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Charter Oak Makeover Key Part of 'Plan to Promote Racial Diversity in West Hartford'

The town's plan to promote racial diversity at Charter Oak and Smith, West Hartord's 'Unique Schools,' will be presented to the State Board of Education for approval on March 6.

West Hartford is continuing its efforts to promote racial diversity at Charter Oak International Academy and Smith STEM School – the town's "Unique Schools" – and a key component of that plan is the proposed renovation or rebuilding of Charter Oak.

The Board of Education will vote Wednesday night on either "renovating as new" or building an entirely new Charter Oak facility. Either option will significantly increase the size of Charter Oak and is estimated to cost the town approximately $16 million. That amount will be requested by in the next Capital Improvement Budget, Town Manager Ron Van Winkle told the Town Council Tuesday night.

The consensus of the Charter Oak advisory committee at its final meeting on Feb. 12 appeared to favor building a new Charter Oak rather than renovating the existing structure.

"[Enlarging Charter Oak] is our only reasonable option for getting the diversity numbers to within 25 percent of the district average," West Hartford Public Schools Director of Finance and Planning Chip Ward said.

"We need to make the school larger," he said. Ward said that the district can't achieve its plans with the current three sections per grade at Charter Oak and needs to increase that to four sections per grade.

Included in the strategy is offering five sections of Pre-K. "We want to offer something new and different to get more families in there," Ward said.

An extensive report entitled "Plan to Promote Racial Diversity in West Hartford" will be presented to the State Board of Education on March 6 by Superintendent of Schools Karen List and Board of Education Chairman Bruce Putterman. That plan, which can be read on the West Hartford Public School's website, must be approved by the state in order for West Hartford to be eligible for reimbursement of up to 80 percent of the eligible costs incurred with Charter Oak's makeover under "Diversity School" legislation passed last fall.

Both Smith and Charter Oak, which have been magnet schools since the late 1990s, have been classified as "Unique Schools" since 2000. Although the racial balance at both schools has improved in recent years after increasing for 10 years, the imbalance remains higher than the goal threshold of 25 percent of West Hartford's district average.

West Hartford's overall school population is currently about 37.6 percent minority, while Charter Oak is 77.5 percent minority (39.9 percent above the district) and Smith is 70.3 percent minority (32.7 points above the district) according to the report.

West Hartford has been working with the State Department of Education since 2005 to promote greater racial diversity at both schools through voluntary measures, including "enhancing the distinctiveness of the offerings," marketing the magnet opportunities, and encouraging neighborhood students to "opt out" to other town schools to provide more magnet opportunities.

Charter Oak's certification as an International Baccalaureate school and Smith's classification as a STEM school are the results of those efforts.

The district has since determined that increasing the magnet population at both schools is the only way to reduce the racial imbalance. According to the report, each school currently has about 25 percent magnet students, and the goal is to increase that percentage to 50 percent at both Smith and Charter Oak.

Increasing the size of Charter Oak, and reserving spots at Charter Oak for 50 students who live in the Smith neighborhood, has been determined to be the best solution to adding magnet slots at both schools, according to the report. The 4.1 acre Smith property is too small to increase the size of that school, whereas Charter Oak has much more property available for an expanded facility.

Charter Oak will increase in size from its current population of 320 to as many as 560 students under the proposed renovation or rebuilding plans.

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