Published March 22. 2014 4:00AM Updated March 23. 2014 8:57PM
New London - Years from now, when the city's transition into the state's first all-magnet school district is complete, the city could have school buildings grouped by magnet theme and an active student presence in downtown New London. But first, district and city leaders must decide where to put the four magnet programs.
The preliminary plan is for a school construction project of at least $150 million that would include building one new school and renovating two others as new to create a campus for grades six through 12 of each theme pathway. The project would also resolve the city's need to fix the antiquated New London High School.
And, using what district officials say is an unprecedented approach, New London Public Schools would partner with the Interdistrict School for Arts and Communication (ISAAC) and the Garde Arts Center for the middle and high school levels of its planned visual and performing arts magnet pathway.
The plan became public this week when Diana McNeil, a senior project manager for the Capitol Region Education Council, presented it to a Board of Education committee and then to the School Building and Maintenance Committee.
"I think it will be very positive to have partnerships between schools and venues already established in New London," McNeil said. "It's going to have a great impact on the community, it will be good for property values and it's going to help the image of New London."
New London is developing four magnet pathways - science, technology, engineering and math (STEM); visual and performing arts; dual language; and leadership and public service - with a projected total enrollment of 4,600 students. Though the city has three new elementary schools that will each house one pathway's elementary grades, the question has been what to do about the current middle and high school facilities.
"If we do not have a plan for New London High School, with financing approved by the city by the summer, New London High School becomes unaccredited in September," state-appointed Special Master Steven J. Adamowski said. "It is a very dire circumstance, it has been for the last five to eight years, and I would characterize it almost as an emergency situation."
Among other problems, the high school has not been compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act since 1988. The heating systems and other mechanical systems at the high school and Bennie Dover Jackson Middle School are beyond their useful lives, McNeil and Adamowski said.
The option detailed this week, McNeil and Adamowski said, is favored by nearly all involved in the process over two others - one that would eliminate Bennie Dover Jackson from use as a school and another that would eliminate the relationship with ISAAC and would alter the nature of the partnership with the Garde. Either of those plans would require significantly more construction and would likely be more costly.
The ambitious plan is still in its infancy and is expected to change over time, McNeil said. But one way or another, the city has to come up with a proposal to avoid losing the accreditation of its high school and to ensure it will be able to accommodate an expected rise in enrollment.
The plan would involve building a new STEM middle school adjacent to the current STEM magnet high school on Jefferson Avenue to create a STEM campus. New London High School would be renovated as new to accommodate the leadership and public service pathway. Bennie Dover Jackson would also be renovated as new, to house grades six through 12 of the dual language pathway.
"This is a big and important step and can also be characterized as a final step in terms of school facilities," Adamowski said. "This city could look at a future where the schools are in good condition and need to be maintained for future generations."
Students in the arts magnet pathway would attend elementary school at Nathan Hale Arts Magnet, middle school at ISAAC and high school at the Garde, which is in the process of obtaining funding for an expansion plan it has had in place for a number of years.
Between the two schools, about 700 New London Public Schools students would attend school in downtown New London each day. The presence of hundreds of students, teachers and administrators there is expected to boost the city's downtown economy.
"It can be the beginning of what you've seen in other communities like Burlington, Vermont, and Portland, Maine, where from this kind of starter you've seen whole downtowns grow because this has provided an anchor to downtown," Superintendent Nicholas A. Fischer said.
And though the partnerships between the public schools, ISAAC - which is a public charter school - and the Garde still need to be defined, McNeil said the parties are cautiously optimistic. "I think there's homework to be done with ISAAC and the Garde," she said. "Enrollment, physical plants, who is paying for what, those kinds of conversations and details need to happen."
The district must also wait to see if the state legislature will make an exception for New London and authorize state reimbursement of 95 percent of school construction costs. If it does, the city would be responsible for paying roughly $15.8 million, McNeil said. That amount does not include the operational and maintenance costs for the possible programs at the Garde and ISAAC. Without that legislative exception, the city would be reimbursed for about 80 percent of the costs.
Adamowski said the exception that would allow for a 95 percent reimbursement rate "could take the form of a technical amendment to the existing legislation that created the opportunity for New London to become an all-magnet school district."
In addition to an understanding of the partnerships with the Garde and ISAAC, the proposal will need the approvals of the Board of Education, the School Building and Maintenance Committee and the City Council.
"There are a lot of pieces that need to be jockeyed around," McNeil said, "but this is the big picture of how we see it."