West Hartford Magnet Elementary Schools Offer Unique Alternatives for Families

Third graders Zöe (left) and Dillon provide a tour of Smith STEM's pizza garden. Photo credit: Ronni Newton (we-ha.com file photo)

Open houses where West Hartford families can learn about the opportunities will take place at both Smith STEM and Charter Oak International Academy in February.

Fifth graders read the Charter Oak Peace Pledge. First day of West Hartford Public Schools. Aug. 31, 2022. Photo credit: Ronni Newton (we-ha.com file photo)

By Ronni Newton

West Hartford is known for its neighborhood-elementary schools – but in addition has two magnet elementary schools that families seeking unique curriculum opportunities with an inquiry-based learning approach might want to consider.

Both Charter Oak International Academy and Smith STEM serve their neighborhoods, but are also open to West Hartford residents who live anywhere else in town. The schools’ specialized themes, which enrich the educational experience, as well as the inquiry-based teaching and learning model, offer options for  many parents seeking to foster their children’s creativity and independent thinking skills.

Even before its brand new building was constructed, Charter Oak International Academy was known for its International Baccalaureate (IB) Primary Years Program, which promotes a global perspective among students. Florence E. Smith STEM School places a strong emphasis on science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education, catering to students with a passion for these fields.

Students at Smith STEM. Courtesy photo

“Our two magnet elementary schools provide inspiring and outstanding academic programming,” West Hartford Superintendent of Schools Paul Vicinus said. “In addition, the school communities at both Smith STEM and Charter Oak International Academy are among the most inviting and community-based that we have in the district. Truly incredible places to learn and grow.”

Both Smith STEM and Charter Oak are exclusive to West Hartford residents, and transportation is provided for students who live more than a mile from the school. 

“All the elementary schools in West Hartford are excellent, but our magnet schools provide students with a unique experience. At Smith STEM, we cultivate students’ curiosity and creativity through inquiry-based learning, with an emphasis on Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math,” said Smith STEM Principal Ashley Callan. “We notice, wonder, and explore the world around us and celebrate and nurture every student. Join us for our open house on Feb. 8 at 6:30 p.m. to tour our school and meet Smith STEM families and staff,” she added.

“At Charter Oak International Academy, we strive to develop caring, open-minded and engaged global citizens through inquiry-based learning experiences,” said Principal Georgina Rivera. “As part of our IB theme students, we encourage our students to ask questions, solve problems, and take action on issues in our community.  Join us for our open house on Feb. 15 at 6:30 to tour our school and meet our Charter Oak Staff and families.”

Students at Smith STEM. Courtesy photo

Several families shared their thoughts with the administration about the magnet school experience at both Smith STEM and Charter Oak.

Our family joyfully magnets into Smith STEM School,” said Kate and Maggie Roberts. “As educational consultants, we’ve worked in many schools over the past 15 years. There is something quite special about the culture of Smith STEM. The caring, dedicated, talented staff alongside the global student body that reflects our world combine to create a rigorous, curious, and highly personalized educational experience for our boys. We consistently ask ourselves how we got so lucky to get a spot at Smith STEM School!”

“Our three girls (ages 10 and 7) have all been students at Charter Oak since they entered the Pre-K3 program and it’s been a wonderful experience for everyone,” the Lynch family shared. “Our oldest is headed to middle school in the fall and we’re sad her journey at Charter Oak is coming to an end because it has been so positive. The International Baccalaureate (IB) program has taught our girls how to inquire about the world around them, our environment and how to express themselves. Often our twins start a sentence, ‘Mom, did you know that….’ We love how they have been exposed and learn about different cultures, traditions and languages (Spanish and Mandarin) which in turn makes them more sensitive and empathetic human beings. The Charter Oak community is one that is welcoming, uplifting and very supportive. The teachers and staff keep us regularly informed on our girls’ progress and have been there to support them and give us guidance when they’ve needed that extra help. We are so fortunate to live in a town that has an IB magnet program. We can’t say enough about Charter Oak International Academy.”

