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Parents Feel Pull Of Magnet Schools At Fair

Resources, Programs Impress Those Dissatisfied With Traditional Public Education

By JESSE LEAVENWORTH, Courant Staff Writer

January 13, 2008

The $41 million expansion of the Mary M. Hooker Environmental Studies Magnet School in 2009 will add an aquatics laboratory, a greenhouse, a 35-seat planetarium and a butterfly vivarium.

The school on Sherbrooke Avenue in Hartford, which has switched from a traditional elementary school to a magnet school serving pre-kindergarten to eighth grade, needs such facilities to support a focus on hands-on learning, Principal Raul Montanez said.

The wealth of resources at such schools, the promise of more to come and dissatisfaction with traditional public education drew parents to a magnet school fair Saturday at the Learning Corridor in Hartford. Held jointly by the Capitol Region Education Council and Hartford public schools, the fair attracted parents from the city and suburbs, all seeking options.

Sabrina Betts-Smith of Hartford came with her 2-month-old baby and her 7-year-old daughter, Brianna, who attends a traditional elementary school in the city.

"First of all, I'm trying to figure out why the school she's in doesn't offer the kinds of opportunities you see here," Betts-Smith said.

Students at the Metropolitan Learning Center in Bloomfield have traveled widely as part of the school's global and international studies theme. This spring, students are scheduled to go to Rome and Paris, and some have recently traveled to China and Costa Rica, Assistant Principal Barry Davis said.

"Our kids got to look at a world that's very, very different from theirs," Davis said of the China trip. "What better learning opportunity could you have than to be totally engaged in another culture?"

The school serves about 700 students in grades 6-12. Approximately 15 to 20 percent are non-minority students, Davis said.

The growth of magnet schools in the past several years has been spurred mainly by the Sheff vs. O'Neill desegregation case. But Hartford Superintendent of Schools Steven Adamowski told state officials recently that magnet schools are falling short of their goal and that "there is no research to suggest that minority students will do better by sitting next to a white student."

Adamowski's comments drew an immediate backlash from integration advocates. Some suburban parents at the fair Saturday said racial diversity is one reason they are attracted to magnet schools.

" I want him to be able to function in a diverse society," Karolyn Joya of Newington said of her son, Noah.

Another motivation is the cost of private preschool, Joya said. Her son will soon turn 3 and she is facing a $225-a-week bill to enroll him in a private preschool, Joya said.

Most of the magnet schools represented at the fair have waiting lists. The Sport and Medical Sciences Academy in Hartford has about 400 applications pending and will enroll 240 of those students, said the school's magnet theme coach, Melony Brady. The applications are split about evenly between Hartford and suburban residents, Brady said.

The academy is part of the ongoing multimillion-dollar expansion of magnet schools. Now on Asylum Street, the interdistrict magnet school will be moving over the summer to a new $71 million facility on Huyshope Avenue. The new school includes three gymnasiums, a rock-climbing wall and a "human performance lab," where students will learn hands-on about jobs in athletic training, the science of exercise, physical therapy and bio-mechanics.

The academy now has about 400 students in grades 9-12, but will eventually have a full capacity of 720 students in grades 7-12, Brady said. About 38 percent of current students are from the suburbs and 62 percent from Hartford, she said.

Within Hartford, parents will have more choices with the coming school year. Last year, the city's board of education approved Adamowski's plan to create a citywide all-choice system featuring a wide range of educational approaches.

Starting this month, the school system's approximately 1,600 eighth-graders and their parents will be offered a choice of high schools, said Webster Brooks of the school system's office of student assignment. Students will be asked to list their preferences among the city's traditional high schools and magnet schools, said Brooks, who had an information table at the fair.

CREC also is offering choices to more people. In the past, only students from so-called "partnering" districts could attend one of CREC's magnet schools, agency spokesman Dwight Blint wrote in a press release. Now because of recently passed state legislation called Parent Choice, children from outside school districts can compete for unassigned seats. Blint said CREC schools are accepting applications for the coming school year until late February.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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