With a shout of “Yes we can!” and the toss of some dirt, politicians and city officials launched the building of what will be the Barack H. Obama Magnet University School on the Southern Connecticut State University campus.
That all happened during a groundbreaking ceremony held under sunny skies Thursday morning as state and city officials celebrated the beginning of construction for the long-anticipated — and sometimes controversial— new school and the renaming of it in honor of the 44th president of the United States.
Construction for the new 62,000 square-foot school, which will replace the Strong 21st Century Communications Magnet School, starts Friday. The city has an agreement with Southern that allows it to lease space to build the pre-K to 4 lab school on the university’s campus at 69 Farnham Ave. Alders agreed to build the new school with the help of about $34.2 million from the state; the city has to put up about $10.8 million. The larger school is expected to grow from the 350 students now served to about 490.
Alders agreed to approve local funding for the school amid intense and ongoing debates over whether the city should continue building schools in the face of big budget deficits and the possibility of closing schools. Current Board of Education President Darnell Goldson commended alders for pushing forward with the school in the face of opposition to the cost. He also commended a former ed board president, Carlos Torre, for his fight for the school.
In addition to a new school building, part of the new ethos of the school will be grooming future teachers for New Haven’s public schools with help from Southern’s education school. While the school does receive some students from surrounding towns, the majority of students are from New Haven. The school is about 60 percent African-American and 33 percent Latino. The BOE best-case scenario is to open the school to students in time for the 2020 school year.
Will Clark, public schools COO, said Thursday that this is the 42nd building project the district has embarked upon since the Citywide School Construction Program began in 1995. He also said it was the culmination of a dream to have a public school on a university campus that also has the added benefit of training new teachers who are from New Haven and stay here.
“You come in through our program, work your way up through graduation, through our Promise Program you get free tuition at Southern, go to the education school, train in the Strong School and then come and teach for us,” he said. “That’s not a bad deal, huh?”
It won’t be a bad deal for the 16 current Strong School students who got to attend the groundbreaking Thursday. When Clark mentioned that he’d taken his own daughter to visit Southern’s campus for History Day and she left with and t-shirt and a $1,000 scholarship, Goldson softly lobbied for scholarships for the students when university President Joe Bertolino promised to provide T-shirts.
“Make sure all the children get a Southern Connecticut State University owl t-shirt,” Bertolino said to his assistant.
“And a scholarship too?” Goldson asked.
First, Bertolino said he would be discussing scholarship opportunities with the state and local delegation. But after praising the partnership between the university and the city and regaling the audience with the university’s stats in producing some of the best teachers in the state including the state teacher of the year, state school counselor of the year, state superintendent of the year and the national teacher of the year, who are all Southern alums. He came back to the scholarships.
“I’m going to give you what you asked for,” he said. “Each one of these students ... if you do well and come to Southern, each one of you—we’ll get your names—will receive a $1,000 scholarship. So work hard, do well and in about 13 years I hope to see you at Southern Connecticut State University.”
Luis Castillo, a Strong School kindergartener who is expected to attend the new Obama School, could be one of those scholarships.
“I am so excited for our new school,” he said. “In our new school, we will be able to play outside for recess. I can’t wait to use the computers and our new classroom thank you to all the people who made this possible.”
Click the Facebook Live video below to see the press conference.