Educators tout technology and diversity of new school

Students from Shelton enrolling at the Fairchild Wheeler Interdistrict Magnet School in the fall will find an education unlike any other, according to John Curtis, director of the Regional Aquaculture Science & Technology School.

Curtis saw the Aquaculture School, another regional facility in Bridgeport, open with 12 students in the early 1990s and expand to a state-of-the-art facility with enrollment of more than 500. He foresees similar success for the new magnet high school near Beardsley Park, just off the Route 25 connector.

'One-of-a-kind school in the country'

“This is a one-of-a-kind school in the entire country,” Curtis told a group of perspective parents during a meeting in Trumbull. The high school will focus on the STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering and math).

Curtis and former Westport School Supt. Claire Gold spoke to a group of about 20 perspective parents at an informational meeting about the new magnet high school currently under construction on Quarry Road.

The school will eventually have 1,500 students, with about two-thirds of them coming from Bridgeport and the rest from seven suburban towns, including Shelton. The high school will open in September with only grades 9 and 10, and then expand to include the two upper grades.

The other participating towns are Easton, Fairfield. Milford, Monroe, Stratford and Trumbull.

Urban and suburban

Gold, an Easton resident who is credited as being the driving force behind the Fairchild Wheeler School, said New Haven and Hartford have already transformed their school systems using magnet schools to draw suburban students into the cities.

“When I was superintendent of Westport, we became involved with many of the regional programs available, specifically the Six to Six Magnet School [in Bridgeport],” she said. The programs helped address racial isolation between the heavily minority populations in the cities and the predominantly white suburbs, which Gold said was “unfortunate for both” groups.

Gold said the idea for the interdistrict magnet school originated as she drove past the Discovery Magnet School on upper Park Avenue in Bridgeport, an elementary school that also serves the region.

“I thought, with Sacred Heart and the Discovery Museum right here, somebody ought to do something about building a high school,” she said. As time passed, she said she then began thinking, “Maybe that someone is me.”

Revolutionary approach

When complete, Curtis said the education delivered at the school would be revolutionary.

“Students and teachers will be partners in learning projects,” he said. “There’s no lectures, no 45-minute classes. Engineers will assign projects, and students and teachers will work together to solve problems and reach objectives.”

Such a learning environment has worked well at the Aquaculture School, Curtis said. Engineers from companies such as General Motors have set challenges in front of students and forced them to deliver real-world solutions, he said.

“We have students designing commercial ships using software programs that other students have written,” Curtis said. “We have a 3-D simulator that puts students on the bridge of a virtual vessel where they have to deal with all the situations we can create.”

Three science areas

The design of the Fairchild Wheeler School will lend itself to similar learning, Curtis said. The school’s three wings each have a focus on a specific area of science research — biological science, physical science, and information/technological science. The wings share a common area, which includes a 500-seat “black box” theater with a 3-D simulator.

Curtis said the simulations provide a chance to tie the school’s three wings together as the technology students write software that the biological and physical science students use to complete projects. “We’ve thrown out the traditional to provide a unique learning experience,” he said.

Though some might have reservations about the instruction at the magnet school, Gold said it has proven itself throughout the state.

“It’s very clear parents want choices in their children’s education,” she said. “We already have the Agriscience Center [in Trumbull], the Aquaculture School, the Discovery School and the Six to Six School, and there’s always a waiting list.”