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CHESHIRE, Conn. (AP) — Jaydah Morrison lives with her family on Chester Avenue in New Haven but says she feels most at home in Cheshire, where she goes to school, works and has built close friendships.

Morrison, who is African-American, is a senior at Cheshire High School, a school district that is 85 percent white and 3 percent black. She is part of the state’s Open Choice program that allows students in Hartford, Bridgeport and New Haven to cross district lines to go to schools in neighboring suburbs.

“If I stayed in New Haven I wouldn’t know other people, like Caucasian people, not being intimidated by their skin color, feeling the same, them understanding who I am and me understanding who they are. I don’t really see their skin color,” Morrison said.

“Now when I go to college, I can be well-rounded.”

Lynn Bailey, Open Choice and Magnet School parent coordinator for New Haven, said the program started in New Haven in 1998 to reduce ethnic, racial and economic isolation and to increase academic achievement as part of the Sheff v. O’Neill agreement.

Bailey said many of the schools in New Haven lack diversity and many families there are struggling financially. She said there are 455 students enrolled in the program that commute both in and out of New Haven — some students come to New Haven and others go from New Haven to other districts.

Students are chosen to enroll in Open Choice through a lottery system, where parents apply and names are scrambled to decide a child’s number in the lottery, Bailey said. Parents can apply for up to three schools of their choice, if there are three choices available for the grade level they are trying to get their child enrolled in.

There are currently 14 districts including Ansonia, Wallingford and Cheshire participating in the program. On average about 80 to 100 students are placed in schools through the program per year, she said, though it varies by year.

The program caught the attention of Waterbury’s Mayor Neil M. O’Leary, who said he would like city students to have access to Open Choice.

O’Leary said the city’s grammar schools are overcrowded and with the gain of about 260 students who relocated from Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria, “it’s an opportunity we’re exploring but have to see where it goes.”

O’Leary said his idea is to get neighboring districts with low or stagnant student population growth and diversity such as Woodbury, Thomaston or Naugatuck to enroll Waterbury students.

“But nobody has laid out the red carpet for us,” he said.

In fairness, O’Leary said, he has not asked all the neighboring districts and Open Choice in the city has not gotten much traction. “There is a lot of discussion that needs to be had,” he said.

O’Leary said neighboring districts question the financial incentive in taking city students into their district.

Bailey said the state pays districts $3,000 per student to supplement the cost of educating each child. Bailey also said the state pays towns $3,200 per student to cover transportation costs.

She thinks it’s a great benefit for the students.

“Children are helped both ways, not only the child coming from out of town but also students that are residents of the district,” she said. There’s always a child or two who finds it difficult to be in a different area, she said, but most assimilate well, excel and move on to higher education or the military.

Bailey said student profiles are done annually and students in the program perform on average and above.

“We have students who are doctors and lawyers,” she said. “Most families are satisfied with the outcome.”

Joshua Otto, one of the 37 students from New Haven attending school in Cheshire, says he can sometimes feel uncomfortable.

“I don’t really feel culturally connected in Cheshire,” said Otto, a junior at Cheshire High. “I don’t know how to explain it, but it’s just a very different experience.”

“I don’t feel like I fit in Cheshire. Sometime I feel judged because I’m not from here.”

He said white students have asked him if he’s ever been arrested and how it feels to be black, he said.

But he admits he’s gotten a good education in Cheshire.

Morrison, who plays lacrosse and participates in indoor track and field, agreed. She said going to school in Cheshire has given her more advantages and opportunities that she may not have had if she attended New Haven public schools.

She said she feels judged by her peers in New Haven, where she’s often asked, “why do you talk like a white girl?”

Both Morrison and Otto’s parents are opting for them to attend historically black universities — Morrison will attend Hampton University in Virginia when she graduates this summer and Otto hopes to enroll at Howard University next year, a notion that will get them “back to their roots.”




Information from: Republican-American,