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Attract Ham Avenue Hiatt Forde Gan Magnet School Mode

The rapid diversification of school racial imbalance response. A new magnet program. And educators and parents, a promising school will eventually achieve their academic commitments in a belief.

Hamilton Avenue School today in many ways looks a lot like it did when its magnet program launched in 2001. But the stakes in 2014 are arguably much higher than they were 13 years ago. Racial imbalance is not new anymore -- it is an issue that has loomed over the school for 15 years.

After more than a decade of setbacks and disappointments, with several themes tried or considered, Hamilton Avenue's magnet program needs to work this time. It is a large part of the district's latest racial-balance plan, so it must attract many new students to change the school's demographics. But it also must address a stark academic achievement gap between the school and the other elementaries in the district.

In the just-approved science, technology, engineering and math magnet theme, school officials, teachers and parents are cautiously hopeful that they have, at last, found a winning strategy. But they also recognize that a good idea is not enough; implementation will be crucial. And they are looking to a STEM school in West Hartford as a model to help a magnet theme finally stick at Hamilton Avenue.

"I have nothing but high hopes for our school," said Hamilton Avenue Principal Cynthia Womack. "I feel like if they can do it in West Hartford, we can, too. We can learn from their successes and mistakes to be successful."

Reasons for STEM

STEM supporters say it is a theme that will best prepare students for their future, as technology becomes an ever-bigger part of our lives. Womack has described STEM as "one way to ignite the desire to learn in our children."

Polling numbers have argued for it, as well. In a survey last year of elementary-school parents, 28 percent said they would "definitely" choose and 22 percent said they would "probably" pick a district school outside their neighborhood if it allowed their children to learn new STEM skills.

After the state approved the new racial-balance plan in July, support quickly grew for STEM.

Greenwich school officials then zeroed in on the Florence E. Smith STEM School in West Hartford as a place to study. Like Hamilton Avenue, it is a racially unbalanced school in a well-off district. In contrast, however, Smith's science-based magnet program has been more successful than Ham Ave's "Renaissance" theme. Out-of-neighborhood students have accounted for about 20 percent to 30 percent of Smith's student body in each of the last 10 years. Magnet enrollment at Hamilton Avenue is a little under 15 percent this year, though it has hit 20 percent at times in the past.

Even though it was similar to the previous focus, Smith chose to change to a STEM theme, considered more rigorous, for the 2012-13 school year.

"There was a real cultural reorientation around STEM," said Bruce Putterman, a West Hartford school board member. "STEM is where a lot of economic value is going to come from in the future. It made great sense to us to introduce that theme at one of our schools."

"There is a hope that it would help with racial balance," but academics were the principal driver for choosing STEM, Putterman added.

Like Hamilton Avenue, Smith's test scores still lag district averages across grades and subjects, although by much narrower margins than Hamilton Avenue's results do in Greenwich.

Nonetheless, Smith's early STEM results have been encouraging. In its magnet lottery this year, the school had a wait list for second-graders and fourth-graders. Three years ago, an average of eight kindergarten magnet students were enrolling each year at Smith. Now, that number is 15, and it is expected to increase to 20 in the 2016-17 year.Source:greenwichtime.com

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