By COLIN A. YOUNG Day Staff Writer
New London - Seth Lake is representative of many New London High School students. He works hard in class with hopes of becoming a chemical engineer, plays shooting guard on the basketball team, and fills his spare time with extracurricular activities.
But Lake is not from New London; he lives some 15 miles away in Stonington. And although he is a junior at the Science and Technology Magnet High School of Southeastern Connecticut, technically he also is a student at New London High.
Located adjacent to the high school at 490 Jefferson Ave., the $18.75 million, 60,000-square-foot magnet school opened in 2006 with an enrollment of 120 students. The school, which focuses on science, technology, engineering and mathematics, serves 360 students, including Lake and 141 others from outside of New London.
When the magnet school opened, officials pledged that there would be no rigid division between the two schools. And although each school has its own building, principal and class offerings, they share one address, one driveway and one student body.
"I would say it is more of one school in two buildings," J. Hunter Roman, a junior at the high school, said. "There are subtle differences between the two, but for the most part, everyone is the same. It's just like we're all part of the same school."
Roman, a defensive end on the football team, attends a college-level chemistry class at the magnet school.
"That's the thing about this school," he said. "Even though I don't technically go here, if there is a class that I need and they know I am ambitious enough to go get that type of education, they'll offer me that class."
The dynamic between the two schools is a healthy one, officials said, because neither school is exclusive to a particular set of students.
"What makes the relationship between the high school and the magnet school work is that it is so much more enriching and it provides so many more opportunities for all the students," Louis E. Allen Jr., principal of the magnet high school, said. "All the kids are benefitting from both programs. Everybody can get something out of it."
Lake said he views the magnet school as "an extension of the high school" because it offers different classes and includes students from New London and other towns.
"It is a whole different environment out here and it brings a lot of life experiences," Lake said. "It allows you the experience of assimilating into a whole new city and new types of people, and (to) make new friends."
A magnet for diversity
From Sprague to Stonington, more than 900 students from 19 communities go to high school in New London.
"There is nothing like this place, between these two schools, there is nothing like it," said Allen, who was principal of New London High for more than a decade. "We get it all. One thing we pride ourselves on is that our kids know they are accepted."
At the schools, where the student population is 78 percent minority according to the most recent report from the state Department of Education, diversity is celebrated as a valuable part of the school experience.
"I think it speaks to the character and the personalities of the people at the school, at the magnet school and at New London High, because a lot of people from out of town are intimidated by the diversity of New London and of the magnet school," Lake said.
The school's diversity is most obvious in the cafeteria, where any lines between high school and magnet school are erased.
"You have a variety of people from all walks of life, socio-economic statuses, races, and they're all sharing tables together and enjoying each other's company," New London High School Principal William "Tommy" Thompson III said.
The diversity of the schools is a reflection of the city as a whole, Roman said.
"If you look at the city, it's all different types of people. And then all those people come to this school and now we're drawing in kids from out of town," he said. "Growing up in New London, and going to New London High School especially, you see all types of people. I think that is one of the best parts of this city and the school."
An after-school culture
Not only does having a diverse student body make for a more enriching high school experience, but it also prepares students for life beyond high school.
"It prepares us to deal with different types of people as we grow up and go to college and get jobs, because in college, the groups are going to be very diverse," magnet high school junior Lillian James said.
"I'm always here," James said. "Even when I don't have to be."
James, a New London resident who is the drum major for the school band and a member of the swim team, said that participating in extracurricular activities helps keep her on track with all of her academic work, too.
"At 2:05 when the class bell sounds, by no means is the day over," Thompson said. "That's when things come alive at the high school."
Students are involved in clubs and athletics, and some stay after school to study in groups.
"There is a whole culture after school," Roman said. "After school, you always see the same people around, doing the same types of things. Some people leave at 2:05, but there are a lot of kids who are around all the time. It's school I guess, but it's a lot more relaxed."
Between the two schools, students can choose from about 30 after-school clubs and activities including garden club, spoken word club, community service club and multicultural club.
If enough students are interested and a faculty member is willing to serve as an advisor, the school is open to establishing a club, Allen said.
"We try to accommodate every kid in this building and that's why it takes on a life of its own after school and that's why we have a late bus every day," he said. "We tell our kids, if you're looking at the clock, this is not the right school for you."
Now, as New London stands to become the state's first all-magnet school district, the dynamic between the two high schools could be viewed as a model of intradistrict cooperation and partnership.
And though the campus technically remains two distinct schools, Roman said, the shared experiences make the students, staff and faculty members of both buildings unified as Whalers.
"There are kids that are from out of town, but now we're all wearing green and gold, we're all playing on the same teams, we're all going to have the same graduating class, we all go to the same prom, the same homecoming," Roman said. "So it's not a huge division between normal high school kids and magnet school kids. ... It's one big, happy family, basically."