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Groton schools Superintendent Michael Graner supports school choice, but since it allows students to leave Groton, he wants to make sure the district stays competitive and pulls students in, too.
Last year, 318 of Groton's 5,000 students, or about 6 percent, chose to attend magnet schools outside the district, according to the state Department of Education. When a student leaves for a magnet program, the district must pay tuition. Groton expects to spend $1.2 million next year on tuition for students going elsewhere, Graner said.
"Groton schools, in an era of school choice, need to be sure they're viewed as a desirable option," he said.
Districts will see more competition and students will have more options in the future. New London Public Schools, which runs three interdistrict magnet schools, plans to convert into a system where every school has a magnet program. The New London City Council in late June approved bond ordinances totaling $196 million to renovate, expand or build magnet schools.
"That could have a significant impact on smaller districts in the area like Stonington," said Frank Todisco, chairman of the Stonington Board of Education. School choice has caused the board and superintendent to look more closely at programs, particularly at the middle and high school level, to make sure they remain engaging, challenging and relevant, he said.
Stonington sent 66 students to magnet schools in 2013-14. Enrollment in interdistrict schools from Stonington will decrease next year, Todisco said. But he said the district is concerned about potential competition from New London, so it wants "to make sure that we're as competitive as we can be."
Connecticut created magnet schools that draw from multiple districts to boost student achievement and reduce the degree to which students are isolated based on race, ethnicity or economics, Education Department spokeswoman Kelly Donnelly said.
Also during the 2013-14 school year, the state reported these number of students in magnet schools: New London, 1,244; Waterford, 363; Norwich, 92; Montville, 76; and East Lyme, 57.
Tuition ranges from $2,200 a year at the Science and Technology Magnet High School of Southeastern Connecticut in New London to $5,664 at the Marine Science Magnet High School of Southeastern Connecticut and Three Rivers Middle College.
Groton sent 72 students to the Marine Science school, which chooses students who apply by lottery, so its impact on a particular district may vary from year to year. But at the current tuition, 72 students would cost $407,808.
"It's not cheap," Graner said. Yet he supports choice and serves on the board of directors of both the Marine Science and Science and Technology magnet schools.
The number of magnet schools has grown recently. LEARN, a regional educational group, runs five interdistrict magnet schools in southeastern Connecticut, including two that opened in the last three years.
The Marine Science magnet school had 400 applicants for 75 slots last year, said Eileen Howley, executive director of LEARN.
"So the demand is much higher than the space," she said. Enrollment is capped at about 260 students in grades 9-12.
"I think schools of choice do create competition, but I see them as cooperative as well," she said.
Superintendents sit on the school governance councils and Howley said she'd like LEARN to be able to share its practices with districts.
"I'd like our schools to be a resource for the district as well as an option for families," she said.
Fitch as a magnet
Graner told the Groton school board recently it could create its own draw at Robert E. Fitch High School.
The idea is to turn the International Baccalaureate program, which offers rigorous academics but has been underenrolled, into a magnet program, and possibly expand it into middle school so students start early.
"Fitch becoming an International Baccalaureate magnet school is a real desire of mine," Graner said.
It would face a legislative hurdle. The state Department of Education reviews magnet school applications and then recommends them to the State Board of Education for approval, dependent on available funding.
But Donnelly, the Department of Education spokeswoman, said there's a moratorium on construction and operation of new magnet schools outside the Hartford region.
Nevertheless, school choice could become an argument for other improvements.
The Groton school board on June 23 approved a potential building plan that would construct a new middle school for grades 6 to 8 as close to Fitch High School as possible, and renovate Carl C. Cutler and West Side middle schools into elementary schools. S.B. Butler, Claude Chester and Pleasant Valley elementary schools would close. All three were built more than 70 years ago.
The Groton plan is an effort to deal with racial balance, program equity and aging facilities. But school choice may add an element to the debate, as it goes through the approval process that includes a task force, the school board, Town Council, Representative Town Meeting and voters.
"I think if the (school) board wants to be sure that the schools are seen in a competitive light," Graner said, "they need to upgrade their facilities."
The Friendship School in Waterford (grades pre-K, kindergarten; open to Waterford and New London only)
Nathan Hale Arts Magnet School in New London (grades K-5)
Regional Multicultural Magnet School in New London (grades K-5)
Winthrop STEM Elementary Magnet School in New London (grades K-5)
Dual Language and Arts Magnet Middle School in Waterford (grades 6-8)
Marine Science Magnet High School of Southeastern Connecticut in Groton (grades 9-12)
Science and Technology Magnet High School of Southeastern Connecticut in New London (grades 9-12)
Three Rivers Middle College in Norwich (grades 11, 12)