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New London - Last fall, officials of the Garde Arts Center invited the new state-appointed special master of the public schools to lunch at the Moroccan-themed theater on State Street.
After touring the performing arts theater, Steven Adamowski paused under the marquee and shook hands with Jeanne and Steve Sigel. He told them to keep in the back of their minds the idea of the Garde becoming involved in a regional visual and performing arts high school.
"I said, 'Keep in the back of our minds? It's been in the front of our minds for years,'" Jeanne Sigel, director of development and marketing for the Garde, recalled last week.
"He looked at what we have, and he obviously knows how incredible this region is for the arts,'' added Steve Sigel, the Garde's executive director.
Adamowski, who was appointed by the state last July to oversee New London's failing schools, made a similar overture to the nearby Interdistrict School for Arts and Communications. ISAAC, a 15-year-old charter school located downtown, is for students in grades six, seven and eight.
There have been no formal meetings or requests from the New London schools, but ISAAC officials are keen on the idea.
"The cool factor in this is having some kind of high school for the arts,'' Gina Fafard, executive director of the ISAAC school, said. "We're interested in expanding and being part of the solution and helping in whatever capacity we can.''
Last month, the New London Board of Education approved a three-year Strategic Operating Plan that defines a series of steps to turn New London into an all-magnet school district that ultimately is expected to attract about 750 out-of-town students and result in an additional $9 million in state funding for New London.
Adamowski is scheduled to give a report on the public school system's progress in the past year to the State Board of Education in September. He will present the local board's strategic plan, which needs state board approval before it can be implemented.
New London Schools Superintendent Nicholas A. Fischer expects the state board to sign off on it. It can be revised by either the state or local boards, he said. The plan does not include any costs estimates to implement the changes, but Adamowski has access to about $1 million in state funds to allocate to New London, Fischer said.
"It's all preliminary until we iron out plans,''' Fischer said. "But we're very excited.''
Adamowski was unavailable for comment last week.
Three 'pathway schools'
The strategic operating plan calls for the creation of three "pathway schools" that will offer concentrated classes in three fields of study - visual and performing arts, math and science, and foreign languages. Classes in each area would be taught from kindergarten through 12th grade. New London students could choose to attend any of the schools in the city and would be given preference over out-of-district students. Fischer said.
Under the plan, the school administration would spend this school year developing a districtwide magnet school program focusing on all three themes.
During years two and three, collaborations with district partners, such as the Garde and ISAAC, would begin, including working with the Garde to identify community partnerships for arts programs for all grades. The board is also considering a fourth magnet school, Fischer said, one that could concentrate on leadership and public service.
The district already has several components in place, he said.
The Science & Technology Magnet High School is already operating, as is Winthrop Science & Technology Elementary Magnet School. On Aug. 28, Nathan Hale School will move into its newly refurbished building and become the visual and performing arts elementary magnet school. Jennings School, which is a language and multiculture school, but is not yet a magnet school, would become part of the language and international study pathway.
Out-of-district students already attend all but Jennings, Fischer said.
The school district next needs to concentrate on devising a grades 6-12 performing arts "pathway" and middle schools to bridge the gap between the science and language elementary schools and the high schools, he said.
Bennie Dover Jackson Middle School could become a 6-12 school for language and international study, according to the strategic plan.
As far as the visual and performing arts pathway, ISAAC school already exists. But ISAAC, which is not affiliated with the New London school system, is a nonprofit charter school that receives funding from the state for its 246 students. Any melding of the programs would require approval from its 10-member board of directors and the New London Board of Education.
Fafard, the director at ISAAC, said she has met with Adamowski and has attended New London school board meetings. ISAAC already has a relationship with the Garde.
Still, "there are a lot of details that need to be worked out,'' she said.
Using 'existing resources in a unique way'
Jeanne Sigel, who knew Adamowski from her days as chairman of the Board of Education in Norwich when Adamowski was the superintendent of schools there, said the man has a vision for New London and its students. Her husband agreed.
"He's trying to utilize existing resources,'' Steve Sigel said. "He's trying to utilize existing resources in a unique way ..."
The Garde was built by Hartford businessman Walter Garde, who had a summer home on Mott Avenue. The 1,472-seat theater opened in 1926 and included storefronts on State and Meridian streets and offices on the upper floors. In 1929, Warner Bros. bought the theater for $1 million. It closed as a movie theater in 1977.
In 1985, a group of private citizens bought the building for $300,000 and turned it into a nonprofit performing arts center.
Steve Sigel, who was hired in 1988 to run the Garde, has always wanted the theater to be an integral part of the city.
In 1996, there was a $20 million plan to expand the theater's stage out toward Gov. Winthrop Boulevard and create a second auditorium, a 400-seat "black box" theater on Meridian Street. The state was expected to kick in $4.5 million and the Garde planned to raise the rest from private donations. But those plans never materialized.
Sigel is more optimistic than ever that the Garde can be part of a first-rate arts education for New London students and the region.
"Part of the vision of the Garde has always been to help facilitate community partners,'' Sigel said. "We would be a great model and get the community to buy into and participate in helping to shape education.
"Everything we have in the city, you'll not find it anywhere else," he said.