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New London's magnet school plan takes big step forward

New London - Donna Slate, principal of Nathan Hale Magnet Elementary School, was buzzing around the refurbished school, zigzagging around workmen, peering into boxes filled with books, stepping over a door jamb and greeting teachers who were setting up their classrooms.

"The first order of business is closing those windows,'' said Slate, spying from outside the two-story building an office with two small windows open. "The air conditioning is on and we can't have open windows."

When Nathan Hale opens Monday, it will become the city's second magnet elementary school as part of a $59 million plan that eventually will have three elementary schools that educate a mix of students from New London and other towns.

Nathan Hale will focus on the performing and visual arts and will open with 550 kindergarten through fifth-grade students, including 20 out-of-district children. More than 20 teachers and about 20 other staff have been working to get the school ready. It closed in the spring of 2011 for a makeover.

"We're happy to have a home,'' Slate said, leading a tour through a maze of pastel-colored hallways, some lined with lockers that barely make a sound when shut. She pointed out health offices, a family resource room and the old gymnasium with a new stage that includes a handicapped elevator. There are rooms designed for special needs students and classrooms filled with computers. Each classroom will also have iPods.

Desks are adjustable and chairs have a slight bounce to them. The building also will be home to a new talented and gifted pilot program.

"I'm over the moon,'' said Wendy Schoffner, the literacy coach, as she unloaded pallets of books. "It's phenomenal."

In keeping with the arts theme, the school has two music rooms, an electronic keyboarding classroom, two art classrooms, a computer lab and a recording studio.

"Look at the brightness,'' Slate said. "Do you like the color palette? I helped pick it out."

A week ago, the school was filled with teachers and their helpers moving books and personal items, and decorating their bulletin boards.

"We couldn't wait to get in here,'' said third-grade teacher Marilyn Parnes, who was emptying 45 boxes and setting up her room.

Second-grade teacher Stacy Sherman-Watson was so excited about the new school she sewed 30 pencil cases at home over the summer and lined them up neatly on the desks in her new classroom along with new boxes of crayons.

"I'm ready. Send me my kids,'' she said.

"New London's 21st Century School Facilities Plan," approved by the Board of Education in 2008, also included a $28.7 million reconstruction of Winthrop Magnet Elementary School. Nathan Hale is a $30.4 million project. The state is expected to reimburse 95 percent of the costs.

The new math- and science-based Winthrop opened last year and has about 130 students from other towns. Next year, Nathan Hale is expected to have 150 out-of-district students.

Jennings Elementary School, which was rebuilt and reopened in 2008, is the city's dual language school and is for New London students only. Eventually, Jennings will become the district's third elementary magnet school and will accept students from surrounding communities.

Under the magnet school model, students are taught the same core curriculum, but each school has a different focus on how the information is taught.

Kate Fioravanti, the district's new artistic dean, is charged with creating an education program focused on visual and performing arts for students from kindergarten to 12th grade. It's an integration of arts into a traditional curriculum, she said.

"Everything the students learn is the same,'' she said. "The method is different."

For example, she said, all first-graders learn about the concept of wind. At an arts school, they will learn about wind resistance and its properties, maybe through dance.

During the two-year construction period, Slate and the students spent a year in portable classrooms off Cedar Grove Avenue and then a year at Harbor School, which is now closed.

She said she didn't mind relocating the classrooms - she moved a lot with her family growing up. If the teachers adjusted, the students adjusted, she said. But, she added, "It's great to feel anchored."

Her favorite part of the new school, which went from 47,800 square feet to 68,750 square feet, is a dance studio. It's the first thing a visitor sees when walking through the new entrance.

There's a spring-loaded wooden dance floor, a wall of mirrors and double ballet barres for plies and eleves. Light pours into the space from a wall of windows.

"It was supposed to be the media room,'' she said, pointing through the glass windows from the hallway, where workers were on their hands and knees installing the floor.

But when she saw the space under construction, it struck her as a more appropriate spot for dance. Media rooms are now scattered throughout the building.

"We needed a wow factor,'' she said. "I think we got it."

Nathan Hale by the numbers

Grades: K-5
Number of students: 550
Out-of-district students: 20
Estimated cost: $30.4 million
Size: 68,750 square feet


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