Published March 28. 2013 12:00PM Updated March 28. 2013 11:40PM
New London — The school district is aiming to start a gifted and talented program next fall, but not as an independent charter school.
The program, similar in curriculum to Hartford's Renzulli Academy, will begin on a smaller scale with two elementary classes. The grades for those two classes have not been determined, although the program's focus remains on serving the city's fourth- through sixth-grade students.
School officials announced Wednesday that the district will not meet an April 1 state deadline to establish the Renzulli Academy as a local charter school.
Last month, Dr. Joseph Renzulli of the University of Connecticut announced that New London is one of three school systems in the state to receive a portion of a $500,000 grant from the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation to establish a version of the gifted and talented academy in the city.
The administration has been working to bring a gifted and talented program back to New London. The district wanted to open the Renzulli Academy as a local charter school, which would have brought about half a million dollars more in state funding.
Superintendent Nicholas A. Fischer is calling the scaled-down version an "incubator program" to put in place temporarily.
Fischer said Thursday the two biggest complications are the need for independent financial management of the charter school and the ability to identify an acceptable founder. The district also needs to name an academic governance group that does not include Board of Education members.
"The board cannot manage the academy, the school district could not manage the finances," Fischer told board members Wednesday. "You need to clearly identify the location, who would be the founder of the program."
This is the first time since the school reform legislation was passed last year that the state has opened the option for school districts to apply to create local charter schools. The state held a bidders' conference for interested applicants, and a request for proposals was issued in February, Kelly Donnelly, spokesperson for the state Department of Education said Thursday. She said a "subsequent round of applications will be determined by the quality and quantity of applications" received by the state during this round.
Fischer said the district hopes to apply for the designation as a local charter school if in fact there is another round later this year.
"This is a brand-new ball game for the state. The rules have been evolving, and we've been trying to figure out what will be acceptable," he said.
Board members heard for the first time Wednesday about the need for an independent financial structure and an academic governance group.
"I feel like we're being told just a little bit at a time. Now we're hearing this," member Sylvia Potter said.
Potter followed board member Jason Catala's comments, which focused largely on the presentation by Renzulli Academy students two weeks earlier and the board's consideration of endorsing a gifted and talented program.
Special master Steven Adamowski isn't blaming the state or the school district for its inability to meet the April 1 deadline.
"I don't think anyone has dropped the ball. This is new work. This did not exist in the law before, and the state department is in the process of translating and clarifying the law into a workable process. All information is not available at one time," he said Thursday. "We should not have a culture that attempts to find fault when people are trying to do new and better things."
Adamowski said that before the reform legislation was passed, there wasn't an incentive for school districts to open a local charter school. Establishing a local charter school would increase funding for a school district — it would receive support from the state in the form of a grant up to $500,000 for start-up costs and up to $3,000 in grants per student.
"What we're finding on all these issues is nothing is perfect, but perfect should not be the enemy of good. Right now the district has no approach to gifted education. It's cut all that. It's offering nothing," Adamowski said. "This is something that has to be worked out in order to make this opportunity available to New London students. We had it almost worked out one way, and now that it's another way, I think all these issues will have to be renegotiated."
During the public comment period, parent Jason Morris asked why New London is pushing so hard to establish Renzulli as a separate charter school.
"Why can't it be a public school like the one in Hartford? I'm still not for a separate school; we can do these great things that are at Renzulli in our schools, we don't need a separate school," he said.
At the board meeting, Mayor Daryl Justin Finizio said he sent a letter to the state Department of Education endorsing the Renzulli program for New London.
"This program is absolutely a god-send. For the city of New London to have this in any form, to see this be a success ... I think what we're seeing in the Renzulli Academy is something we're going to see in the conversion to a magnet school district," Finizio said.
"You don't know what you're going to find. Don't allow the newness of it to threaten its success. I assure you, this is the best we could ever hope for, not only in Connecticut, but in the nation. We should say yes, and thank you, and work together to address the other issues."