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Groton school construction to address racial imbalance

Groton — Superintendent of Schools Michael Graner said Monday he would submit a future school construction plan to the state as a way to address the needs of the town's aging schools and solve the racial imbalance at Claude Chester Elementary School.

Graner said he spoke on Monday to Laura Anastasio, the lawyer who handles racial imbalance cases for the state Department of Education, and he explained that the town is working to create a project that would likely take a couple of years to finish.

"She said that was completely appropriate and whatever that plan was could be submitted," Graner told the school board.

The district was cited in a May 12 letter for a racial imbalance at Claude Chester Elementary, less than 10 months after moving 16 percent of its elementary school students to correct a racial imbalance at another school, Catherine Kolnaski Magnet School. Groton must submit a plan to address the problem by Sept. 12 and the State Board of Education must approve it.

The state considers a school out of balance if the percentage of minority students there is greater or less than 25 percent of the district average. Groton has an average of 43 percent minority students at the elementary level. The average at Claude Chester is 68.2 percent. A difference of 0.2 percent is equal to about one student, Graner said.

"I just find this really frustrating, and I'm sure everyone on the board is feeling the same way," said school board member Elizabeth Gianacoplos, adding, "Our plan didn't even make it through one year."
Graner outlined a potential future school construction plan Monday. The plan came from a workshop of school board members, principals and community members that met May 9 and 10.

The workshop group recommended building one new middle school, for grades 6 to 8, adjacent to Fitch High School; converting Cutler and West Side middle schools into elementary schools for students in grades pre-kindergarten to 5; and closing Pleasant Valley, S.B. Butler and Claude Chester elementary schools. The three elementary schools were built more than 70 years ago.

Graner said the town might qualify for a state diversity grant to obtain 80 percent reimbursement for construction, because it has a current racial imbalance and redistricting failed.

The potential building plan also generated enthusiasm at the workshop, he said.

"There was a lot of excitement around a campus," Graner said of the plan. The middle school would be built potentially on the Merritt property, and the district would expand the International Baccalaureate program, which has been underenrolled at Robert E. Fitch High School, to draw in middle school students.

Graner said people liked that the building was "program driven," or aimed at providing more educational opportunity; eighth-grade students could potentially take advanced Latin and French at the high school using a campus setting.
The school board is expected to vote on a plan June 23.

Three board members said they want to proceed.

"Let's get this done," board member Joey Schick said.

The workshop also discussed a second option for building, though it wasn't preferred. That plan would leave the middle schools alone and instead build two or three elementary schools to replace Groton's older elementary schools.
After the board makes a decision, the plan would go to the School Facilities Task Force to decide whether it's feasible to build a middle school on the Merritt property and what it would cost to renovate Cutler and West Side as elementary schools. The plan would also need approval of the town council, Representative Town Meeting and voters at referendum.
Kevin Trejo, a member of the facilities task force, said he believes voters would support school construction if they understood how it would improve education.

"We can get it passed as long as we don't try to shove it down the throats of the public," he said.
"And I think they will buy into the educational needs of the kids."


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