Another parent of a Charter Oak student now in fourth grade noted the “amazing Pre-K program that has been highlighted by Edutopia for exemplary learning practices including; following student interest, documentation of learning, problem-solving charts, and using open-ended materials to spark curiosity!” They said they started at the school for Pre-K, and remaining at the magnet school because the community became like family. “We happily drove them in each day because they loved the school, the different experiences and events they had, and the traditions the school helped including; A Play in a Week, Cultural Night, Day of Action, Peace Day, Exhibition, and Saturday Academy!”

Smith STEM School Multicultural Night. June 9, 2023. Courtesy photo (we-ha.com file photo)

“When we toured Smith we were very impressed by the thoughtfully planned-out STEM curriculum,” the Pokorny family shared. “Our daughter was already reading above grade level, so we wanted a school that would continue to challenge her and develop her grit. Smith’s STEM program did just that, and we are so grateful to be part of its community.”

“When looking at school options we visited Charter Oak looking for a diverse school community for our children where they could inquire and also follow their interests by exploring an idea and presenting it during the Grade 5 Exhibition. We are impressed with all the children’s research and solutions to global issues,” shared the parent of a fifth grader.

“My husband and I feel so fortunate to live in a town with a STEM Magnet Program!  The world is moving at a fast pace technologically and giving our children a leg up in terms of science and math made choosing Smith a no-brainer for us,” commented the Sansone family. “Our son is neurodiverse and has always been interested in science and how things work, so we wanted an environment that would celebrate his strengths and help him flourish. We also have a daughter and it is incredibly important to me that she get access to opportunities in math and science that were not available to me when I was a child. Females are still a minority in the STEM world and I want her to be able to open any door in life that she may choose for herself. We have been blown away by the unexpected benefits of being a Smith Family such as the amazing and diverse community, the outstanding teachers, and wonderful support services. West Hartford has excellent schools across the board, but Smith is special and we have not regretted our decision to send our children for a second.”

“When we moved to Connecticut from Florida in the summer of 2021 with an incoming Kindergartener, we were looking for a school that would offer a small and supportive community for my daughter who had never previously been in a school setting,” commented the Diaz family. “At Smith, her transition into a school community has been seamless. Additionally, Smith’s STEM-infused curriculum has complemented her creativity and is helping her think outside the box at school and home. My daughter is thriving and we really could not be happier at Smith.”

“While the STEM program at Smith was the initial attraction for us, we were also looking for a diverse school community,” commented Joanna Nowlan, parent of Smith STEM students Skyler (grade 5) and Quinn (grade 3). “Smith STEM has over 65% minority enrollment. The multicultural community is celebrated in many ways throughout the school year; monthly assemblies where bilingual students share about their language and culture, school concerts where students learn songs in Spanish or Portuguese, and at Multicultural Night, where families share information, food, music and customs from their countries of origin. We are extremely grateful for the Smith STEM community. The teachers and staff have been incredible every single year. Their commitment to the students goes above and beyond and I am always feeling so fortunate that such supportive educators surround my kids. I am thankful for those friends and neighbors who recommended Smith to me over 5 years ago. I cannot imagine my kids being in a better school setting than this. Thank you Smith STEM!”

Charter Oak International Academy. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

Other comments referenced a “warm nurturing environment where students are encouraged to think critically and creatively” at Smith, and the “amazing Suzuki violin program” at Charter Oak, and Charter Oak’s Odyssey of the Mind team.

The application process is currently underway, and families can learn more about each of the schools by attending the open houses and parent information session (Smith STEM on Feb. 8, at 6:30 p.m. and Charter Oak International Academy on Feb. 15, at 6:30 p.m.). In addition, more information is available on the magnet school webpage on the West Hartford Public Schools website.

Applications are due by 4 p.m. on March 8, and lottery results will be provided on March 20, with response required by April 3. Both schools will create a waiting list, with that list reviewed from late June through mid-August.

The most recent magnet school brochures can be found below or through this link: Charter Oak and Smith STEM Magnet Brochure

“As West Hartford continues to prioritize innovative education, magnet schools stand as a testament to the town’s commitment to providing diverse and enriching learning opportunities for its residents,” the district said in a statement.

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