment to the whole system," Heffernan says. "So we asked for three more classrooms at Buckingham—and we could see that the rooms were available. But the administration wouldn't do it. They said there was no space. They said there was a lack of interest. But we did a survey showing that parents were interested. And we knew there was space."
Faced with this resistance, the teachers were all but ready to give up on their dreams for expansion when the state of Connecticut joined the growing charter school movement. In May 1996, the legislature passed a law allowing for the creation of a maximum of 24 charter schools per year, 12 of them to be approved first by local school boards and then by the state board of education, and the other 12 to be approved solely by the state. Applications to operate such schools were due on December 2, 1996.
The three Integrated Day teachers, along with a core group of parents and other supporters, saw the new law as the perfect vehicle to expand their program. They began putting together two proposals for an Integrated Day Charter School: one to be submitted to the Norwich school board and the other to the state board of education. If the local board rejected the charter school, it could still be approved by the state.
"These teachers really knew where they wanted to go. And the
parents were extremely motivated."
By late September, more than 25 prospective charter school groups had filed letters of intent with the state board of education. Meanwhile, the Connecticut Education Association and its parent organization, the National Education Association, were looking for a proposal they could endorse. Although the NEA used to be a staunch opponent of charter schools, the union in recent years has softened its position. NEA president Bob Chase, who once called his own organization a "traditional, somewhat narrowly focused union," now preaches the gospel of New Unionism, and he's out to transform his 2.3 million-member union into a progressive agent of school reform [see "In The Line Of Fire," November/December 1997]. Chase believes that charter schools, "if done right," can be part of the platform. NEA officials hoped that one of the projects in Connecticut—Chase's home state—could be added to its Charter Schools Initiative, a five-year effort involving a handful of NEA-sponsored charter schools around the country.
Robert Murphy, the CEA's director of professional practice and government relations, read through all the charter school letters of intent, looking for a proposal the union could put its weight behind. The Integrated Day plan, he says, was the obvious choice. For one thing, it was the product of three teachers, all of them CEA members. Moreover, their proposed school was based on an existing program with a solid track record. "These teachers really knew where they wanted to go," he says. "And the parents were extremely motivated. And they were further along in their thinking and planning than some of the other groups." In October, the CEA officially put its stamp of approval on the proposed school, and shortly thereafter the NEA followed suit. Indeed, Murphy, along with the NEA's Teresa Rankin, an organizational specialist with the union's Center for the Revitalization of Urban Education, both worked closely with the Integrated Day teachers as they completed their proposals.