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Students, parents remember now-closed dual language middle school in Waterford

Waterford — The Dual Language & Arts Magnet Middle School had its final event Friday, honoring eighth-graders in a small ceremony on school grounds. In late January, teachers, students and parents learned the school would permanently close at the conclusion of this academic year.

LEARN, which has operated the school at 51 Daniels Ave. in addition to six other magnet schools, cited deteriorating conditions of the building and lack of money for renovations, combined with its inability to hit enrollment targets because of the opening of other theme-based school programs in the area. LEARN is a regional educational service center based in Old Lyme. Its executive director, Kate Ericson, said attempts to obtain money from the state Department of Education for renovations — a new roof and boiler — and to find a new location had been unsuccessful.

DLAMMS opened in 2007 as a joint initiative between New London and Waterford schools, teaching sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders. LEARN took over in 2009 after a request from New London Public Schools. DLAMMS has been operating out of an old elementary school building shuttered by Waterford Public Schools. The 2019-20 student population comprised 75 children from New London, 33 from Norwich and the remainder from surrounding suburban towns.

Student, parent reaction

The fabric of the school — its students, teachers, parents and administrators — remembered it as mightier than its low number of students — about 150 — suggests. They recalled the more individualized attention students could receive, the focus on art, the multicultural underpinning and the robust Spanish education. They lamented the school’s shutdown and reflected on its 13-year existence.

Claudia Bouchard, a science teacher at the school, is the parent of both a seventh-grader and a graduate of the school. She spoke of the difficult decisions many sixth- and seventh-graders and parents will have to make about where to attend school next year. Her son, Adrian, the seventh-grader, will be going to Clark Lane Middle School next year. She said the loss of DLAMMS is a loss to the region.

“We really don't have that many options of magnet schools or charter schools,” she said. “None of the ones that are in the area offer a dual language component. Spanish has always been a part of our culture, our life, and I wanted both of them to continue with that.”

Bouchard addressed the chaotic two-week period when the school was trying to determine its future after announcing it would be closing. For current sixth- and seventh-graders, the only options LEARN offered were to return them to their home districts, attempt to get them into another magnet program elsewhere or send them to Goodwin University in East Hartford, where LEARN operates two magnet schools. LEARN set up an agreement to manage the dual language program for two years in an unused building on the university's campus. Goodwin already houses Riverside Elementary Magnet School as well as Connecticut River Academy, a magnet high school. This new program will make for a kindergarten through 12th-grade education in one space.

LEARN floated the idea of busing the roughly 100 remaining students in sixth and seventh grades to East Hartford to continue classes next year, but this was not well-received by parents, who said the distance was prohibitive. LEARN eventually deemed the plan unfeasible. 

Yalibi Disla of Salem, an office manager for 10 years with the school and parent of a seventh-grader there, said what every parent who spoke to The Day said: The lack of dual language schools in the area is troubling, and the thought of bussing her child to East Hartford was far-fetched at best and ridiculous at worst.

Ericson called Disla a “surrogate mother” to the kids. She’s been at the school as its cycled through teachers, principals and administrators. She will be seeking new employment now, just as her son Jayden is seeking a new place for eighth grade — either ISAAC in New London or Salem’s K-8 school, Jayden said.

A loss to the region

The idea that low enrollment was an issue for the school is false, according to Disla.

“First they said that they never met the enrollment, which is not true,” Disla said. “We’ve had around 150 students for a long time now, so I don’t know how they used that as an excuse.”

Disla criticized LEARN for not finding a way to allow the sixth- and seventh-graders at DLAMMS to finish their middle school years there.

Juanita Jansen, whose older son went to DLAMMS and now attends Ledyard High and whose younger son is an eighth-grader at DLAMMS, touched on the far-reaching implications of the school’s demise.

“There was a family feel there. It just didn't seem like there was enough effort made to keep it open,” Jansen said. “A lot of the kids were very sad and emotional, and there was a lot of acting out once the news came. The teachers were also stressed out because they've got to figure out where to work.”

Jansen’s husband, Jeff, said it’s a shame young people in Connecticut will no longer have the school and the opportunity it presents to build relationships with people from other backgrounds.

Travis Jansen is part of the last eighth-grade class at DLAMMS. He is in agreement with what other students and parents have said about DLAMMS teachers — that they are kind, approachable, adaptable. He said he was sad his teachers would have to look for new jobs.

Former student Sara Beth Bouchard, who is attending Wesleyan in the fall, graduated from DLAMMS in 2016. She said she’ll recall her time there fondly. Teachers made an effort to challenge students, and she complimented the comprehensive Spanish curriculum. Most of all, though, it was the embrace of art that Bouchard appreciates.

“I love the emphasis on art,” Bouchard said. “I felt like I had a lot of creative independence there, and I was able to create whatever I wanted in the art classes. We had art every single day.”

In looking back at the school, Ericson championed the power of dual language education. She defended LEARN’s stewardship, saying that, for the majority of DLAMM’s run, administrators were searching for its permanent home. The tuition of 150 kids was not enough to fund repairs to the facility, and the state has not been keen on funding school building projects for magnets in recent years, Ericson said.

Ericson painted DLAMMS as something of an oasis.

“The shoreline is losing a place where kids in their community can be found,” Ericson said. “What we allowed the kids from this region is to find the place where they could settle and and start to get used to themselves, know themselves without judgment and without preconceived notions of who they should be.”

s.spinella@theday.com

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