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Exciting new vision for NL schools

Published March 24. 2013 4:00AM

In the next few months we expect the New London Board of Education to complete work on an ambitious strategic plan with the goal of improving student performance and burnishing the image of its tarnished school system. As described to us, it is a vision for public education in New London that will provide exciting opportunities while posing significant challenges.

While not due until June, the plan's concepts were discussed in a recent editorial board meeting that included board Chairwoman Margaret Curtin, Superintendent Nicholas Fischer and the special master appointed by the state to help the city turn around its struggling schools, veteran education administrator Steven Adamowski.

The plan would turn every school into a magnet school, each with its own special academic focus. There are several advantages to this approach.

Under current law, magnet schools attract more state aid, $3,000 per student. Mr. Adamowski said this approach will provide the fiscal boost that the city's schools need. With its limited tax base, due in part to both its small geographical size and large inventory of non-taxable government and non-profit institutions, and with its obligations as an urban center to provide police, fire and other costly municipal services, the city cannot properly fund its schools, said Mr. Adamowski.

Under the magnet formula, two-thirds of the student body at these schools would come from the city, one-third from other towns. Sending towns would be responsible for paying for the education of the students who come to New London schools.

Another anticipated advantage is evidence that magnet schools boost parental involvement, long seen as lacking in New London. Parents select these schools for their children and so become more invested. The plan is also expected to boost the prominence and input of School Governance Councils at each school, providing another opportunity for parental participation.

Magnet schools have been proven to boost academic performance and student interest, a result of the focus these schools provide for academic work. Winthrop elementary would continue its transition to a STEM magnet school - science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Jennings elementary would specialize in dual language study, Nathan Hale on the arts.

These elementary schools would feed into a revamped Bennie Dover Jackson Middle School, where students could continue on their chosen academic tracks - STEM, language, or arts. Students could, of course, change tracks.

At the high school level choices would include the Science and Technology Magnet School of New London, an arm of New London High School, and now the city's only true magnet school. Under discussion is a partnership with the Garde Arts Center to provide a field of study focusing on arts. Several options are under consideration for focused study at New London High, among them maritime arts and industry.

What are the challenges?

New London, with its history of academic struggles, could find it difficult to attract enough out-of-district students, particularly at the start. Some New London parents may feel restricted, rather than empowered, by having to send their students to schools focused on specific fields of study. And how will the administration apportion students if one elementary magnet school proves far more popular than others?

The city must move forward with confidence that these challenges will be met. As Mr. Adamowksi points out, New London is uniquely positioned to make a first-in-the-state all-magnet approach work. Its colleges, the fact it hosts the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, the proximity of the Electric Boat shipyard and Pfizer research laboratories, the nearby Mystic Seaport and Mystic Aquarium, the Garde, and the city's working port all provide opportunities for partnerships and mentoring through the magnet-school approach.

Due to reforms pursued by Dr. Fischer's administration, academic performance, as measured by the state Department of Education, is already on the upswing, though still short of goal. The city should move aggressively to build on that momentum.

It is apparent to us that Mr. Adamowski is the driving force behind the strategic plan. He has significant statutory authority to push a reform agenda. Ms. Curtin admitted that at times the board can feel powerless. But the chairwoman said she is excited about the coming plan and the board is largely supportive of it. As part of the reform efforts the board is undergoing its own training and, as implementation rolls out, its role will grow.

New London schools appear poised for profound and necessary change.

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