Have questions about Darien schools enrolling in the Open Choice program? Here’s what you need to know.

The Darien Board of Education met Monday with Eric Nyquist, a coordinator overseeing the Open Choice program in Darien.

The Darien Board of Education met Monday with Eric Nyquist, a coordinator overseeing the Open Choice program in Darien.

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DARIEN — School board members grilled an official from the Open Choice program during a Monday meeting, asking him key questions about Darien’s proposed enrollment in the program for the 2022-23 school year.

Eric Nyquist, an Open Choice program coordinator with Cooperative Educational Services, provided specific information on how the district would implement the program, in which up to 16 students from Norwalk would attend four Darien elementary schools next year.

CES, which is one of six regional education centers in Connecticut, oversees implementation of Open Choice. The statewide program has a goal of minimizing economic and social gaps across the state’s school systems.

Superintendent Alan Addley and other school officials are proponents of the program, but several community members have pushed back, citing issues involving program demographics, cost and larger class sizes.

Nyquist attempted to quell those fears during Monday’s school board meeting, clearing up confusion about the way the program would work in Darien schools.

Selection process

Under Open Choice, interested students from Norwalk would apply by March 15. If there were more applicants than spots available, a computer-generated lottery system would select the participants, Nyquist said.

Once CES receives the total number of applicants, Nyquist said he and other CES personnel look over the makeup to ensure it reflects the demographics of the sending district.

Board members and parents have questioned whether the program would attract wealthier or white students from Norwalk who want to attend Darien schools.

But Nyquist said that in his time with the program in other places such as Bridgeport — where there are over 800 applicants a year for neighboring districts including Easton, Fairfield, Trumbull, Weston and Westport— that has never been the case.

“I know there’s there is concern that it won’t serve the purpose of the program, but ... we make sure that the group that we’re going to send to Darien matches or exceeds the demographic goal of the program,” Nyquist said.

He added that “the vast, vast majority of students who apply for the program happen to be students of color.”

Transportation issues

Basic transportation to and from school is handled by the CES office and paid for by the state, Nyquist said.

“The second part of the equation is the more challenging part, and that is whether to provide, for high school students, extracurricular transportation,” Nyquist said. Currently, state statute says that the state provides transport for extracurricular activities. In reality, the funding is sometimes difficult to pin down, Nyquist said, adding he is attempting to clarify how that would work with the state.

Nyquist pointed to Westport as an example of a district providing extracurricular transportation, in the form of a single bus after school hours. Darien wouldn’t be expected to provide unreasonable services, such as multiple buses after school hours, he said.

Cost for the district

School board member Tara Ochman noted there have been some concerns about the projected cost of the program.

Darien stands to receive $3,000 in state grants for every child participating in the program. The state also provides a $1,000 one-year bonus grant per child for districts that are first-time participants.

Yet parents and community members have suggested that the district would shoulder excess financial burden if Darien enrolled in Open Choice.

“We’ve seen projections anywhere from $5 million to $1 million,” Ochman said, asking Nyquist about whether he has seen other districts facing exorbitant expenses as a result of enrolling in Open Choice.

“I’m just gonna answer very bluntly — as big as a district’s heart is and as much as they think they want to do what’s right for all students, if they’re spending inordinate amounts of money on a program that is not supposed to cost them a lot, they wouldn’t still be involved,” Nyquist said.

Nyquist said he has not heard from any participating districts that have felt unprepared for the costs of the program — which has been in Connecticut since the 1990s.

Board members also had questions about costs related to students who would need additional services, including English language learners and special education, that could lead to higher costs.

The $4,000 grants should cover most of those costs, but if services for individual students exceeds that grant money, Darien could bill those additional services to Norwalk, Nyquist said.

Program success

A few studies have examined the success of the program, but they have been limited in scope, Nyquist said.

A few years ago, the state conducted a study using test scores that showed Open Choice students did better up front and “grew exponentially” compared to their classmates in the sending district, he said.

The state has not been collecting data on the program’s student outcomes, including graduation rates and post-school plans. Nyquist said that part of his job is to now collect that data.

But from initial appraisal of the program over the past eight years, Nyquist called it “really successful,” sharing an anecdotal case study of past students.

“I just had a mom in the other day, whose son was a valedictorian of the school that that he went to,” Nyquist said. “She said, ‘I have no doubt he wouldn’t have been inspired to do what he did if he weren’t surrounded by these other students who are all driven and motivated and had that support at home’.”