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    Saturday, April 01, 2023

    Family seeks to change Ledyard High ban on magnet students joining extracurriculars

    Ledyard ― Malloch Allison was sad when he found out in September he could not join the Ledyard High School robotics team.

    The Marine Science Magnet High School sophomore and Ledyard resident wants to be a software engineer and thinks the program would help him achieve that goal.

    He participated in the FIRST LEGO League in middle school, and his older brother, Ronan Allison, encouraged Malloch to join him on Ledyard High School’s FIRST Robotics team, the Ledyard Cyber Colonels. (FIRST, an acronym of For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology, is an international youth organization.) MSMHS does not have a robotics team.

    Malloch said he showed up to a practice in September but was told he could not join: Outside of sports, Ledyard High’s extracurriculars are only open to its own students.

    The Allison family, with support from other students and parents, is now trying to change that policy.

    Malloch’s mother, Ding Allison, spoke with Superintendent Jason Hartling in September and October and with Principal Amanda Fagan. She, Malloch and Ronan have since spoken at five Board of Education and subcommittee meetings.

    “I just think the Board of Education is supposed to be for education, and they’re just denying an educational opportunity,” Malloch said.

    The Ledyard Board of Education Policy Committee will discuss the two relevant policies at its virtual meeting 5:30 p.m. Monday.

    One policy says the board’s responsibility for Ledyard students attending magnet schools is limited to providing tuition and special education funding. The other states in part, “Extracurricular activities are open to all students attending Ledyard Public Schools. Specific criteria for eligibility for participation in extracurricular activities shall be established by the school Principal. Participation in interscholastic athletics is also governed by (Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference) bylaws.”

    Hartling said in his seven years as superintendent, he probably sees one request a year for an exception to join a club or even attend the prom.

    The superintendent said Marine Science has activities and it’s hard for smaller magnet schools to start new programs when “there are districts that undermine them with singular exemptions,” and he wants Marine Science “to be a strong and viable school.”

    MSMHS Principal Tara Amatrudo said most districts the school works with don’t allow magnet participation in extracurriculars, though she confirmed Fitch High School allows Marine Science students from Groton on its robotics team and even advertised at Marine Science.

    Amatrudo said being able to participate in after-school activities “is an important aspect of a young person’s overall education” but Marine Science “can’t offer the same amount of programming that a full-scale district could.” She said it’s hard to know if there would be enough robotics interest at the school to sustain a team, but she’s open to the idea.

    Hartling said 22 Ledyard students on average attend MSMHS.

    “I think there is a very difficult challenge in that we have a parent who is advocating for a singular exemption for her student” but “the board makes policy that is designed to benefit and impact the entire public school district,” Hartling said.

    Ding said last week she was told upfront an exception is not possible and “I am looking for this policy to be revised, so that more than my son can be allowed.” She said she is asking for the board to allow a coach or adviser to accept magnet students if participation from LHS students is low, and has also said she is only advocating for robotics.

    “Magnet school students, they are Ledyard kids,” Ding said at another meeting. “Even though they chose to go to a choice school in the day, at the end of the day, they are still Ledyard kids.”

    She and others advocating for Malloch’s inclusion shared several arguments: The robotics team is on the small side and could use more students; Malloch would not be taking away a spot from an LHS student; his participation would cost the district little or nothing; and Ledyard should be encouraging interest in science, technology, engineering and math.

    Policy discussion

    Hartling said at the policy committee meeting in November that the purpose of magnet schools in southeastern Connecticut “was to reduce racial isolation for students in New London,” and that another attribute of magnet school programs “is for them to be all-encompassing.”

    “When we create programs in Ledyard that certain families can access, that’s great for those certain families, but those programs then mean that the magnet school itself isn’t creating them; they have no reason, they have no impetus,” he said.

    Policy committee member Mike Brawner similarly said, “You want the students to go to school there because it’s a good fit for them, but then they shouldn’t rush out the door at 2:05 to go to a different school to do an activity. They should be part of the community of the high school they’re going to.”

