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Sweeping School Proposals Aired

New Report, Which Has Had Little Exposure, Suggests Closures, Consolidations Around City

May 24, 2006
By RACHEL GOTTLIEB, Courant Staff Writer

A new report sure to trigger controversy in Hartford proposes a plan to close and consolidate schools all over the city because of excess space in many schools and because some schools are in poor condition.

The report commissioned by the city also calls for redistricting to even out enrollment at remaining schools.

The report prepared by Harrall-Michalowski Associates Inc. of Hamden is dated February 2006. But school board members didn't see the report until it was recently shared with them in preparation for Tuesday's board meeting, and school officials didn't bring copies to the meeting to distribute to the public. Board Vice Chairwoman Elizabeth Brad Noel complained about not receiving the completed study in February, saying it doesn't give the board much time to ponder it before the next school year.

Mayor Eddie A. Perez, chairman of the school board, said he doesn't expect the board to implement any parts of the plan until the board has a new superintendent. Superintendent Robert Henry's resignation becomes effective at the end of June.

The report analyzes the district's capital improvement plan to expand and renovate schools, updating a plan from 2000 that did not account for the construction of magnet schools, the plan to convert all middle and elementary schools into pre-kindergarten through eighth-grade schools, the mayor's initiative to send city children to private schools or a court stipulation to increase the number of students attending out-of-district schools through the Open Choice program.

Despite projections for enrollment increases in the coming years, the report concludes that the city's massive school building plan is expected to create so much additional space that by 2011 there will be more space than the city needs. Currently non-magnet elementary schools have excess capacity for 2,245 students, and by 2011 those schools are expected to have room for 2,628 more students than they will have enrolled, according to the report.

Neighborhoods with the largest projected excess space are the Northeast, Blue Hills, Downtown, South End, Clay-Arsenal and Frog Hollow.

Some city schools have not been updated in nearly 100 years, according to the report. For example, Dwight Elementary School, which was built in 1883, was renovated in 1917. West Middle Elementary School, built in 1894, was renovated in 1930. Barnard-Brown Elementary School, built in 1927, was last renovated in 1930.

Some of the schools don't have room for food preparation, some are not handicapped accessible. Some have to use annexes to accommodate all of their children, and some don't have bathrooms on all floors or other modern conveniences that are expected in schools this century.

But the old schools are loved for their broad windows and hallways, and for their old-style charm. Parents object to children walking long distances on city streets and through rain and snow, so they resist redistricting. And neighborhoods tend to express ownership in their schools despite building deficiencies.

The report recommends a series of remedies that would drastically alter the configuration of the system. It incorporates the district's current plan to phase out middle schools and convert all elementary schools to pre-K to 8 schools. However, Henry was the driving force behind that plan, and it is unclear whether the next superintendent will favor the idea. Meanwhile, Noel, who is outspoken, is a champion of keeping the middle schools.

Recommendations include:

Closing Dwight's building and converting Bellizzi Middle School into the new Dwight Elementary School for pre-K to 8. M.D. Fox, a Bellizzi feeder school, is already a large elementary school and would not have the room to add grades 6-8 for students who would have gone on to Bellizzi, so the report suggests redistricting between the new Dwight and M.D. Fox to make more room at Fox.

Closing M.L. King Elementary School, which is in the original Weaver High School building, and converting Fox Middle School into a new M.L. King Elementary. All of Fox's feeder schools - Clark, Milner, Simpson-Waverly Classical Magnet, Rawson, Twain and Wish - would become pre-K to 8 schools. This would require extensive renovation to allow Fox to serve younger children.

Closing Twain Elementary and consolidating Twain with Rawson, which was recently expanded to accommodate pre-K to 8. Twain could then be used as "swing space" to house students from other schools as their schools are renovated. In this scenario, district lines would be redrawn to balance enrollment at Rawson-Twain, Annie Fisher Magnet School and University of Hartford Regional Magnet School - all of which are in the Blue Hills neighborhood.

Convert Quirk Middle School into central office space and a middle or high school magnet, or use it as "swing space." Convert all of its feeder schools - Barnard-Brown, Betances, Burns, McDonough, Parkville, Sanchez, SAND and West Middle - into pre-K 8 schools. The lease on the school board offices at the old G. Fox Building would be allowed to expire in 2010. If Quirk is used as temporary swing space, then it would need extensive renovations to accommodate young children.

Close the Hartford Transitional Learning Academy annex on Tower Avenue and move the annex to the vacated Breakthrough Magnet School building.

Consolidate Barnard-Brown and SAND Elementary. Consider using Barnard-Brown for Capitol Preparatory Magnet School or Pathways to Technology Magnet School.

Perez said he expects the plan to stir controversy in the city. He will create a committee to examine the scenarios and to determine the cost associated with some of the suggestions. The study does not offer any cost estimates other than to note in various proposals whether they would necessitate extensive renovations.

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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