“These are going to be difficult years,” Mayor John DeStefano Jr. told New Haven on October 22. As the New Haven economy suffers with the rest of the country, city administrators have moved quickly to cut costs. Few of them, however, have navigated the crisis as nimbly as those overseeing the education of New Haven’s children. This difficult year has forced the city to close two schools, Vincent E. Mauro Magnet School and Dwight elementary school, but the closings have been part of a larger, surprisingly successful plan.

Dwight closed this fall, and its students now study at the Troup School, just down the street. Vincent E. Mauro will close in the fall of 2009, when its students can transfer to the newly renovated Mauro-Sheridan Magnet School, which New Haven Director of Communications Jessica Mayorga calls an “exciting building” to house them. At this time, Mayorga tells me, the city does not anticipate reopening either school. Vincent E. Mauro, however, may be used as a swing space for students of schools slated for renovation.

This transition is just one adjustment in a longer period of dramatic change. In 1995, DeStefano launched the Citywide School Construction Project, and since then, the city has been systematically renovating each of its schools, an undertaking considered a national model due to its scope and ambition. Mayorga says administrators plan to maintain this reputation despite the recent change in plans.

New Haven’s magnet schools are central to its School Choice Program, a project intended to cultivate environments that improve learning. Students can apply to any of 33 magnet schools, each with an educational specialty and corresponding idiosyncrasies. The lobby of science-geared Vincent E. Mauro, for example, is home to a miniature museum of animals ranging from fish to tarantulas.

Walking into this zoo of a lobby, “the theme of the school screams right at you,” says Robert Canelli, supervisor of New Haven’s magnet schools. Getting excited, he describes the multinational flags and clocks displaying different time zones that enliven the hallways of John Daniels, a school themed toward international studies. In the classrooms, teachers must expose their students to the school’s theme for at least ten hours every week. This requirement, Canelli tells me, attracts new teachers by providing opportunities for more creative teaching.

Vincent E. Mauro’s and Sheridan’s shared focus on science and technology makes this merger a natural transition for students and teachers alike. The project, says William Clark, Chief Operating Officer of New Haven’s Board of Education, has been blessed with many such strokes of luck. For example, the Troup School is only a few blocks from Dwight, making for another smooth transition.

“We’re not forcing anything in,” Clark maintains. “We’re not shoehorning anything. It makes sense.” These changes were not part of the original plan, but they have come together so neatly they seem almost inevitable. In fact, both Canelli and Clark point out a number of ways this transition will help the children of Dwight and Vincent E. Mauro.

“They get to jump the line,” Clark says of the students of Vincent E. Mauro, which had been awaiting renovation in several years. Now, he says, the brand-new facilities of Sheridan, including updated science and technology labs, will boost morale. Canelli explains that former students at Dwight, which had been a low-performing school, will benefit similarly from their move to Troup.

Canelli says the move from Dwight was preceded by a kickoff celebration, and indeed, the city’s administrators feel they have much to celebrate. “We had the top kid in the state last year,” Canelli brags, referring proudly to a high scorer on the standardized Connecticut Mastery Test. Canelli has seen a rise in the number of graduating students continuing on to higher education, and New Haven’s magnet schools have attracted an influx of out-of-district, suburban students as well as a shock of national attention.

Still, New Haven’s public schools are far from perfect, Clark clarifies. “We need to keep working hard on this every day.”