BOE affirms SMARTR's recommendations

By Christian Mysliwiec - Staff Writer
Manchester - posted Thu., Jan. 17, 2013
Megan Alubicki Flick, vice chair of SMARTR, presented the committee's recommendations on Monday, Jan. 14. Photos by Christian Mysliwiec.
Megan Alubicki Flick, vice chair of SMARTR, presented the committee's recommendations on Monday, Jan. 14. Photos by Christian Mysliwiec.

Manchester's SMARTR Committee came to the Board of Education on Monday, Jan. 14, with the school system recommendations they hope to see voted on in November. SMARTR, or School Modernization and Reinvestment Team Revisited, was tasked nearly one year ago with developing “a long-term, big picture” strategy to recommend to the BOE and Board of Directors.

One recommendation that is certain to have a major impact on the town is the proposed revision to the educational model. Currently, Manchester operates under the “neighborhood school” model, in which elementary schools are situated within each community, theoretically within walking distance for students. The advantages of this model include the reduced need for bus transportation. The school also provides a hub to the neighborhood. But in a town where neighborhood populations are shifting, SMARTR determined the neighborhood school model to be no longer viable.

As an alternative, SMARTR proposed the development of a kindergarten through fourth grade model for all elementary schools. “This model will create capacity for growth and/or the future need for swing space, as well as enabling schools to house pre-K in the future,” said Megan Alubicki Flick, vice chair of SMARTR.

SMARTR calls for the creation of a fifth- and sixth-grade academy. The campus for this academy would be in both the Bennet Academy – which is currently sixth grade only – and the Cheney building, also on School Street next to Bennet, which would be renovated and expanded.

“The rationale for the fifth and sixth campus is it allows students to acclimate to each location for longer, meaning that although there will still be the same amount of transitions, the students will have more time in each location to acclimate prior to moving to the next location,” said Flick.

SMARTR also recommended the development of design feasibility parameters for new or like-new renovations for Washington School and Robertson School. “Both schools are currently at capacity, while other schools are approaching capacity,” said Flick. “Demographic projects predict continued growth, especially for these two areas.”

Lastly, SMARTR recommended the town investigate the creation of a magnet school within the district, “based on the fact that a magnet school would allow for innovative, theme-based learning for Manchester students, and it would help Manchester remain competitive given the region's many school choices,” said Flick. The design and theme of the magnet school would be decided on by the BOE.

The town will receive input from design firms, solicited by a Request for Qualifications/Proposals, providing the cost to develop a feasibility study for like-new renovations and possible expansions of the Cheney Building. RFQ/Ps are also out to determine the cost of feasibility studies for renovating or replacing Washington and Robertson.

The SMARTR Committee is facing an aggressive timeline to meet its goal of putting these four recommendations on the referendum in November. It hopes to develop a shortlist of potential design firms by the end of January, with final selections complete by late February. Feasibility studies are slated to be complete by late June. The committee is hoping to get final approval of its recommendations from the BOE by late July/early August, as well as from the Board of Directors in late August/early September. Their plans will be submitted to the state for approval. If all these milestones are reached, the recommendations will be voted on by residents in November.

According to interim Superintendent of Schools Dr. Richard Kisiel, now is an appropriate time to explore the magnet school option.

“The legislature will be considering potential expenditures to develop potentially three new magnet schools in the Hartford area,” said Kisiel. “I think it's important for the Board of Education to eventually provide the superintendent with some direction on its vote to proceed and explore that option with the state Department of Education in a timely way.” Kisiel made it clear that “timely” meant no later than early February.

BOE member Michael Crockett, who also serves as president of SMARTR, noted that the plan to switch the school model to K-4 will only be possible if the fifth/sixth grade campus can feasibly be housed in both Bennet and the Cheney building. “If the feasibility study for Cheney comes back in a negative way where it isn't feasible to do, this plan is shot. We'll be back to the drawing board,” he said.

“This timeline is tight, but the design and execution of the SMARTR Committee really allows for this to happen,” said BOE member Sarah Walton, who is also a member of SMARTR.

SMARTR hoped to earn the board's affirmation so that they could continue their direction with some confidence that the recommendations will receive final approval in the late summer – an affirmation which the board unanimously gave.

In the public comments portion of the BOE meeting, Stephanie Knybel weighed in on the presentation. “I do hope we really get the community involved. If we're looking at all these options to come back to us at referendum, we're talking a big price tag here,” said Knybel. She was optimistic about a magnet school's ability to generate some revenue if it was open to surrounding communities, but she observed that many residents want neighborhood schools, and that the alternative could cause problems for parents. “You've got parents with multiple kids going to multiple schools – that's a hard shuffle,” she said.

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