    Brawner said in November he was not in favor of making policy changes, and his recommendation is the board do not start writing an individual policy for each extracurricular activity.

    Member Lauren Wiers said she is leery about opening all activities. She commented, “I wouldn’t be in favor necessarily of bringing in other kids to compete in the already competitive drama environment that we have, or even with the singing program. However, I do hear what they’re saying about the robotics, and that is a different environment.”

    Committee Chair Joanne Kelley gave two reasons why many public schools do not offer participation for magnet school students on a case-by-case basis: the administrative burden, and the liability that comes with picking and choosing, “regardless of the criteria that you use.”

    Offering public comment at the full board meeting in December, Malloch and Ding pushed back on some of the comments at the committee meeting.

    Ding thinks it is unreasonable to expect a small magnet school to have a robotics program. She added that the robotics team at Old Lyme High School also includes students from East Lyme, and separately noted that the previous Young Engineers and Robotics afterschool program in Ledyard was not only open to LHS students.

    “I like my school and I am fully engaged in the school community, but I want to pursue my STEM interests,” Malloch said. He added, “I think it is unreasonable to expect me to abandon my interest simply because my school doesn’t offer it, or expect me to change schools.”

    Malloch also plays on the LHS tennis team, serves as a fire cadet in Ledyard, and plays viola in the Westerly-based Westminster Youth String Ensemble. He said he is trying to start a podcast club at Marine Science but “it’s not going too well.”

    CIAC policy is that students at public schools of choice can play on a neighborhood school’s sports team only if the choice school offers no sports whatsoever and if the neighborhood school’s principal allows participation. CIAC spokesperson John Holt said a Connecticut Association of Athletic Directors showed that around 75% of principals allow participation.

    Community members weigh in

    Ding started a petition on a Google Form “to permit students residing in Ledyard but not attending Ledyard High School to participate in the Ledyard High School robotics team.” She said as of Friday morning, the petition had 315 responses, including 212 from Ledyard.

    Malloch’s father, Justin Allison, said at one meeting he thinks the policy “is a vestige of the visceral, antipathic spitefulness that existed when magnet schools first started” but said magnet schools are “here to complement, not compete against Ledyard schools.”

    In addition to the Allison family, people who spoke at board meetings in support of Malloch include four LHS robotics team members, two adult mentors to the team, an LHS robotics alumna, and three Ledyard parents who do not have kids in robotics.

    “We can take this program a lot further than we have in the past 16 years that I’ve been doing this,” Scott Horler, who volunteers his time as head mentor of the team, said at a meeting. He said more students could help, and the team is finally getting more mentors.

    He added that the program does not cost the school much money, since most funding comes from Dominion Energy. Horler said it’s hard to do fundraising “when you only have a handful of kids and they’re constantly working on programming, working on design, working on builds.”

    Faculty adviser Charles Estabrooks has not spoken at meetings but told The Day there are 10 LHS students registered with FIRST Robotics, four of whom are seniors, plus two seniors and one junior for whom registration is pending. He said this is about average for the 12 years he has been involved, that Ledyard has had teams with as few as six or seven students or as many as 16 to 18.

    “We have always been one of the smaller teams at competitions, but this allows us to ensure that every student has a meaningful role contributing toward the success of the team,” he said in an email. “Having more students might allow us to expand our team's capabilities, but we also have a limited number of mentors/coaches to assist and guide students through the process.”

    LHS senior Justin Grenger spoke at the first meeting the Allisons attended and said with seniors leaving, “it’d be nice if we could have other people in there.” Senior Ben Fieldsend said the team was invited to the world championships last year but couldn’t go,“ so with more members, I think the future of Ledyard robotics can only go up.”

    College sophomore and computer science major Laura Pellowski, a 2021 graduate of LHS, said at a meeting the experience she gained on Ledyard’s robotics team ― not only with software and mechanical skills, but also in “soft skills like communication and learning to work as a team” ― has helped her succeed in college.


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