Magnet schools a beacon for New London reform

Pedro Rodriguez, right, and his fifth-grade class at Winthrop Magnet Elementary School in New London, create their own stories on computers after finishing their reading test Friday. Steven Adamowski, the state-appointed special master, has proposed that New London take advantage of a 2006 law and become the state's first and only magnet school district.
Pedro Rodriguez, right, and his fifth-grade class at Winthrop Magnet Elementary School in New London, create their own stories on computers after finishing their reading test Friday. Steven Adamowski, the state-appointed special master, has proposed that New London take advantage of a 2006 law and become the state's first and only magnet school district. Dana Jensen/The Day Buy Photo

New London - A 2006 law that would establish the state's first wholly magnet school system in the city could serve as a model for school reform here and could result in an infusion of state funds and out-of-town students.

But state officials say the city must act quickly to establish regional partnerships if it wants to make the idea work.

"If you could create a system of all magnet schools over the next three years, this would be a way of not only saving the school system but the city as well," Steven Adamowski has told school board members.

Adamowski, the state-appointed special master of the city's school system, has been reminding board members, City Council President Michael Passero and others of the law, passed in 2006, that established the concept of an all-magnet school system in New London.

Under the plan, every public school in the city - elementary, middle and high schools - would be a specialized magnet school.

Adamowski plans to discuss the idea with the City Council later this month and plans to approach local businesses and organizations to establish future partnerships with the schools.

"We're looking for a way, ultimately, to increase the state level of support for the New London schools that puts us in a regional direction with regional partnerships, that creates the opportunity for suburban students to come to the city and students from the city to go to the suburbs, which leads us to the magnet school system," Adamowski said Friday.

The school board has begun crafting the three-year Strategic Operating Plan required by the state Board of Education as a condition of the state's intervention in the district. That will set forth the city's vision for the schools and outline how the board would transform itself, improve student performance and close the academic achievement gap in the next three years.

Part of the plan could lay out how the city - within five years - could become the first in the state where magnet schools comprise the entire school system.

Adamowski says that if New London could create a district of only magnet schools and could draw in enough students from surrounding towns to meet state-mandated enrollment numbers, the city would receive an additional $3,000 for every New London student in addition to the money already received in per-pupil expenditures. The extra state funding would total around $9 million, he said.

"That is equivalent to a 5 percent increase for every one of the five years that you have been flat-funded," Adamowski told the school board at a recent meeting. "This is the carrot. The stick, of course, is that if you don't meet these (enrollment) ratios, you could lose your magnet status."

The State Board of Education appointed Adamowski to oversee school district operations in the spring after years of low test scores, low graduation rates and flat funding.

Enrollment quotas

The special legislation, championed by state Sen. Andrea Stillman, D-Waterford, provides a higher level of state reimbursement for New London to entice the city to organize its entire school system on a magnet model.

The law imposes two conditions on the city: that each of its magnet schools draw at least 15 percent of its students from outside the district, and that 25 percent of the student population at each school be white.

"We have state-of-the-art buildings, elementary schools with a theme - it's really on the Board of Education and the superintendent to bring more students into New London from surrounding towns," Stillman said last week.

"It's more on the city's shoulders at this point," rather than on the state's, she said.

Around 2006, when New London began school replacement projects and chose to move from five elementary schools to three, Stillman said, she was looking for opportunities to save taxpayers money and was "thinking that this type of legislation would be a way to help boost the revenues in the city."

"We were beginning to have success with the magnet high school," she said, "and it's been an extraordinary success, drawing in students from all over the region. Why not think of these schools as magnets and develop a curriculum around them?"

"If they can sustain the programming and meet the 15 percent guidelines and the 25 percent guidelines - they'll have to meet those benchmarks every year to maintain their magnet status," Stillman said.

Under the legislation, if New London did not enroll students from other districts at a rate that is at least 15 percent of its total districtwide enrollment by June 30, 2015, it would be liable to the state for repayment of the difference between the school building project grant and the grant New London would have otherwise received for such projects.

Schools that currently have building-project bonds include Winthrop and the under-construction Nathan Hale Magnet Elementary School for Performing and Visual Arts. The current deadline for achieving the enrollment percentages has been extended to 2015 because of setbacks in construction at Nathan Hale.

Nearly 40 percent there

The city currently has two magnet schools - the Science and Technology Magnet High School and Winthrop Magnet Elementary School - both of which have a science, technology, engineering and math emphasis.

The new Nathan Hale School is scheduled to open next year. Jennings Elementary School has a dual-language and foreign-language theme but is not a designated magnet school.

"There is a lot of alignment that needs to happen, but you're close enough to make this a reality," Adamowski told board members. "You're a third to 40 percent of the way there. The rest could be achievable."

Winthrop Principal Jaye Wilson said last week that a magnet designation would make New London attractive for surrounding districts.

"Dr. Adamowski's plan will change the mindset of New London," she said. "You cannot sustain high-performing districts in a bubble. We're going to have to expand."

Superintendent of Schools Nicholas A. Fischer said last week that attracting out-of-district students to New London would be "easy."

When Winthrop began its recruitment efforts in December, applications were received from more than 100 students from outside the city, and from New London but not from the Winthrop attendance area. Seventy-one students from outside New London - from Waterford, Old Saybrook, Pawcatuck, Norwich, Ledyard, Bozrah and Groton - currently attend Winthrop.

"We're filled to the gills at the high school," Fischer said. "What we know about magnets is they work well based on a couple of simple ideas. A parent says that it's worth the bus ride. Kids like it because it's exciting, it's challenging, it's interesting and they like the kids they're going to school with, that and you can often generate more revenue with a magnet, and you tend to see higher academic achievement in a magnet."

Under state rules, a magnet school district has to begin at the kindergarten level and must include one of three academic emphases - science, technology, engineering and math; arts; or dual-language - that must connect the curriculum through all the grades. All magnet pathways would need to connect to New London High School.

The challenge would be making the connection between the elementary schools and Bennie Dover Jackson Middle School, and then between Bennie Dover and the high school.

"The middle school is a big question," Adamowski said. "That will receive a lot of focus and attention regarding its long-term role in this magnet portfolio. Bennie Dover has a number of years to go in terms of bonding from its renovations 20 years ago. No one is talking about closing the middle school, but it will play a key role in connecting the magnet pathways to the high school."

j.hanckel@theday.com

Students in Ruby Robledo's fourth-grade class wait in line for gym class Friday outside Winthrop Elementary Magnet School in New London. The state-appointed special master is recommending the city create an all-magnet-school district, as outlined in a 2006 state law.
Students in Ruby Robledo's fourth-grade class wait in line for gym class Friday outside Winthrop Elementary Magnet School in New London. The state-appointed special master is recommending the city create an all-magnet-school district, as outlined in a 2006 state law. Dana Jensen/The Day Buy Photo
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