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A charter school puts out the “Students wanted” sign

September 17, 2018

BRIDGEPORT — Perhaps it is the competition.

The city is now home to six charter schools, a half dozen traditional high schools and a smattering of private school choices.

Maybe it’s reputation. The Bridge Academy Charter School struggled enough on the state’s standardized achievement test last year to earn probation, even as it manages a 100 percent college acceptance rate for graduating seniors.

Whatever the reason, one of first state-funded charter schools to open has encountered something for the first time in its 21-year history: unfilled seats.

Licensed to accommodate 280 students in grades seven through twelve, enrollment stands at 266.

“We have always been able to just do it,” said Tim Dutton, the school’s founder and director. “Call people from our waiting list and fill the spots. This time we are hustling, putting up fliers and sending applications to everyone we know ... Just trying to get the word out best we can.”

The school has until Oct. 1 to fill the vacancies before losing $11,250 for each empty seat.

A cut of up to $157,500 from the school’s $3.15 million budget would probably mean cutting classroom interventionists and administrative salaries.

John Rodriguez, chair of the Bridge’s Board of Director, said the school’s somewhat lax outreach efforts may be partially to blame.

Until this year, the school didn’t even have a Facebook page.

“So we have been behind the times,” Rodriguez said. “Our focus was on making sure kids graduate.”

Going forward, he said, all that changes.

Dutton, who was a teacher at Harding High School before he left in 1997 to start Bridge, said the drop off has not been at any one particular grade so he is not sure the brand new Harding on the East End can be blamed. The Bridge is in a large brick building that once held a parochial school.

When the school started it was on the top floor of a former factory building on Boston Avenue. It was the first charter school in town. There was no Bridgeport Military Academy or Fairchild Wheeler high schools. No Achievement First, Park City Prep, Great Oaks or Capital Prep Harbor charter schools.

“Twenty years ago we were the choice,” said Dutton.

No longer days or years. Not super intensive. Just small. The school also has a special education population — around 18 percent —that is comparable to the city school district.

The school marketed itself as the small school that focused on getting to know its students and getting them into college

It still does.

That is why Veneticia Foster, 16 and a senior, said she came to Bridge as a seventh grader.

“I wanted a high school that was not so many kids,” said Foster. Central, where she otherwise would have gone, was so big, she added.

Her only complaint all these years has been transportation. A couple of years ago, the city school district switched from school buses to city bus passes for high schools like Bridge.

That became a drawback for a number of families who didn’t feel comfortable putting their kids on city buses, Dutton said.

Dutton said it has also not been uncommon for students to leave when their grades slip, thinking the school is too hard.

Christine Menard, 17, left in her junior year for Bassick High School over grades.

“It was good life experience,” Menard now says. “It taught me something about myself.”

At Bridge, Menard was used to knowing where her grade point average stood all the time. At Bassick she was never sure. By the end of the year, she said teachers were still learning her name. Half the kids didn’t come to school. Those that were there, weren’t all doing the work.

“It was so big,” Menard said of Bassick, the city’s smallest comprehensive high school.

She said she is happy to be back to her “single hallway” school.

Deborah Davidson, 17, a senior came to Bridge as a seventh grade, left in her freshman year to attend Bridgeport Military Academy — she wants to go into the marines upon graduation — but has also since returned to Bridge.

Returning, she said, was like coming home.

Dutton said recruitment in Bridgeport is not easy. Unlike New Haven, where there is a single lottery system for schools of choice, it is every school for themselves in Bridgeport.

As for the school’s probation, Dutton said student performance has improved. If anything, he said, some students complain the school is too hard.

Going forward, Dutton said the school won’t turn away new students after the Oct. 1 cut off as they used to. They will fill the seats, even without additional state support, in hopes of keeping those students in the following year.

lclambeck@ctpost.com; twitter/lclambeck

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