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    Saturday, September 30, 2023

    LEARN votes to purchase vacant Waterford school and build new $95M early childhood facility

    Waterford ― Regional educational service center LEARN is moving forward with its plans to acquire the vacant Southwest School building from the town.

    LEARN’s Board of Directors voted Friday to authorize Executive Director Kate Ericson to buy the 15.3-acre property and school building at 51 Daniels Ave. for $1.

    LEARN will use the site to construct a $95 million bilingual early childhood school that will encourage students to retain their home languages.

    “What we’re trying to do is to hold on to their home language rather than wipe it out and become solely English speakers,” Ericson said Friday.

    The new school would feature 568 slots, Ericson said. Of those, 48 will be for infants and toddlers, 200 will be for pre-kindergarten students, 100 will be for kindergarten students, 100 for first-graders and 100 for second graders.

    The school will be the first of its kind in the state. Currently, there is no district that has an infant-toddler program attached to its school.

    LEARN currently operates four magnet schools: the Friendship School in Waterford, the Regional Multicultural Magnet School in New London, the Marine Science Magnet School in Groton and Three Rivers Middle College Magnet High School in Norwich.

    With two years left on its lease for the Friendship School, LEARN began to look for a way to reconfigure its schools and the age groups it serves.

    “The challenge with the current configuration of the Friendship School is multi-layered,” Ericson said. “What we’re seeing is there’s not a need for pre-K that there was 20 years ago.”

    Ericson cited that decline, along with the town’s development of its own pre-K programs, as reasons why the Friendship School has become inefficient.

    The Friendship School was created around 20 years ago as a joint endeavor between New London and Waterford. But about seven years ago, Waterford decided to back out of the partnership, Ericson said. Since then, New London students have filled about 50 percent of the school’s seats, with the other half opened to 16 towns in the region, Ericson said.

    Because the Friendship School is pre-K only, it had a harder time getting state funding, Ericson added.

    “All of that led us last year to do some hard thinking about taking the regional needs and thinking about ‘what do we need to do?’” she said.

    Considering all those factors, LEARN began putting together the idea of a new early childhood school that would help reconfigure its current school network, Ericson said.

    LEARN is looking to obtain state funding for the project. If that does not happen, it will return the land to Waterford.

    “There’s a lot of process that still has to happen for this to be executed,” Ericson said.

    The LEARN Board of Directors submitted a funding grant in June to the state for review. The General Assembly would not approve any potential funding until next spring, Ericson said.

    LEARN’s goal is to begin designing and then building the school next July with an opening projected for 2027. The current school would be demolished.

    Additionally, LEARN will reconfigure the Regional Multicultural Magnet School to be a grade 3 through 8 program. It currently serves grades kindergarten through grade 5.

    “So our families would have a chance to live with us and be with the LEARN community from possibly infant/toddler all the way through grade 8,” Ericson said, with the option of then applying to the Marine Science Magnet School, which serves high school students.

    “I think this is a pretty significant moment for LEARN,” she said.


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