Applications for new Shepaug agriscience academy exceeds expectations
WASHINGTON — Construction crews have been bustling around the old auto and woodwork shops at Shepaug Valley School, transforming it into what will soon be the food lab — just one of many new programs coming to the school as part of the long-discussed agriscience academy.
Region 12 officials have finalized a list of accepted students for the new school, which is set to open in the fall, although students’ home districts are still fine-tuning the actual number of kids they’ll send as they see how it will affect their budgets and what the courses will look like.
Transitioning from their current participation in the agriscience program at Nonnewaug High School in Woodbury to Shepaug is also factoring into how many students they send to each program.
“It’s a new program,” Region 12 Superintendent Megan Bennett said. “We recognize there are a lot of moving parts.”
Bennett said they received 75 total applications, which exceeded expectations.
Number of students accepted for the agriscience program
New Milford: 16
New Fairfield: 2
Region 12: 24
Under the program, area students will be able to learn about agriculture with a STEM focus, which includes science, technology, engineering and math. The program will offer courses in food sciences, plants, animal care, veterinary sciences and other tech programs.
The accepted class
The original plan was to have 35 freshmen in the first class but Bennett said they expanded that to 45 freshmen and added seven sophomore seats for the first cohort.
The school will eventually have 139 students, a figure set by the state and reduced from the original 226 student projection. Bennett said they will build to it as they continually welcome new freshmen classes, adding that if the 45 student cap is manageable then that will be the new benchmark.
Region 12 is planning to send 24 students. New Milford is the next highest with 16 accepted, followed by Danbury at 15, Brookfield at 9 and four from Newtown and Sherman each (see fact box, Page S8). Bethel never committed to the project.
Brookfield Superintendent John Barile said the students currently at Nonnewaug will finish their program there and the new classes will start at Shepaug beginning with this eighth-grade class. The district usually sends two to three students per grade.
In Danbury, seven have been accepted and the rest are on the wait list, said Joe Martino, Danbury Schools’ finance director.
Like the other districts, Danbury’s agriscience students already at Nonnewaug will finish there and the new students will start at Shepaug.
New Fairfield has the least students accepted, with only two on the list. That district’s superintendent, Pat Cosentino, was the Region 12 superintendent who championed the agriscience program coming to the district. She could not be reached for comment.
The New Milford Board of Education recently discussed the district’s share at a meeting. The town budgeted for 20 agriscience students, but said the plan is to continue to send 12 to Nonnewaug’s program and eight to Shepaug, eventually phasing all of the students to Shepaug in four years.
Joseph Failla, a board member, said he would support adding more money to the budget so that all 16 accepted students could go to Shepaug, especially given New Milford’s agricultural heritage.
“I don’t think we do enough to promote tech programs,” he said. “Twenty is not enough.”
J.T. Schemm, another member, cautioned about putting all of the district’s eggs in one basket so early on, especially since the Shepaug program is the only one of its kind in the state. The unique program, which has a tech focus, was crafted as a way to attract more students and offset Region 12’s declining enrollment.
Martino said the Shepaug program is good avenue for Danbury’s students, especially because the city has a STEM middle school.
“It’s an approved state program,” he said. “I don’t have any reservations.”
Residents have been worried the school wouldn’t attract enough students to cover the cost of the project and spoke out about this during the approval and planning process.
Region 12 receives $3,200 from the state for every student who attends the program. It also receives another $6,800 from the home districts for each of those students.
Bennett said she appreciates the community’s interest in the program and will be focusing on the business model in the first year to see how the operational costs and revenues work out.
She said she’s proud of the recruitment efforts and said they will only improve when students are able to visit and see the finished product.
Even without the outside districts, Bennett said the program is helping Shepaug’s students. Normally the school would only be able to send two to four students to a program like this, but are now able to have 24 students take these courses.
“We’re really meeting a demand that’s happening internally,” she said.
Building a program
With the first class coming together, construction is also progressing.
Demolition happened over the summer and the renovations started in November. About 27,700 square feet of existing space is being renovated for the project and there will be 58,500 square feet of new construction.
Crews are creating the food, vet science and computer labs in the existing building, as well as a large multipurpose room on the north end and plant and science labs on the south end. This work is expected to end in the summer.
The new construction, which includes a greenhouse, stable, as well as auto, metal and woodworking shops will begin this spring and end in the fall, said Tim Chan, the project manager for O&G Industries.
O&G will work on the traffic flow and parking, as well as septic over the summer. They will do the existing science labs then too, which require some remediation.
The company will also add a riding ring and a new soccer field to replace the one displaced by the project. Agriculture fields and planting beds will be added near the greenhouse on the south end of the school.
The agriscience piece of the project is expected to cost $29.9 million, with the state paying nearly $24 million. The state also awarded an additional $1.5 million to the district last year to purchase furniture and fixtures for the project. Renovating the science labs brings the total cost to about $34.4 million.
Though the company has been working on the project for months, Chan said people will really notice once the foundation is laid for the additions and new building, and once the walls come down on the renovations in several weeks.
“That’s when you’ll see it’s a new building,” he said.
Staff writer Julia Perkins contributed to this story.