Wright Tech likely to reopen

A new curriculum, better support from local school officials, and the promise of a remodeled building should give Stamford’s troubled J.M. Wright Technical High School the boost it needs to re-open by 2014, a new report says.

State officials closed the school last year because of plummeting enrollment, but a report to the State Board of Education Wednesday said that a restructured school, including a proposed $85 million building renovation, would spark new interest among students.

“I believe when we open the school, the students will come,” state board member Beverly Bobroske said as the board reviewed a report from an ad hoc committee appointed in December.

Wright’s closing angered Stamford legislators and other supporters, but state education officials said they could no longer run a school where costs had reached $27,000 per student as enrollment dipped below 140, a record low.

Wright Tech was one of 18 technical high schools operated by the state, but over the years its reputation had slipped. Test scores were low and suspension rates high. The school lost some of its best teachers and had a shaky relationship with other schools in the region. Efforts to shore up academics and improve programs did little to bolster enrollment.

Wednesday’s report, however, included an enrollment study predicting that there is sufficient demand in Stamford, Norwalk and other towns in the region to draw up to 500 students to a revitalized school.

“No evidence is found to suggest that the decline in enrollment is due to anything other than a marked decline in the quality of the school itself between 2002 and 2008,” said a study by Thomas J. Cooke, director of the University of Connecticut Center for Population Research.

“If you put a good school in Stamford . . . you’re going to get high enrollment,” Cooke told the state board.

Patricia Ciccone, superintendent of the Connecticut Technical High School System, said the relationship between Wright Tech and local school officials has improved — a key factor in recruiting new students who are interested in technical trades.

Stamford Superintendent of Schools Joshua Starr told the state board, “We are in desperate need of a strong technical high school in the Fairfield County area. We are unable to provide those services in the Stamford Public Schools.”

The ad hoc committee’s report included a review of labor market conditions in the Stamford region, citing factors such as 25 percent population growth over the past 30 years and a projected 50 percent growth in housing units between 1980 and 2015.

“Wright Tech is very near and dear to the business community’s heart in Stamford, and it’s very critical to the economy,” said Jack Condlin, president and CEO of the Stamford Chamber of Commerce, who was chairman of the ad hoc committee.

The state board is expected to vote in July on the committee’s recommendation to re-open the school. Officials hope a newly restructured school can draw enough students to operate the school efficiently, but not everyone is convinced.

“I don’t think it’s a foregone conclusion [the school] will succeed, but I hope it will,” said Allan Taylor, chairman of the state board. “I’m going to vote for it.”

The committee recommended re-opening Wright Tech as a traditional four-year technical high school instead of choosing options such as a two-year program or a model featuring a mixture of high school and college courses, Taylor said.

“My personal belief is that [traditional model] is the most difficult of possible models to get fully enrolled.” Nevertheless, he said, “I’m confident the board will approve it.”

The proposal calls for the school to re-open with ninth-graders in 2014, adding one new class each year until it includes grades nine through 12 by 2017. The school would offer training in eight trades: culinary arts; tourism-hospitality, plumbing and heating, electrical, carpentry, automotive technology, facilities management, and health technology.

With possible enrollment increases, the school could add training in two other areas: Early care in education and media production, the committee said.

The legislature has approved construction projects for several of the state’s technical high schools, but the state Bond Commission has not yet released construction funds for some, including Wright Tech.

In Wednesday’s report, the committee recommends an environmentally efficient building renovation that uses “green technology” such as solar panels to generate electricity. The energy system also would be used as “a significant part of the educational curriculum” in the electrical and facilities management trade programs, the report said.