Magnet school inspires fans and foes

Danbury's elementary magnet school has had its detractors in New Milford from the time it was first available to local students five years ago.

Some educational leaders and parents embraced the chance for children to be educated beyond the community, being particularly attracted to its full-day kindergarten, which was then offered nowhere else.

Now New Milford has its own full-day program for all kindergartners in the district.

Local opponents of Western Connecticut Academy for International Studies, located on the west side campus of Western Connecticut State University, have feared the school would take away money better spent locally.

The initial tuition was $1,000 a year; the 2012-13 tuition will be $1,784 for each child.

The town pays that fee and students' transportation.

The cost of busing -- shared with Brookfield -- is $26,000. The state reimburses more than $22,000 of that to the town's general fund.

At the beginning, a compromise between the fans and foes was found.

Of 45 spots in the magnet school initially offered to New Milford, the Board of Education accepted 15 the first year and three more the next year, when the school expanded from grades K-4 to K-5. Each year three of the seats have been open.

The district is expected to cover each student's costs through fifth grade, unless the child leaves earlier.

During the board's January budget session vote, school board member Dan Nichols asked new enrollment be halted because he said costs would increase over time.

He said he opposes what he considers a private school option and would prefer taxpayer money be spent in town.

His argument gained no momentum.

Board member David Lawson said he initially was not a fan of the magnet school, but he's seen parents are "passionate'' about what it has to offer their children.

Parent Kristin Drda said she enrolled her son, now a fourth-grader, as a kindergartner.

Ms. Drda likes the school is smaller, more diverse, and oriented around a global education theme, with Spanish instruction starting in kindergarten.

"It's an excellent program. I think it enhances our district," Ma. Drda said.

Board chairman Wendy Faulenbach said it may be time to take a more in-depth look.

"All programs, whether in or out of district, need to be examined at certain points to familiarize new board members, or reaffirm with existing board members, whether those programs are solid and if we can afford them," Faulenbach said. "The magnet school is no different."

The district has similar agreements with Nonnewaug High School in Woodbury and Abbott Technical School in Danbury.

Superintendent of Schools JeanAnn Paddyfote, an educator for nearly 40 years, is an advocate of the magnet school.

"I personally feel we should offer as many opportunities for children and families as possible," Dr. Paddyfote said.

"I think it fulfills a need for some children and families who want their children exposed to another language and many other cultures," she added. "I think it is a wonderful compliment to our district that we do have students attend there."

Danbury's Superintendent of Schools, Sal Pascarella, said he would be disappointed to lose New Milford as a partner.

Even though the magnet school now has some open seats for towns that are not partners, Mr. Pascarella said Danbury depends on its partners to provide the diverse student body required for maximum state reimbursement.

Like Dr. Paddyfote, Mr. Pascarella said he believes the magnet school is an addition to, not a subtraction from, area districts.

"There is something special there," Mr. Pascarella said, "but that doesn't mean my other schools do not have the same integrity and rigor, and the same is true in New Milford."

Mr. Pascarella said he would imagine a decision to halt enrollment "would not fall on friendly ears."

"It's a wonderful educational opportunity," he added. "Its students have so many tremendous experiences." ; 860- 354-2274