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Wequonnoc School pushes toward arts-themed future

By Claire Bessette

Publication: The Day

Published February 22. 2013 4:00AM

Norwich - Dozens of families gathered Thursday at Wequonnoc School in Taftville to learn about the early stages of a possible plan to convert the elementary school into an arts-themed magnet school.

The Board of Education on Wednesday approved the school's request to apply for a $75,000 magnet school planning grant as part of a regional grant application to be submitted next week.

Principal Scott Fain said school officials decided on seeking magnet school status because theme-based instruction improves achievement levels. He said the arts theme would encompass visual arts as well as performing arts with music and drama.

"Research shows that not only would they learn the arts, but they will become better in reading and science and math," Fain said.

Becoming a magnet school also would bring additional funding to Wequonnoc School. In the regional grant application to be submitted by LEARN, the regional education agency for southeastern Connecticut, Wequonnoc would receive $75,000 to $100,000 for the planning and possibly $700,000 per year for two years following that, Fain said.

The Wequonnoc School Governance Council has been studying the arts theme and visited other arts magnet schools in the state. The group is considering using the Rotella Magnet School in Waterbury as a model, Fain said.

Fain said school performances already are the best attended events, bringing entire families to the school.

In a recent survey, 100 parents overwhelmingly supported the concept, with 93 percent preferring performing arts, 96 percent visual arts and 97 percent saying they like the idea of using technology to learn the traditional subjects of science, reading and math. A smaller percent, 79 percent, said they liked the idea that a magnet school could bring students to Wequonnoc from other sections of Norwich and even outside Norwich.

As with a similar survey at the John M. Moriarty School in Norwich, parents also expressed concern that their children might "get booted out" of Wequonnoc by the magnet school, as Fain put it. Fain promised that would not happen unless the students themselves didn't want to stay with the arts theme.

In the first year, 25 percent of incoming kindergarten students would be interested magnet school students from outside Taftville. In future years, 25 percent more would be added to the kindergarten classes.

Moriarty is ahead of Wequonnoc in the magnet school process, hoping to start an environmental science and health magnet school at the start of the next school year. Moriarty is part of the regional grant to be submitted as well.

"I think it's a great idea," said Rose Aubin, a parent of a current Wequonnoc kindergartener and two younger children who would attend the school. "If they have a magnet, they will have a focus."

Fain said a committee of teachers has discussed what an arts-themed magnet school could include. Current part-time arts, music and library instructors would become full-time and would work with classroom teachers on different ideas to integrate arts into everyday lessons.

"We would have state-of-the-art technology," Fain said.

The school would have multiple performances, two or three a month, with chances to display artwork throughout the city, Fain said. Visiting artists and artists-in-residence would work with teachers and students, and the school would hire a full-time arts coordinator.

Doreen Marvin, director of development for LEARN, told the audience there are 5,000 magnet schools across the country, the earliest from the 1960s.

She said magnet schools use a very hands-on, project-based approach to lessons. Magnet schools are part of state and federal efforts to reform education.

Displaying a photo of fifth-graders at an arts magnet school in Tampa, Fla., Marvin told the audience that the school recently won a Florida school competition in math, showing that the core subjects do not suffer with an arts theme. Another school uses carpentry, painting, measuring and other skills to build their own performing arts stage sets.

Marvin said if Wequonnoc School families wish to tour the Rotella School in Waterbury, she would arrange the tours.

c.bessette@theday.com

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