Fairchild Wheeler school thrives and struggles
BRIDGEPORT — History and physics seem an unlikely pairing.
Students in Suchith Shantharaj’s and Paul Tripodi’s classes in the Information Technology School on the Fairchild Wheeler Interdistrict Magnet campus made it work.
“Pretty cool,” shouted Mateo Davalos, a junior from Norwalk, as a projectile from the miniature catapult he built attempted to breach the medieval castle assembled by other of students a desktop away.
Groans on both sides erupted when — fundamental mechanics and velocity measurements aside — the projectile fell shy of the castle walls.
Entering its fifth year, Fairchild is a striking, $126 million facility which marries three schools, three branches of science and 1,879 students from 18 towns.
By design, it remains a work in progress.
“We are always,constantly learning,” said Michael Watson, principal at the Biotechnology Research and Zoological Sciences school at Fairchild.
“I wouldn’t say everything is perfect,” added Victor Black, principal of Fairchild’s Information Technology program. “But I would have to say we are doing pretty well.”
“Each of us believes that it is never good enough,” offered Jay Lipp, principal of the Aerospace/Hydrospace Engineering & Physical Sciences.
Still being discovered
Fairchild was the city school district’s first new high school in nearly a century when it was opened in the fall of 2013, tucked away on unused woodlands near the Merritt Parkway and Trumbull border.
Eco-friendly and flush with 3D printers, a flight simulator and other cool technology, the school’s ribbon cutting drew the governor and a host of collegiate and business partners. The school promised to be different — with classes that are 80 minutes instead of 42, semester-length and completely project based in their approach.
Black said he still comes across locals surprised to learn the school exists.
Fairchild must draw 25 percent of its student body from suburban school districts to keep a state interdistrict magnet school subsidy of $3,000 for in-district students and $7,085 for suburban students. Combined, the three schools have 510 suburban students out of a total enrollment of 1,879 student this fall.
Because Fairchild operates as three distinct schools, that ratio must be met for each of them. This year, the Aerospace School fell short in the percentage of suburban students. It had 23.16 percent. As such, it needs to file a corrective action plan with the state to avoid losing magnet school funding.
Lipp said it is just a matter of getting the word out. Fairchild’s victories, he said, aren’t publicized enough. The school has a Best Magnet School ranking by U.S. News & World Reports and was named a School of Distinction by Magnet Schools of America.
Two years ago, Bridgeport began charging suburban districts $3,000 per student. Stratford, Shelton, Trumbull and Monroe refused, making it tougher for Fairchild to market themselves in those districts.
Parents find the school, anyhow.
Archana Ladhe, from Trumbull, has sent two daughters to Fairchild’s Bio School.
“Trumbull has great schools, but we wanted something more streamlined toward what my (older) daughter wanted to do, and this was a perfect fit,” Ladhe said. The semester-based schedule, allowing students to take eight courses a year, let her daughter double up on math courses. Ladhe said she took them all.
“No regrets,” Ladhe said. “For me this is a place my daughter feels she belongs.”
Saraiha James, a sophomore in the Aero school, wants to be a psychiatrist, not an engineer.
But she said she likes the push she feels at her school.
“Aero works hard than the others,” James declared.
When the school was not yet open, Watson, principal of Bio, predicted the schools would establish a healthy sibling rivalry. There is some crossover, but most students stick to their own wing of the building.
In IT one morning, Wayne Brown’s media class, all in dark lab coats, worked on 45-second commercials on teen driving. Most focused on distracted driving, with one group figuring out how to best superimpose cracked cellphone images across their story board.
The long class periods, Brown said, give students a chance to get their creative juices flowing. By the end of a two week unit, the brainstormed, filmed and edited finished products would be entered into a state Department of Motor Vehicles contest.
In a Bio class called Drugs and Behavior, teacher Melissa Bryll’s students worked to critique a dozen existing drug treatment and prevention programs. In Marissa Barretto’s Capstone Class in the Aerospace School, a dozen students were channeling what they have learned since freshman year to improve an existing project or create a new one.
In Barretto’s class, students in light blue lab coats were shooting for a better umbrella, a better dish rack, a better shoe.
In IT, Black said one student built a capstone project around her fear of public speaking. She created a virtual environment that allowed individuals to practice before delivering to a live audience. Many of the school’s projects have end up in the state science fair.
Bumps in the road
Fairchild has not been without problems.
The school started with a four-year, $11.6 million grant from the Federal Magnet School Assistance Program.
The grant was not renewed, and its loss cost the school John Curtis, an administrator who had also helped develop the district’s Inter-district Aquaculture program. The grant also bought loads of equipment and teacher training, and it fueled partnerships with area universities and corporations like Sikorsky Aircraft.
Now Fairchild’s School Governance Council and parent groups are writing grants and working to maintain and grow partnerships.
“We are reaching out to every source we can,” Black said.
Because of chronic district money woes, there is talk of merging the schools into one, a move that would cut administrative costs.
Lipp said that was an awful idea.
“The strength of the school is the thematic nature of each school that makes them stand out and student want to come here,” he said.