Dedication of New Haven STEM magnet school in West Haven opens doors for ‘21st Century’ education

WEST HAVEN >> Officials from two neighboring cities dedicated a new Engineering and Science University Magnet School building Tuesday approximately a decade after the idea of a science, math and engineering collaboration between public schools and a university first became part of a local equation.

The five-story, 122,000-square-foot building is on the campus of the University of New Haven, and enables collaboration between the magnet school and its host university.

New Haven Public Schools COO William Clark said ESUMS was the “most complex” of its 41 school construction projects, as it necessitated cooperation from two city planning boards, the public school system, a university and various others.

“This is the most technologically advanced school of our 41, and that isn’t easy to do,” he said.

The New Haven Citywide School Construction Program, which encompasses the projects Clark was referring to, began in 1995.

Of the ESUMS original cohort of students in sixth through 12th grade, Clark said, the youngest are sophomores in college.

The school’s engineering, science, technology, computer and robotics labs were designed by architecture and planning firm Svigals + Partners and the building was constructed by the Fusco Corporation. The school was previously housed in Hamden.

Mayor Toni Harp said the building is designed to equip students to tackle “21st Century challenges.” She said that when she was in high school, robotics was not a well-known field.

“This is an exceptional school, because now we have a public school on the campus of a private university,” she said. “We have mastered an entirely new approach to public education.”

Harp said that, as the American marketplace becomes more competitive, a school like ESUMS is a safe investment in the city’s future.

West Haven Mayor Ed O’Brien said he believed the school “beautifies this section of West Haven.” He echoed Harp that the school’s students are “the future of the world right here.”

University of New Haven President Steve Kaplan said approximately 30 ESUMS students are already taking courses at the university, following the original concept for a school-to-college pipeline for area engineering students. Since ESUMS first launched as a school, he said, enrollment in the University of New Haven engineering department has grown by about 1,000.

New Haven interim Superintendent of Schools Reginald Mayo, who was the full-time superintendent who helped to launch the school program at the time, said he felt fortunate that Kaplan “took a chance” on the school, and that he believed the risk paid dividends for both the New Haven Public Schools and the University of New Haven. He said the building was also the conclusion of years of work by its principal, Medria Blue-Ellis, to convince the community to allow the project to happen.

“She organized her students, teachers and parents. I wouldn’t want to be on the other side of her,” he joked.

Mayo said that he believed the passion of Blue-Ellis and the other educators was key to its consistent academic success compared to other schools in the district.

“You can pay teachers for working, but not for caring,” he said.

Blue-Ellis said she believes STEM is, at its core, “just critical thinking.”

“I think if people thought logically, they could accomplish so much more,” she said. “We are so happy and so thankful to have a building that meets our golden standard.”

Blue-Ellis said while school has a STEM focus, there also is music, art and physical education.

“Our kids are well-rounded,” she said, looking at approximately 30 seniors present for the ribbon-cutting. “You deserve this building. You are so worth it.”

Former New Haven Mayor John DeStefano Jr., who was present at the event, said the school provides an opportunity for students so they don’t have to dull their ambitions of pursuing a STEM education after graduating high school.

Students, who had their first day of instruction in the new building Tuesday, had high praise.

“The building is great. It’s way different from our other school,” said senior Simon Torres, because the new building offered so many new features and so much space.

Freshman Naomi Lee said she felt a small bit of anxiety on the bus to school because she was unsure what to expect, but the building more than surpassed her expectations.

“This building is like the White House compared to the last building,” she said.

Parent Malcolm Ellis, whose son is a senior at the school, said he was most impressed with the ESUMS program, and the new building was merely a perk for him.

“They bring people in from businesses teaching them practical skills,” he said. “Even without the building, what’s most critical is the staff.”

Marissa Dionne Mead, of Svigals + Partners, said she designed several sculptures of significant figures in science local to the New Haven area in the style of Mt. Rushmore, although the thinking was to represent East Rock and West Rock on two sides of the building.

Julia McFadden, associate principal at Svigals + Partners, said the building was made with a focus on energy conservation and collaborative, open space. One example of this, she said, is that the ends of hallways are wider so students working on projects need not be limited to the classroom.

Richard Therrien, supervisor of science for NHPS, said having ESUMS in the school profile excites him because of its egalitarian nature to teaching STEM.

“These kids proved, even without a building, anyone can do math and engineering,” he said. “There’s no special test for entry.”