It’s been a four-year dry spell for charter schools in Connecticut. Yamuna Menon is working to put an end to that. As Northeast Charter Schools Network Connecticut State Director, she’s leading a push to bring more high-quality choices to the thousands of students on charter waitlists in the Nutmeg State.
Are you a coffee drinker? What gets you going in the morning?
Yes! I need a solid night’s sleep quickly followed by a morning wake-up shower and a large cup of coffee. My latest these days is Cinnabon-flavored coffee.
Talk about your education and background and how you came to a career in public education.
I was raised in a household where education was a core value and was deeply important to our family. The importance of education was further emphasized as I grew up in a family of public school educators.
A defining family story that my mother shared with me when I was younger (and complaining about having to cover my school books with brown paper bags) always stuck with me: When she was in school in India, her mother (my grandmother) went to great lengths to ensure that my mom had as few barriers as possible to a great education, including personally handwriting her schoolbooks because her family couldn’t afford to buy the books.
As a result, I always knew that I would use my education to advance the rights of others, starting my local advocacy in civil rights and after law school, focusing specifically on education. After law school I joined ConnCAN, where I learned about public charter schools as a high-quality option delivering amazing results for kids.
It was experiences like seeing kids walk into their first day of school at a new charter school (that would later go on to be successful), knowing that they did not have that option available to them just months prior. It was the opportunity to see the triumphs and challenges of starting a new school as a founding board member for a charter school.
It was the moment that I looked into the eyes of a young girl—one who looked very much like me—at one of our charter schools when it hit me like a ton of bricks that we need these options, and I had to do everything I could to fiercely advocate for them as part of the educational fabric of our state. Experiences like this got me excited to wake up every day to do this work, which is why after working for 50CAN in D.C. after ConnCAN, I returned to my home state to work for the Northeast Charter Schools Network.
What’s the charter and school-choice landscape like in Connecticut? Changes on the horizon?
Connecticut’s charter landscape is a small one that offers quality, diversity and has clear and consistent demand, but funding and policies have made it much harder to bring more great schools to the state. We have not had a new public charter school open since 2014, while the number of names on charter school waitlists has grown from just under 7,000 in 2016 to more than 13,000 in 2018.
The state’s public charter schools have also been flat-funded for the last four years at $11,000 per pupil, which needs to cover a lot of a school’s financial needs (including facilities) and is severely inequitable. Connecticut’s charter school community could be in real financial danger in the coming years if we can’t find a long-term, equitable and recurring fix to fund these schools. It would make it significantly harder to sustainably educate the more than 10,000 students that the state’s charters serve.
One bright spot, however, is that we currently have two newly proposed charter schools that are currently going through the application process: Danbury Prospect Charter School and Norwalk Charter School for Excellence. If approved by the State Board of Education later this year, these schools could bring two new charter options to families in our state.
Both cities are among the fastest-growing in Connecticut; Danbury in particular is the fastest-growing city in the state, and currently has no public charter school option.
Families in both cities have expressed a real desire to bring these schools to their respective cities, which is another hallmark of the school choice landscape in Connecticut. Charter schools and other schools of choice here have been conceived, launched and run by members of the communities they serve, and in many cases specifically serve those very communities.
When you’re talking to families and community members about the value of charter schools, what strikes you from those conversations as the most common misconceptions about charters and the most compelling arguments for more of them?
Common misconceptions about the state’s public charter schools stem from what they are, how they are structured and governed, how they are funded and who they serve.
Notably, we often hear concerns from community members who believe adding a charter school to their neighborhood will somehow “take away” from district schools. Thankfully, we have charter families and supporters in our communities who note that a common goal of our state’s charter schools is to share best practices with district schools and to have a stronger educational system overall for all kids.
Charter schools in Connecticut have deep roots in their communities, and their aim is to benefit all schools in the neighborhoods by sharing best practices, and even welcoming teams of educators from other types of schools for learning opportunities and idea sharing.
For example, Explorations Charter School in Winsted regularly meets with the local superintendents of their nearby districts, while Stamford Charter School for Excellence has an ongoing collaborative relationship with its host district. Ultimately, we continue to find that the clear demand from families and communities for these options, as well as their undeniable results, are among the most compelling arguments for them.