Magnet school blooms

At one local school, students are learning more than reading, writing and arithmetic.

Since New Haven schools opened up for the new school year two weeks ago, students at West River’s Barnard Environmental Science School have been learning about weather forecasting, ecology and horticulture in their gleaming, newly-renovated campus. According to the Office of the Mayor, the project, which cost nearly $43 million, was carried out under the auspices of the Citywide School Construction Project, a city initiative that aims to renovate or rebuild every local public school.

Over $1.5 billion has been allocated to the Project since 1995, one of the highest per capita education spending rates in the nation, according to statistics released by the mayor’s office.

Marge Drucker, the magnet resource teacher at Barnard, said a driving goal behind the renovation was to ensure that “environmental studies” was not just an empty phrase. To that end, the city built several labs, two greenhouses and some rooftop gardens where students will grow vegetables for the area’s senior citizens. “Weather-cams” have been installed on the roof, and a 229-foot-long pedestrian bridge connects the main campus to the school’s nature center, which is slated to be completed in November.

The centerpiece of the project is the school’s 272 solar energy panel installation, New Haven Schools Superintendent Reginald Mayo said in a press release. Drucker said students monitor the panels’ total kilowatt output from kiosks in the school’s lobby.

LaShawn Kimber, a pre-K teacher at Barnard, said students have been responding enthusiastically to their new surroundings.

“This is incredibly exciting for us,” Kimber said. “The kids have been scampering all over the place.”

Drucker, who is responsible for developing the school’s science curriculum, also praised the new offerings.

“This is a chance to make science come alive,” she said. “Now we can really integrate the environment into the school day.”

But Drucker said the school faces the challenge of focusing on the environment without neglecting basic skills. Barnard lags well behind the state and city averages on annual fourth-grade achievement tests, according to data from the state Department of Education. The school has Title I designation, which means that at least 40 percent of its 600 students are classified as low-income. Applicants who live in the school’s West River neighborhood are heavily favored in the school’s admissions process.

Despite the challenges Barnard faces, Drucker said she is optimistic about the school’s future, observing that the school possesses many more educational resources than most local schools.

“We know we’re very lucky,” she said. “Everyone is sharing in these benefits.”

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