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Public Discussion Continues on Major Changes to Charter Oak

West Hartford residents continue to weigh renovation vs. rebuilding options and raise questions as input is collected from the community regarding the school's makeover.

Approximately 35 West Hartford residents attended a public forum Monday night at the Faxon Library to continue discussions about a proposed renovation/rebuilding project at Charter Oak International Academy.

"We have to make several fundamental decisions right out of the gate," said Board of Education Chair Bruce Putterman. There are four basic options to consider: renovating but keeping the school the same size, renovating for growth to a larger size, building a new Charter Oak facility for the existing number of students, or building a new school for a larger population.

Following an introduction, those in attendance were separated into four breakout groups for brainstorming and discussion. The results of those conversations were presented to the overall group.

More questions than ideas resulted from the discussion, with various participants trying to understand how the school population can become more diverse, where the students would be housed if the school is renovated, and what the impact would be on the intimate feel of the school if the overall student body increased from its current 320 to perhaps as large as 560 students.

Charter Oak was constructed in 1929, and the existing building contains asbestos. Sand was used as insulation and is still in place between walls and ceilings. All parts of the building will have to be brought up to code, including compliance with the ADA, if a renovation is undertaken.

Other issues raised included maintaining the charm of the current building, the need for additional busing and related safety considerations associated with transporting students from other West Hartford neighborhoods, preservation of the accessible playground, and using the school as an anchor to continue to strengthen the neighborhood.

The 20-member advisory committee began meeting began meeting last month, and plans to conduct three public forums to obtain input from Charter Oak families and neighbors as well as others throughout the West Hartford community. The first public forum was held last Thursday at Charter Oak.

The Board of Education is in the process of developing plans to either renovate or completely rebuild Charter Oak International Academy as a result of the school becoming eligible for state funding at an 80 percent level. On Oct. 2, the board was informed by West Hartford's legislative delegation that Charter Oak, which serves as a magnet school, had been classified as a "Diversity School" defined as "a school in which the percentage of minority students varies from the average minority population for the district by plus or minus 25 percent."

Although officials are certain that the 80 percent funding is guaranteed, plans will have to be approved by the state which is the case with any reimbursable projects, Putterman said.

The ultimate goal of creating an updated Charter Oak facility is to bring the ratio of minority to non-minority students at the school more in line with town averages, which can be achieved by attracting more magnet students from other parts of West Hartford. Charter Oak Principal Mary Thompson confirmed that the school population today is approximately 80 percent minority, although that percentage has dropped somewhat for this year's kindergarten class, she said.

Board of Education member Elin Katz, who helped craft the legislation, said she believes, "Their commitment to us in approving the plan is that the plan will work."

A planning architect will be hired this week to quantify the costs of the various scenarios to better enable the committee to make a well-informed recommendation. The advisory committee will meet in January to receive the results of the architect's work.

The advisory committee is tasked with the roles of:

  • Managing the community input process regarding a renovate vs. rebuild
  • Providing the Board of Education with a recommendation to either renovate or rebuild
  • Touring relevant schools and seeking input from experts to become better informed about issues that are relevant to the potential renovation or new design of Charter Oak
  • Managing the community input process regarding for the future design of the project once the nature of the project has been determined
  • Synthesizing community input on design and providing that input to the selected architect.

Goals for the committee include presenting a plan to the state by March and receiving a response by April so that it can be considered as part of the Capital Improvement plan when the Town Council adopts the next budget. The design process should take 9 months to a year, with the hope of "shovels to the ground" by the spring or summer of 2014.

Putterman said he hopes that students can walk into the new school by the fall of 2015.

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