New London shows off its magnet schools, works to attract more state funding

New London — It was an evening for the New London school district to put its best foot forward.

Thursday’s magnet school showcase was a chance for parents and their kids to explore the district’s magnet school options and for New London to highlight its work to become the state's first all-magnet school district. The event was held at C.B. Jennings Dual Language and International Elementary Magnet School, whose International pathway opened to out-of-district students this year.

Nicole Lamb of Groton attended Thursday’s event with her daughter Angelina, 9, who is considering a switch from the Regional Multicultural Magnet School to either New London’s STEM (science technology, engineering and math) or arts pathways.

Her options are the Winthrop STEM Elementary Magnet and Nathan Hale Arts Magnet schools. Lamb said while her daughter has thrived at RMMS, she is intrigued by the curriculums and hands-on experiences offered at the two New London schools.

“We’re here to explore the options and see what they have to offer,” Lamb said. “It’s nice to be able to come here and have them all in one place.”

School leaders from each of the pathways were on hand to make an enthusiastic pitch for their own schools while students performed on stage or toyed with remote-control robots on the gymnasium floor.

The district lays claim to being the first all-magnet district in the state thanks to a decision some years back to overhaul its entire system: build new schools, offer themed pathways and open the district up to students from outside the district.

The completion of the themed pathways and construction of two new schools are still several years away but the district breaks ground on its $98 million high school project later this year.

Kate Fioravanti, the interim director of the Arts Magnet Middle School, said the attraction of magnet schools is that students tend to be more motivated when they are in an environment that allows them to focus on their interests. While students learn the same core curriculum in each school, she said “it’s really about the approach, which is unique to each pathway.”

The visual and performing arts pathway enters the high school level next year, the first magnet pathway started at the ground level to do so. The STEM Magnet High School was created more than a decade ago and now enjoys success as the only fully formed theme.

The middle school will offer four different pathways in the next school year, including STEM, Arts, Leadership and Language and Culture, though the later of the two will remain for new London students only.

School officials said one of the aims of the district is to ensure all New London students get their first choice in pathways, though that is not always possible.

Winthrop has a waiting list to get into its school, where students transition to different classrooms throughout the day. Each class has a teacher for science and math, with another partner teacher for literacy. It also has an extended school day, including what Principal Michele Han said is enrichment time designed to increase student achievement while working with outside partners such as the Mystic Aquarium and Connecticut Science Center.

Jennings, which is in the candidacy phase for an International Baccalaureate World School program, is home to the newest magnet addition in the district. The school opened to out-of-district kindergartners this year and will expand into the first grade in the next school season.

Jennings Principal Jose Ortiz, smiling and clasping hands with students and parents alike, acknowledged work to be done but said he was optimistic about the school‘s future.

Jennings has the heaviest population of English learners, at 36 percent of the school, and over the last school year welcomed 25 students from hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico. In addition to the well-established, dual-language Spanish program, Ortiz said he already is thinking about adding a third language to the mix.

Jennings is home to 568 students and is seeking to add additional magnet funding to its budget in the coming years in part by diversifying its student population.

State standards, which aim to maintain racially diverse school populations, dictate that at least 25 percent of the student population in the magnet school must identify as something other than black or Hispanic/Latino. At least 25 percent of magnet school also must come from outside the district.

The school missed out on an estimated $800,000 in magnet school funding this year since it did not hit those state-mandated thresholds.

Jennings still has not yet hit either mark and, according to the state Department of Education. Only 11 percent of students identify as something other than black or Hispanic/Latino, and just 14 percent of the kindergartners came from out of the district.

The state Department of Education is aware of the district’s numbers but does not seem inclined to impose any penalties or pull magnet funding, since the district, by establishing a magnet school plan, is already on a path to racially diversify its schools.

“The commissioner (of the state Department of Education) has discretion to continue issuing the grant funding for the magnet program if she determines it’s appropriate to so...” state education spokesman Peter Yazbak said in an emailed statement.

The state has required the school district to submit a compliance plan, which it has. Yazbak acknowledged Jennings is in its first year but said the commissioner may impose a financial penalty “or take other measures that she deems appropriate" if it does not meet the standards.

The school, in the meantime, still is collecting magnet funds for the 17 out-of-district students that attended kindergarten and Ortiz said the number of applications coming in for the expanded magnet school is a good sign of things to come.


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