Wequonnoc School students in Taftville show guests how they use federal magnet school funds

Norwich – Musical notes from a band class could be heard loudly in the hallway of the Wequonnoc Arts & Technology Magnet School, and students in art classes were crafting miniature forests from dried leaves, twigs, acorns and pine branches while others worked on small animal sculptures.

Second-graders put on their winter coats – perhaps for the first time this fall as a dusting of snow touched the ground in spots – and readied for a walk through the Taftville village neighborhood to hand out decorated “kindness” rocks and greet residents and business owners.

All of the above activities were highlights of a tour of the school Monday morning by U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, state Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, Mayor Deberey Hinchey and Alderwoman Stacy Gould and school board Chairman Aaron “Al” Daniels and members Kevin Saythany, Yvette Jacaruso and Joyce Werden and others.

Before turning the tour over to four student guides, Principal Scott Fain told the group at the start that the school has transitioned from a traditional elementary school into a Science, Technology, English, Arts and Math – STEAM – model over the past three years using a $1.2 million federal grant obtained through the LEARN regional education agency.

The tour was designed to show city, state and federal officials how the school put the federal funding to work, Fain said.

STEAM topics are infused into all learning subjects, Fain said. While art and performance were put on display for Monday's tour, including a live video presentation of framed student photographs to each guest, he said students don't spend all their time on those projects.

The library has been transformed into “Maker Space,” a creativity center that allows students to work on computers, build models and even take apart devices to see how they work. The school used federal money to purchase two robots named “Dash” and “Dot” the students can program.

“In art we can make pottery now, since we have a kiln,” fourth-grader and tour guide Dahlia Retherford said. “Last year, I made a turtle.”

Dahlia urged the guests to keep checking out the ceilings as they walked through the school, because art students also designed brightly colored Mondrian ceiling tiles now on display in various locations. The school hired a mural artist to create a rainbow design on one exterior front wall and an indoor hallway mural of the Ponemah Mill in Taftville with a futuristic cityscape complete with flying cars hovering above the mill image.

In the backyard, students created a butterfly garden – a projected suggested by Hinchey – and painted their own flower garden mural to accompany the garden.

“I helped with the artist who painted that mural on the wall over there,” fourth-grader Diamond Campbell said.

Also in the playground, the four students raced to show off the school's new music garden — a giant vertical xylophone, musical pipes, deep toned drums and a higher pitched metal tongue drum —  that students can use to practice music during outdoor classroom time.

The garden is still under construction, media arts teacher Jessie Wraichette told the group. School officials hope to expand the area to include a covered classroom and nature trail.

Funding will become a concern in maintaining the momentum for the magnet school, Fain said. The initial grant was expected to run for three years, but the school did receive an additional $112,000 for this fourth year. That funding saved the fledgling school band from budget cuts and helped keep the media center and “Maker Space” open longer.

After the tour, Courtney called Wequonnoc's program “a slightly different model,” in that it is an intradistrict magnet school only for Norwich students. With a waiting list of 100 students, Courtney said, “it's clearly working.”

“What Norwich is doing is really impressive,” Courtney said. He said school officials spent the limited funding wisely, buying musical instruments, technology, video screens and recording equipment. The three-year grant was meant as start-up funding, rather than continuous operating funds, he said. 

Future funding for magnet schools, even the relatively lower-cost conversions is uncertain with the new presidential administration and new appointments to key federal education posts.

“It's time to focus on ways we can continue to support Norwich's efforts,” Courtney said. “It's a little early, with the change in administration to know how magnets are going to fit in. It's all speculation at this point.”

c.bessette@theday.com

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