by Jo Lutz
Connecticut waited five years since the last new charter school was approved, but once the green light was given, Brass City Charter School in Waterbury wasted no time opening its doors.
The school’s charter was approved just three months ago, and for the folks at Brass City, it’s been a roller coaster getting ready ever since.
Preparations for the charter’s Sept. 4 opening couldn’t begin until early June, when the legislature officially passed the budget that financed new charters. Enrollment applications were made available on June 25, and by July 9, the school had attracted more families than it could accommodate.
Children had to join a waiting list and play out the often-heartbreaking public lottery night. Of all that entered, 114 students, ranging from pre-K to first grade where chosen.
Brass City already had an ambitious timeframe for opening, with only a few months between approval and its first day. But before they could even begin to get classrooms ready, they hit a snag. The day after the school’s charter was granted, the Waterbury Board of Education approved the lease of its intended facility… to someone else.
The issue with their original building suddenly left administrators adrift without a home just weeks before opening.
But Board Chair Annie Scott said it was actually a blessing in disguise. The community rallied around Brass City, offering various spaces. Waterbury Mayor Neil O’Leary even suggested St. Margaret’s Parochial School’s former location, which the city had been using intermittently as classroom space but had no ongoing plans for.
By July 2, Brass City had found a beautiful school-ready facility. However, it needed a lot work to get ready for the students after a year of vacancy. Once inspections were completed in early August, staff worked around the clock to clean, furnish, decorate, organize and otherwise prepare for students – who would arrive in one month.
However, it all came together on the morning of Sept. 4, when the children began to trickle off of the buses and into the cafeteria. Children like Ashante*, who won the lottery but still couldn’t shake first-day jitters because of an all-too-familiar first-day problem: she didn’t know anybody.
Yet after meeting her fellow classmate, June, and having a little chocolate milk, Ashante’s bashful smile spread. And by the time breakfast was over, she was posing for pictures and hugging classmates.
After breakfast, Ashante and other students put their things in brand new child-sized lockers and sat in a circle around a purple rug, or gathered at well-organized child-sized tables. One would never know that the ink on the lease was barely dry.
At the center of the proceedings, directing traffic and answering questions, was Barbara Ruggiero, Brass City’s executive director. Barbara originally worked for Waterbury’s Children’s Community School (CCS), and came to Brass City to help open the charter.
Educating elementary children is a practiced art for veterans CCS, the 45-year-old organization, which emphasizes tough academics, social and emotional development, year-round programming, and intensive parent engagement. The goal is to give these children, some of the most at-risk in the state, a strong foundational education that will allow them to go to college and succeed throughout their lives.
The opening of Brass City has been a long time coming for the charter community, but it is by no means the end of the story. Too many kids are trapped in failing schools in Connecticut, and we must do more to make sure they get a good education. That means a more equitable funding system for all public school students, and empowering more groups that are willing to start a high-quality charter where none ever existed. In doing so, we’ll make sure that all kids are able to have a great first day like the students at Brass City.
* The names of students have been changed due to privacy reasons.