Darien Board of Education Rejects Open Choice, Closes Opportunities

Darien Board of Education votes against implementing Open Choice program that would allow students from Norwalk to attend Darien Public Schools


Pedro Xing

Open Choice would have allowed students from Norwalk to attend Darien Public Schools where seats were available

Lily Cowles, Writer

Darien prides itself on having some of the best schools in the nation. Recently, when given the chance to open the district to students from Norwalk, the town declined. 

Open Choice is a Connecticut program that allows children in nearby cities to attend suburban schools, or students in nearby rural and suburban areas to attend urban schools. The program is intended to increase racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic diversity in schools, while giving students opportunities to receive better quality education than may otherwise be available to them. Hartford, Bridgeport, and New Haven are all participants of Open Choice, and Darien came close to being one, too. On Tuesday February 1st, the Board of Education voted 5-4 against instituting the program in Darien.

Board members raising hands
The Darien Board of Eduction takes a vote on Open Choice. The result was 5-4 to reject the program. (Darien PS YouTube)

The issue has been a controversial one in the BOE and among Darien parents, many of whom spoke up to defend or condemn the program in the public comments of Board of Education meetings. The problem with the debate over Open Choice–like with so many American controversies–is that it has become a battle over ideology rather than policy. Either you are against it, and you are against diversity–or you are for it, and you don’t care about children in Darien. 

Many parents voiced concerns about introducing Open Choice while the town is still recovering from the Covid-19 pandemic; others stressed the importance of a program that would increase diversity in schools after the recent incidents of hateful vandalism at Middlesex Middle School and Darien High School. People raised concerns over the financial aspects of the plan, or worried that Darien would be unable to devote sufficient time, energy, and resources to its own children if Norwalk students were also introduced.

Infographic describing how Open Choice will be funded
Per Project Choice student, the town would receive a $3,000 grant, plus a $1,000 year-one bonus. (Darien Board of Education)

The program, had it been adopted, would have allowed sixteen kindergarten students from Norwalk to attend Darien Public Schools (DPS), spread out over the five elementary schools based on location. The students would be selected through a lottery, giving all applicants an equal chance. Per student, the town would receive a $3000 grant, plus a $1000 year-one bonus. Projecting the costs through the elementary school level, it is estimated that each student would cost the district around $500, leaving Darien with a significant net profit.

Darien residents worried that Open Choice would ultimately be a negative investment as the students progressed through middle and high school, requiring more materials and technology. The father of a Darien elementary schooler warned “Open Choice guarantees more cost for Darien taxpayers.”

 However, Superintendent of Schools Dr. Alan Addley assured the town that this is simply not true. Though it is harder to predict how Open Choice will affect DPS financially through the middle and high school levels, other districts which participate in Open Choice have not experienced any great increases in cost. The state covers the cost of transportation, and the costs of materials and technology are covered by the grants.

Yellow school bus
The State of Connecticut covers the whole cost of transportation for students participating in Open Choice (Adam E. Moreira)

Besides financial concerns, many Darien parents also felt that now is not the right time to introduce a new program as Darien deals with the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, including an influx of new families as part of the general migration from urban to suburban areas in efforts to escape the epicenters of disease.

It may be true that the student body of DPS will increase as a result of this, but this shouldn’t prevent Open Choice. The program allows for Norwalk students to attend DPS where seats are available; the district won’t be overwhelmed or overcrowded with students from Norwalk.

The pandemic has also affected the mental health of students, and many Darien residents believe that returning to normal while caring for Darien’s own children should be the town’s priority. Board member Mr. John Sini referenced photos of elementary schoolers in masks, isolated from their peers, saying “this is not anywhere close to normal that we’re dealing with, so this is not the right time to implement a program like this… I think we actually have to focus on our kids first.”

But Board of Education member Ms. Julie Best insisted that if the town waits until the “perfect” moment to implement Open Choice, then we would never take action. “We can’t wait until we get back to something we recognize from ‘the before time’… I do think the timing is now,” she said.

