New London - There is excitement, some skepticism and many lingering questions about the city's planned transition into an all-magnet school district.
Top school officials fielded those questions from among the three dozen people who attended Tuesday's community forum at the Science and Technology Magnet High School.
The overall plan is to convert the city's existing schools into themed magnet schools and attract out-of-district students, adding diversity and attracting much-needed state funds to the district, said Superintendant Nicholas A. Fischer.
New London is an 85 percent minority district with 94 percent of students eligible for free or reduced lunch, Fischer said.
The state intervened in the district this school year in part because lack of proper funding by the city and low academic achievement.
Students would pick their first choice and enter a lottery to attend a school that would focus on themes such as science and technology, performing arts, language studies and other, yet-to-be-determined areas of study.
"The real question is whether we can be financially viable without going this route," Fischer said. "The major reason we're doing this is financial."
In order to garner the $3,000 extra per student offered by the state, Fischer said a magnet school must meet two criteria - 25 percent of the students must be from outside of New London and 25 percent must be white.
Chief Academic Officer Katherine Ericson said the Winthrop Magnet Elementary School has already attracted 131 out-of-district students from 12 towns. Other schools are in the process or in the planning stages of a conversion to a magnet school, with a lottery to be held for the 2014-15 school year at the new Nathan Hale Elementary School.
The overall plan envisions K-12 "pathways," in language study, STEM and the arts with the creation of three new 6-12 schools.
One would be located at the high school as part of a proposed renovation and expansion of the STEM high school program. Another would be located downtown, pending agreements with the Garde Arts Center and the Interdistrict School for Arts and Communication, or ISAAC, a charter school.
A third school would involve the creation of a 6-12 international language studies program at Bennie Dover Jackson Middle School.
School leaders said they also see potential for construction of a fourth 6-12 magnet school program on the New London High School campus. Ideas are still being developed for the second magnet high school program, with proposed themes of leadership and public service, maritime arts and industry, and sports medicine.
Overall, the plan will take at least five years to implement, said Magnet School Director Louis Allen.
School leaders said they expect a better learning environment and improved academics, though some people questioned how that will be achieved with the same administration that has produced meager academic achievements.
"If we're not showing growth, it's on the district to do something to change," Ericson said.
Mayor Daryl Justin Finizio said the cost associated with building and renovating school buildings will include an increased debt service for the city as well as an increase in public works costs for upkeep. That will lead to an increase in taxes, even with state support, he said.
Finizio said he supports the changes since the school system remains an overall barrier to the growth of the New London.
"I truly believe it is the best option we're going to have," Finizio said.
Monji Dhaouadi, a father of three school-age children, said it will take support of the entire community to implement the plan.
"The big component in this is marketing," he said. "For that to happen, the whole city has to get behind the project."