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Southeastern Connecticut residents have many reasons to be proud of the 3-year-old Marine Science Magnet High School located in Groton. In November 2012, Dr. Nicholas Spera, the school's principal, won the William Cieslukowski Outstanding First-Year Principal of the Year Award from the Connecticut Association of Schools. The school was named a Connecticut School of Distinction for highest overall performance in November 2013. In June, the school's first senior class of 23 students - students who attended classes there since it opened Sept. 1, 2011 - will graduate.
Above all this and arguably one of the school's most meaningful of accolades, however, is that hundreds of eighth graders vie for admission annually. Months before the school opened, 87 students had already submitted applications. Since then, middle school students continue to be attracted to the school's innovative programming despite the fact admission is somewhat of a long shot. The school each year has received more than six times the number of applications as there are slots available. For the current school year, for example, 544 eighth graders from 31 middle schools from Norwich to Stonington to Old Saybrook to Deep River applied for the 84 freshman slots filled via a random lottery draw.
Why wouldn't students be attracted to the school? Its offerings go well beyond traditional classrooms. They include hands on aquaculture both in the school and on Long Island Sound, real-life fish farming and high-tech equipment such as a navigational simulator. Other huge assets: small class sizes led by dedicated faculty. "A lot of very good teaching is going on there," says Dr. Eileen Howley, executive director of LEARN, the regional educational service center that operates the school.
While the school continues to impress, there are improvements we would advocate. For example, we urge all middle school principals in the region to allow the MSMHS staff to present the marine school's programming to all eighth graders. Some middle school administrators instead provide MSMHS staff access to only a select few of their eighth graders, leaving most unaware they have the option to focus their high school study on marine sciences at the Groton magnet school. This does not seem in keeping with the spirit of what magnet programming is - a true alternative study choice that should be open to all students.
We also endorse LEARN's suggestion to superintendents in the region that a shared governance structure be worked out for the marine high school. This would provide districts that send students to the magnet school more voice in decision-making.
The most important change neededshould be made by the state Department of Education. That would be to provide equitable funding to the marine science high school and other magnet schools in the region and state - the same funding granted to magnet schools in and around Hartford. Currently, MSMHS receives $2,533 less per pupil from the state than do Hartford-area magnet schools. Districts that send students to MSMHS make up the financial gap.
Magnet schools that offer students meaningful learning alternatives with specialized themes are the centerpiece of the state's plan to end racial, ethnic and socio-economic isolation among Connecticut's public school students. The marine science high school is a prime example of what state officials envisioned with this goal. But if the state is serious about offering students choices, it must end the funding disparity as soon as possible.