EDITOR'S NOTE: Football will be the focus Saturday, but during the rest of the week, it's all about math and science at New London's Science and Technology Magnet High School.
New London - Zakkiyya Griffin wakes up for school at 4:30 a.m. She leaves her home an hour and a half later to catch the school bus, which she rides for the next hour.
It's not easy, she says, but whatever it takes to get to her destination - the Science and Technology Magnet High School - is worth it.
"This is a great place to be because we're all different and we don't mind being different," the junior said. "We embrace being weird, and we love being weird, and that's what this magnet school is all about. We're not afraid to do what we want to do. It's cool to do your own thing. It's OK to be a nerd."
Her family moved across the Gold Star Bridge to Groton when she was in third grade, but by the time she entered middle school, she was itching to get out.
"I just showed up in third grade, and I had a hard time fitting in. I was all alone. I tried really, really hard to get friends and then I started doing things to make friends for all the wrong reasons," Griffin said. "When I was in eighth grade, people walked all over me and used me for things, and that didn't feel good. I didn't want to go through four more years of that."
Griffin, who plans to become a pediatrician, always enjoyed school and the challenges of learning. She considered Ledyard High School's Agri-Science & Technology Program, and the Ella T. Grasso Southeastern Technical High School, but once she learned of the magnet school's biomedical program - which allows students to earn college credit through Purdue University in Indiana and is the only accredited biomedical program in New England - she was sold.
"I didn't think, like, 'What happens if I don't get accepted?'" Griffin said. "Not being accepted wasn't an option."
A success story
In its seventh year, the magnet school has become one of the state's leading science, technology, engineering and math - STEM - magnet schools and if enrollment figures continue to rise, director Louis Allen anticipates an expansion.
At 350 students, the school is over-enrolled by 50 students, with 18 districts sending students there. Interested students must write a 250-word essay, fill out an application and visit the school with their parents to enter the admission lottery. The lottery is a recent change, and it was followed by a 33 percent decline in applications. But "at least we're getting kids who are genuinely interested in our program to apply," Allen said.
Being in a school district that has underperformed consistently and is under state watch makes recruiting a constant effort, Allen said.
"We know the barriers we have to overcome with the stereotypes about New London Public Schools, our test scores, graduation rates and peripheral issues in the community," he said, "but this place has done what it's supposed to do against all odds. It's a great success story for education."
One of 73 magnets in the state, the school provides many opportunities for students to learn outside the classroom.
Partnerships with Mitchell and Connecticut colleges, the U.S. Coast Guard Academy and Three Rivers Community College, as well as the chance to earn college credits through the University of Connecticut and Purdue entice students.
"You can't expect to just be in our building and learn," Allen said. "You're going to be outside of the classroom and have access to professionals working in the fields you're interested in."
Students complete their core graduation requirements at New London High School next door.
"You've got to adapt to a different environment, different expectations, different scenarios. You're coming into a school with all these different towns coming together, and you need to get along," Allen said. "Whatever attitude or reservations you have, you need to leave them at home, because once you walk through these doors, all that stuff doesn't matter anymore."
'STEM is the future'
When freshman Kate Ashbey hears the words 'math' and 'science,' her face lights up.
"I am in love with math and science, just totally in love with them," she said with a growing smile. "Here, you can double up on your math and sciences. I took (physical education) over the summer just so I could add another class to my schedule."
Doubling up on two subjects that are some times considered a student's worst nightmare?
"My schedule doesn't have enough room for all the classes I want to take. It's packed full," Ashbey said. "Right after my first week here, I knew I was home. I'm not going back to Waterford."
Local eighth-graders have many options for high school, both public and private.
Besides the Science and Technology Magnet High School, there are Ledyard's Vo-Ag program; the Marine Science magnet high school and Grasso Tech, both in Groton; Williams School in New London; St. Bernard High School in Uncasville; Norwich Free Academy and Norwich Tech; The Academy of the Holy Family in Baltic; and Fishers Island School.
"This school stuck out to me because it's STEM," Ashbey said. "STEM is the future of the United States, and that's what all the jobs of the future are going to be based on."
A member of the high school's Navy Junior Reserve Officers Training Corps program, Ashbey's sights are set on the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md.
"Structure, I need structure," she said. "I didn't fit into some of the classes at Waterford because there's always someone like the class clown standing on a chair or doing something to distract everybody. But here, everyone's here to learn."