WATERFORD — Local officials spoke in favor of a plan to build a new school for children from birth through second grade, aimed at alleviating child care shortages in the region and consolidating under-enrolled kindergarten programs.
The Early Childhood Magnet School, which would be located on the former Southwest School property at 51 Daniels Ave., would house pre-K students from the current Friendship School, as well as kindergarten, first- and second-grade students from the Regional Multicultural Magnet School in New London.
The Friendship School property would transition to pre-K only beginning next year. When the Daniels Avenue school opens, the Friendship School would be closed permanently, and the Regional Multicultural Magnet School would be converted to a school for third- through eighth-graders.
Kate Ericson, director of LEARN, which runs four magnet schools in Waterford, Groton, New London and Norwich, told CT Examiner that the change made sense given recent declines in enrollment, particularly in kindergarten. She said LEARN operates nine kindergarten classrooms across two schools, but that the magnet schools have not been able to fill their seats.
“For magnet schools, when we don’t fill those seats, that means we don’t get state funding or tuition funding from towns. And that was leaving us in a deficit,” Ericson said.
But with state funding for pre-K capped at just over $4,000 per student, and more districts offering their own programs, Ericson said it’s not sustainable to have a school just for preschoolers.
She also said the Daniels Avenue location would provide a better spot for Waterford because it would minimize some of the traffic buildup on Rope Ferry Road.
“Many of our families drop off and pick up our students, which is terrific, but it’s not terrific on a state road that has high levels of traffic,” Ericson said. “[The] senior center is located right next to us. The high school’s right there. It’s a very busy area.”
Last week, the town’s Planning and Zoning Commission unanimously approved LEARN’s application for the purchase of 15.3 acres of the property at 51 Daniels Ave. Ericson said the town and LEARN have not yet agreed on a purchase price.
First Selectman Rob Brule told CT Examiner he was in favor of having LEARN purchase the property, saying the concept of a multicultural magnet school for young children was innovative, and that Waterford’s location between Groton and New London made it a convenient place for the facility. He also said the former Southwest School property was an “ideal location.”
“There’s a history of it being a school and a property that’s always had memories of school children running on the property,” Brule said. “And I think there’s many residents in the town that still feel that they want to have that connection to the past.”
Brule added that having LEARN purchase the building would save the town the cost of insuring and maintaining security for the property. LEARN would also take on the responsibility for any necessary environmental remediation or demolition. Ericson noted that buildings like the one at Daniels Avenue often contain asbestos or PCBs.
“This isn’t a money-maker,” Brule said. “This is more of a cost-avoidance move for the town.”
Brule said he estimates the demolition cost at around $1.5 million. Waterford officials and LEARN are also discussing the inclusion of amenities which could be used by the town, such as pickleball courts and walking trails, he said.
Brule said the Board of Selectmen still has to vote on a finalized purchase and sale agreement, but he anticipates the board voting in favor of the sale. The current purchase agreement offers to sell LEARN the property for $1.
The Representative Town Meeting must also vote on the agreement. RTM Moderator Paul Goldstein told CT Examiner that the group needed to further discuss the proposal, but his first impression after an informal 15-minute presentation from Ericson was that it “sounded very favorable.”
“It was very well-presented. It sounded like it was a good potential suggestion for that property,” Goldstein said.
RTM Democratic Minority Leader Susan Driscoll said she didn’t have enough information to say whether she supported the purchase or not. She said questions still remained about how the school would handle special education needs for local students.
Danielle Steward-Gelinas, RTM Republican majority leader, said she also supported the idea of LEARN purchasing the property, though she wanted to hear more about the specific plans.
Ericson said moving all the students to the Daniels Avenue building could take about five years. If Waterford approves the sale, she added, LEARN would then request construction funds from the state. She estimated it would take about two years to complete construction, with the new building ideally opening in August 2027.
The new Early Childhood Magnet School would house about 600 students, she said.
LEARN also plans to offer space for 48 infants and toddlers at the Friendship School within the next five months. Those students would eventually transition to 51 Daniels Ave., where the program would continue in a space adjacent to the school. The cost of the program would be about $16,000 per year, according to Ericson. But parents who receive Care4Kids – state subsidies for child care for low-income families – could potentially put those funds toward the LEARN tuition, she said.
Ericson said this could offer parents child care in an area that has been referred to as a “child care desert.”
“I think the more accessible and affordable child care that families can access, the better for the region,” Ericson said. “My hope is that all the programs that currently exist are expanding and new programs are starting, because where we are in eastern Connecticut for child care is not sufficient to the needs of the region.”