BRISTOL - The plan to turn the old Memorial Boulevard School into an arts magnet school has drawn bipartisan support from city and school officials. Some teachers, however, are concerned about the potential effect on arts programs in the other public schools.
Lea McCabe, social studies department chairwoman and assistant drama director at Bristol Central High School, urged the Board of Education recently “to fully consider all of the implications of creating an arts magnet school before moving ahead with this proposal.”
“I applaud this board for its commitment to arts education,” she said. “Your interest in theater and technical production as evidenced by this proposal is incredibly refreshing. But it is unrealistic to think that creating a specialty school will not detract from current arts programs in the district, which are in desperate need for funding, facility improvement, and staffing.”
The magnet school is expected to enroll 525 students, selected by lottery, in grades 6 through 12. It is also expected to bring some of the about 300 local students attending other magnet schools in the state back to Bristol.
McCabe said while it would benefit the arts education of those students, at the same time it could “provide less access to academic curricula, particularly higher level courses, for those students.”
“However I have not given up on the hope that this city can provide a comprehensive, well rounded, fully funded education for all students,” she continued. “I’m also committed to the idea that sixth-graders, and even 12th-graders, may not know what they want to do for the rest of their lives, and it’s our job as public educators to provide them with opportunities to take as many classes in as many fields as possible, so they can figure it out.”
Sarah Divenere, middle school band teacher at West Bristol and Greene-Hill K-8 schools, agreed that “the fact that the arts magnet is even a subject of conversation is amazing, especially in such a sports-institution town as Bristol.”
However, the school district’s arts faculty has been left “completely in the dark” over the project, she said.
Over the last few years the board has systematically undermined the arts in the schools, especially with scheduling changes that have forced middle school students to choose between taking art and music, Divenere said. “Children cry. Every year I have parents come to me and ask, ‘Why can’t they take both?’ I say, ‘I’m so sorry, it’s just the way the schedule is.’ ”
“What happens to the kids that are not in the arts magnet school? What happens to the music and arts departments at every other school? How do we make sure that everyone has the same opportunities to explore what they love and to find something to be proud of?” she asked.
Kathy Morales, vice president of elementary schools for the teachers union, said she is split on the issue because her children are only 2 and 4 years old and she is excited by the prospect of their eventually attending the arts magnet school.
“Then the union part of me, the person that knows how school systems work, started to question that,” said Morales, a prekindergarten teacher at Ivy Drive Elementary School.
If you’re spending millions of dollars for the magnet school to have state-of-the-art equipment, facilities and instruments, “how do I explain to my son when he’s in middle school ‘I’m sorry that you didn’t win the lottery on this so you’re going to go to Northeast and they have equipment that’s 25 to 30 years old and that’s just the way it’s gonna be,’ ” she said.
Morales said that if the arts magnet students are chosen by lottery, she doesn’t understand how it could also bring students attending other magnet schools back to Bristol.
“So is the lottery fixed? Or is half of it a lottery and half of it is for people that are already in magnets?”
Kelly McCabe, a math teacher at Bristol Central and husband of Lea McCabe, wanted to know how the staff at the arts magnet will be chosen.
“If too many teachers want to go to this new opportunity, how will they be selected? Or, coming from a school where a lot of people really do enjoy working there, if teachers don’t want to leave their current school and we can’t staff the new magnet school - how will that be decided?” he asked.
Superintendent Susan Moreau said she recently received the commitment letter from the state for about $56 million to renovate Memorial Boulevard, so “there will be information coming out now that we are absolutely sure” of the plan.
Board member Jeff Caggiano said he is all for the arts magnet school, but, after hearing the teachers’ comments, “I am nervous that we are creating a specialty opportunity at the expense of the other schools.”
Kristen Giantonio, who was appointed to fill a board vacancy in June, noted she was not on the board when it voted on the arts magnet school but she used to attend the meetings to advocate for music programs at all the schools.
“Quite honestly had I been on the board when the decision was made for the arts magnet school right now I highly doubt I would have voted for it,” she said.
Susan Corica can be reached at 860-973-1802 or email@example.com.