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Groton magnet schools gain a following

Groton — Hayden Chappel, 9, stood in front of a green screen as his classmate adjusted the video camera and counted down in the Northeast Academy Arts Magnet School media center.

"4-3-2-1..." his friend signaled.

"Hi. This is North Carolina, my name is Hayden Chappel, and this is the state flag, and ... I can't do this," said Hayden, 9. Laughter from both boys followed.  "This is like, impossible," Hayden said.

It's been two months since Northeast Academy opened this year as Northeast Academy Arts Magnet School, expanding the degree to which it incorporates art into everyday lessons. A social studies project about the states is now an art project and multimedia performance, as well.

The magnet approach — whether performance, art, science, math or technology — has gained appeal not only among educators and parents, but students. Northeast Academy received 70 applications for 20 open seats. Groton's other magnet school, Catherine Kolnaski Magnet School, had 91 applicants for 24 openings.

"Parents, they want school choice and they have no problem putting their children on a bus and sending them to another community," Superintendent Michael Graner told a joint meeting of the Town Council and Board of Education earlier this week. He's maintained that he just wants to compete with other school districts. He finally believes he can, he said.

This year, 52 fewer students than last year left Groton to attend magnet schools elsewhere. Groton paid $2.4 million in tuition last year, a figure expected to decline by about $750,000. Keeping students in local elementary schools is considered key, because once students leave a district, they tend to stay with their peers and continue through the upper grades elsewhere, Graner said. Tuition follows.

Beyond the financial impact, teachers and students say added elements keep them challenged, engaged and current.

Catherine Kolnaski Magnet School has a science, technology, engineering, arts and math theme. It offers, among its classes, a 3-D printing lab and a piano lab for first-graders. Children wear headphones, use a keyboard and learn to read music via math. They start by following blocks and patterns; one block for each finger. Red means play. Yellow means rest.

Jamie Biele, 8, a third-grade student, is starting his third year in the class. He likes that it gets harder as he goes along. If it were easy, "What would be the fun out of that?" he said.

At Northeast, the fourth-grade classroom teachers, art teacher and media specialist talked about how to update the lesson on the states. They came up with this: Students would research a state and collect information like the state flag, bird, flower and famous people. In art, they'd create an enlarged "stamp"  for their state and decorate it with hand-drawn pictures of what they learned. Finally, they'd write a brief script and film one another talking about their state, like a meteorologist discussing the weather. The stamps would serve as backdrops for the videos.

"It really helps to incorporate the dynamism of the modern age," said fourth-grade teacher Ryan O'Connell.

Tomas Rogers, 9, worked on his stamp in the art room. "I like how we're not just writing it down. We're looking into it," he said of the project. "We have time to study it, and I like having time to figure things out."

Sydney Post, 9, said drawing gives her time to reflect. "It helps me remember all kinds of things I've read about New York," she said.

Art Teacher Kim Menacho has the motto that the only way to mess up art is to not do it at all. She's found that students are open to art and enjoy it, and she's taken advantage of this to incorporate other skills, like math.

Children earlier made a "fraction tree" in art class, where the trunk was "1" and the branches, depending on the number, represented various fractions.

Media Specialist Maggie Dewey instructed Caleb and Hayden on the video on Thursday. There are three "layers" to manage using the camera — first, the background behind the speaker on the screen; second, the person standing in front of the screen; and finally, the microphone and sound.

"It was actually easier than I thought it was going to be," Caleb said.  

"It was crazy," Hayden said. "I don't know, I was a little nervous. I didn't know what to say." Both friends managed the test run. 

"It's important for kids to learn technology skills, because that's what they're going to be using their whole lives," Dewey said.  It also keeps them interested.

"There are some students where the technology is going to be their favorite piece" of the lesson, she said. "And that's very powerful."


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