|The organizers had three short months to transform a run-down factory into a brand-new school.|
"Nobody had ever done this kind of thing before," says Ann Alfiero, the board's chairwoman and an opponent of the charter school. "And that made it difficult to make a decision. Where were the guarantees from the state? There were a lot of unanswered questions." Also, some board members felt rushed by the tight timeline imposed by the state board of education. "Sometimes when you try to do something too quickly," she says, "you don't do it well."
Supporters of the school left the meeting feeling frustrated. Some were in tears. "I'm extremely disappointed," Joan Heffernan told a local reporter. "We've been working on this for eight years now. . . . They just didn't get it. They just didn't get it."
It was time for Plan B.
"I think the board members assumed that the founders of the charter school would just tuck tail and run," says John Conway, then a founding committee member. "Well, not this crowd."
Heffernan says that after the meeting, the teachers and the other members of the founding committee retired to her house "to lick our wounds and try to regroup."
"We had gone so far already," Morrone says, "we weren't about to give up. So we just kept on working." A state charter was now their only hope. "We didn't want to go that route," Heffernan says, "but we were forced to."
The following night, a representative from the state board of education presided over a hearing in Norwich to discuss the matter of granting a state charter to the Integrated Day committee members. All but one of the 30 people present supported the proposal.
Despite the Norwich Board of Education's decision, both the CEA and the NEA continued to support the proposed charter school. "The vote," admits Rankin of the NEA, "was not what we expected. Typically, we like to work with the local districts on charter schools. But it didn't matter in terms of the criteria we had set for endorsing the school. It was just an external event."
On February 27, the Connecticut Board of Education announced its decision: 10 proposed schools, including Integrated Day Charter School, would receive state charters. (Two other charter schools were approved by local boards.) The board set Integrated Day's first-year enrollment at 175 K-6 students.
Apparently, the members of the state board were so taken by the proposed charter school that they were willing to effectively overrule the decision of the Norwich school board. "They were impressed by the excitement of the teachers," says Amy Stuart Wells, a professor of education at the University of California at Los Angeles who is conducting a study of the school for the NEA. "And they liked the fact that the school had been endorsed by the NEA and the CEA."
The following day, members of the founding committee gathered at Heffernan's house to celebrate over champagne and Junior Mints.
"It's overwhelming," Heffernan told a local reporter. "It's so exciting. It's been such a long time coming."
But there was hardly time for jubilation. The teachers had only six months to create a school from scratch. There were students to enroll, teachers to hire, and supplies to purchase. But first, they had to find a suitable building for their new school. To Heffernan, who, along with Werden and Morrone, had to finish out the academic year at Buckingham, it all seemed too much to handle. "I didn't know where to start," she says.
Little by little, however, things began to fall into place. By mid-March, parents of more than 130 students had submitted applications to the school. Meanwhile, the founding committee re-formed into a governing board, which included the three Buckingham teachers, three parents, and three community members. John Conway was elected chairman of the board. (When Heffernan became the school's director, she was replaced on the board by another teacher.)
For months, the members of the school's building committee had been trying to negotiate a lease at a former printing plant in a Norwich industrial park. It wasn't the ideal site for a school, but it was big—36,000 square feet—and, apparently, available. Then someone on the committee found out about another empty building—the old Thermos factory, part of which had been converted into condominiums in the mid-1980s. The vacant section of the building could be leased for just $30,000 a year, but it needed extensive renovations before it could be converted to a school. No problem, said the building committee members.
|By the end of the summer, the school's 175 slots had been filled by lottery, and a waiting list had already been started for future openings.|
But Heffernan, for one, had to be convinced. "When I first saw the building," she says, "I just sat in the car and cried. I couldn't believe it. All the windows were busted, and part of the roof was caving in. There were huge piles of trash inside. I just couldn't picture it as a school." But she came around, and in May, the governing board signed a five-year lease. The charter school was scheduled to open at the end of August; the organizers had three short months to transform a run-down factory into a brand-new school. "The building itself will be a learning experience," John Conway said after the lease was signed.
Thanks to an $800,000 loan from three local banks, the organizers had the resources to hire an architect and a contractor, who got right to work on the project. "The builder kept assuring us that, yes, it was going to be done," says Joyce Werden. "But during the summer, I would stop by and look around, thinking, I don't know. It really didn't seem possible."
June Morrone agrees. "I couldn't see how it was ever going to be done in time," she says. "But when I would look out the windows at the view of the river, and at the size of the building, it was very exciting."
By the end of the summer, the school's 175 slots had been filled by lottery, and a waiting list had already been started for future openings. Fifty of the enrolled students had previously been in the Integrated Day program at Buckingham, but only one had been in the program at Moriarty. Sixty-nine students came
from other Norwich schools; the rest were newcomers. "We have the whole gamut here," Heffernan says. "We don't just have the best and the brightest."
The student body, she adds, is about 26 percent minority and includes about the same percentage of students who qualify for free- and reduced-price lunches as can be found in the Norwich Public Schools.
The three core teachers, with input from the governing board, hired five new teachers, and together the instructors formed a new NEA local: the Integrated Day Charter School Association. The CEA's Murphy and the NEA's Rankin helped the teachers negotiate a contract—officially called a compact—with the governing board. As part of the contract, Heffernan, Werden, and Morrone were to be paid at the same salary level as if they had remained at Buckingham. "We didn't have to give up anything," says Heffernan, who receives extra pay as school director. "We're motivated, not stupid."