I do think the timing is now”

— Board of Education member Ms. Julie Best

Still, it is understandable why Darien parents would be hesitant to introduce a new program at a time when so much is still in fluctuation. In the debate over Open Choice, there remains on both sides an innate desire to protect and provide opportunities for children in Darien. But Board member Ms. Sara Parent suggested that “it [the BOE] also has a responsibility to the education of every child in the state.” Open Choice would provide opportunities for students in Darien to have more interactions with people of different backgrounds, while providing better educational opportunities for students from Norwalk.

One Darien mother, who herself grew up here and attended Darien public schools, urged the Board to “get past those fears and embrace change… if we truly want to see a more diverse and welcoming Darien.” The town of Darien is 91% white, and this is reflected in classrooms as well, where students of color will inevitably find themselves in the minority. The mean annual household income is over $350 thousand. The privilege of the white, affluent majority is part of what makes the high quality of Darien’s public education possible, but where Darien’s schools lack is in their diversity. 

Board members sit and discuss
Darien Board of Education members deliberate over the pros and cons of Open Choice (Darien PS YouTube)

Board member Ms. Tara Ochman invoked the statute from the state board of education which “requires… that we make available to our students diverse interactions with students of diverse socioeconomic backgrounds.” At the moment, this is largely lacking from the experience of the average Darien student. The goal of Open Choice is to make those opportunities more available.

Dr. Addley also pointed out that many students from Darien have expressed their desire for greater diversity and reduced discrimination in DPS. After the incidents of vandalism at DHS, many students spoke up about experiences of bullying or exclusion due to their status as minorities in Darien. “This is our opportunity to show our students that we are serious about supporting their voices, that we’re serious about change, and that we are serious about supporting diversity,” said Dr. Addley.

In the public comment, a couple of Darien residents spoke up to suggest a better way to increase diversity would be to increase funding for the ABC program. A Better Chance accepts two girls from outside of Darien every year to live in Darien and attend DHS for their freshman through senior years. For some Darien residents, ABC is a more appealing alternative to Open Choice because of the more intensive selection process, which considers academic merit. But Darien would be accepting students from Norwalk to join DPS at the kindergarten level — at this point, all children have the potential for academic success. 

I think it is a great opportunity for more students to get a great education”

— Keziah Gyimah-Padmore

Many of the ABC scholars themselves support Open Choice. Sophomore Kiara Luciana says, “I think it is a great idea. The two spaces [Darien and Norwalk] are so close anyway; it seems convenient.” Junior Keziah Gyimah-Padmore agrees, saying “I think it is a great opportunity for more students to get a great education.”

Some in Darien resist the narrative of Norwalk students coming over to receive a better education, likening it to an educational equivalent of the white savior trope. A Darien resident who received her education from Stamford Public Schools claimed that “we are painting a picture that Darien is coming in to help kids from Norwalk, that if somehow we don’t do the Open Choice program that those kids are going to be left behind and that they won’t have the same opportunities for the same future. That is just not true.” Another Darien resident, who sometimes works as a substitute teacher in Norwalk schools, pointed out that from her experience in Norwalk schools, the town has sufficient resources.

Students gathered outside Norwalk High School
Students at Norwalk Public Sschool can still succeed, but it’s difficult to deny there are better education opportunities in Darien (Erik Trautmann)

Regardless of the resources available to Norwalk, Darien is consistently ranked higher in terms of quality of education. According to Niche.com, Darien High School receives a grade of A+ for the highest quality of education. Norwalk High School receives a B. Almost all (around 90%) DHS students are considered “proficient” in reading and math, based on Connecticut standardized testing. Only 51% of NHS students are proficient in reading and only 31% are proficient in math. As of this year, Norwalk Public Schools (NPS) have made available 1:1 devices, supported by funding from the City of Norwalk. Though this is a positive initiative in NPS, it still demonstrates the disparity between the two districts. DPS has been able to provide its students with technology for years due to a larger budget, and that same budget can provide greater resources to students. There are good education opportunities in Norwalk; students who attend those schools can still succeed. But it’s pointless to deny that there are better education opportunities in Darien, so why deny students access to them?

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