Published January 14. 2013 4:00AM
Norwich - The John M. Moriarty School could have a very different look this August if it becomes the city's first elementary magnet school for environmental science and health education, extending its "classrooms" to include the nearby Taftville Reservoir and surrounding woods and fields.
Staff and members of the Moriarty School Governance Council have spent the past year studying magnet school models and what professional development and instructional changes would be needed to convert the 464-student kindergarten through fifth-grade school into a magnet school.
The group presented its proposal to the Board of Education Tuesday and asked for quick action to start the 2013-14 school year in August with the new theme.
Principal Rebecca Pellerin told the board the staff is ready for the transition after spending the past year visiting other magnet schools and researching how environmental science themes could be applied to everyday classroom lessons while still meeting state and national curriculum standards.
Students would work on projects that have "everyday relevance" globally as well as locally on energy consumption, food production, waste, climate change and nutrition. Moriarty already has a community garden and hopes to conduct lessons in the neighboring Raymond Ouellet Taftville Recreation Park that includes the reservoir.
Nearly 100 parents filled out a recent survey and expressed overwhelming support for the environmental science magnet school concept, with 76 parents answering "yes," three "no" and eight saying they wanted more information. Parents also overwhelmingly said current Moriarty students should have preference in attending the school and outside students should be admitted gradually over a few years "to allow all current students to stay at the school."
The proposal calls for phasing in the magnet program, first offering 25 percent of next school year's kindergarten slots to Norwich students outside the traditional Moriarty district. The following year, 25 percent of first graders and the new kindergarten class would be non-Moriarty students.
Still to be decided is whether Norwich wants Moriarty to be an intra-district magnet school open only to Norwich or an inter-district school open to the region and potentially qualifying for state grants as well.
The Board of Education will be asked to vote on the plan at its Feb. 12 meeting, allowing Moriarty to become part of a regional federal grant application LEARN is preparing for magnet school funding throughout the region. The grant application is due March 1 at the U.S. Department of Education.
Doreen Marvin, director of development for LEARN, the southeastern Connecticut regional education agency, said she already is working on the application for Moriarty in anticipation of the board's possible approval just two weeks before the application deadline.
LEARN expects to know by May whether the region will receive the highly competitive grant requesting funding for new and existing local magnet schools seeking to expand or make significant changes, leaving little time for Moriarty to prepare for the opening of school in late August.
Marvin said she doesn't yet know how much money she will request in the grant, but typically, start-up grants for new magnet schools consist of $2 million to $3 million for the three-year period of the grant. The funding is not meant to be perpetual and could pay for equipment upgrades, professional development and instructional materials.
The tight time schedule this spring and summer didn't bother anyone involved in the Moriarty effort, including Marvin and the school board.
"Could you have seen a more enthusiastic staff?" Marvin said. "They are really cohesive on this. It's really wonderful to see. I think it's a perfect location for that theme. The expansiveness of the campus, the woods, the reservoir. They have such a great community garden."
While the Board of Education has yet to endorse the plan, board member Aaron Daniels said the school board could go ahead with it regardless of whether the city receives the federal grant.
"Forget the grant," Daniels said. "If this is what we want, we find a way to make it happen for us."
Bill Linski, a fifth-grade teacher at Moriarty, and Dawn Poitras, a fourth-grade teacher, are both members of the School Governance Council that worked on the plan. The two teachers joined Pellerin in making the board presentation last week.
Poitras said the foundation for the transformation already is in place at Moriarty, with the community garden, a school greenhouse and afterschool fitness programs. Students recently used the greenhouse garden to make kale salad for students and staff, including their own vinaigrette dressing.
Pellerin said the school would use the new curriculum standards as the basis for the magnet school curriculum.
"The staff realizes they will be working harder than they ever have," Pellerin said. "Whenever you start teaching something new, there will be a level of hardness to it that should subside after the first two years."
Linski said most teachers use theme-based learning already in classroom units on science, math or English.
"All those core subjects have it," Linski said, "integrated based learning."