Uniquely NFA: A private school with public purpose

Norwich Free Academy Diversity Program Director Leo Butler meets with members of the school's Haitian Club before their performance Wednesday at Celebrate Diversity, a multi-cultural event organized by the Rotary Club of Norwich at the Marina at American Wharf in downtown Norwich.
Buy Photo Tim Cook/The Day Norwich Free Academy Diversity Program Director Leo Butler meets with members of the school's Haitian Club before their performance Wednesday at Celebrate Diversity, a multi-cultural event organized by the Rotary Club of Norwich at the Marina at American Wharf in downtown Norwich.

Norwich - The Cape Verdean student club at Norwich Free Academy was to have had its first meeting Monday, but members chose instead to attend a freshman boys soccer game.

Two recent Cape Verdean immigrants are on the team.

That turn of events made NFA Diversity Director Leo Butler smile, especially when the two freshmen, Edson Alves, 14, and Euclides Pina, 15, stopped by his classroom office wearing their bright red uniforms as they readied to board the team bus.

"Is there a girls freshman team?" Haitian freshman Sokaina Jean, 13, asked as she looked up from her homework. "I want to play."

Like the old cliché about America, Butler and school officials tout NFA as the land of opportunity - "and choice," the school literature adds - both for students from families who have lived in the region for decades and for the newest arrivals from points all over the world.

Founded in 1854, NFA is unique: a privately endowed high school run by a board of trustees that serves as the designated public high school for Norwich and seven small rural towns.

Towns pay tuition for their students to cover operating costs, but generations of fiercely loyal alumni have donated everything from buildings to land to the new Victorian water fountain that graces a front lawn and cash to keep the 38-acre campus growing. NFA also now runs a transitional high school program on a new Sachem Street Campus.

NFA, with 2,345 students, is the fourth-largest high school in the state, according to statistics from the state Department of Education. No other eastern Connecticut high school ranks in the top 30.

The fifth-largest, Glastonbury High School, with more than 2,200 students, will meet NFA on the football field Friday.

NFA Head of School David Klein attributed part of an enrollment jump - 200 students more than projected this year - to the school's "passionate" new marketing effort. With students now having more high school choices, NFA doesn't count on receiving students from its eight partner towns. Yet Klein said more students from the partner districts are attending NFA this year, and the school has 17 local tuition students, two international students and 22 new students from China.

Klein summed up NFA's offerings in the colorful "Opportunity & Choice" brochure given to prospective students: "With 250 courses, 30 interscholastic athletic programs, 38 visual and performing arts courses, eight world languages, 50 college credit bearing courses and 65 clubs and activities, we view ourselves as a premier high school of choice."

NFA is one of only two high schools in the nation with its own full-time, professionally staffed art museum, Slater Memorial Museum.

'We're one school'

Since the region has experienced a huge influx of immigrant families, many attracted by employment at the region's two casinos, so has NFA.

About 40 percent of NFA's students are minorities. Students' families speak more than 30 different primary languages. Last week, three students arrived from Haiti, and two from Panama.

Leo Butler's Diversity Office is unique in the state. The Detroit native, former Providence assistant principal and NFA history teacher said he has yet to find a peer among school administrators in the state. When former NFA Head of School Mary Lou Bargnesi asked him in 2004 to create a diversity program, he said, "That was the only thing that would get me out of the classroom."

Minority students regularly spend study halls in Butler's room. They ask him for advice on schoolwork, clubs, sports, and how the heck they're going to pay for college. That "breaks my heart," he said. Butler tries to steer minority students into advanced college preparatory courses.

Haitian Club member Jennifer Jules, a senior, expects to graduate with 12 college credits then attend the University of Massachusetts' pre-med program. Club President Melonie Merise will have six college credits and hopes to become a pediatric nurse.

Besides the Haitian and Cape Verdean clubs, NFA has an Asian club, the Nexus Black Achievement club, a Native American club, the Successful Hispanics' Alliance and the Mosaic Project, a club that incorporates all sorts of ethnic and cultural diversity activities. There are also French, Spanish, Italian, Russian and Celtic clubs, among others.

"The whole role of this office is integrating kids into NFA," Butler said. "We're not separate schools. We're one school."

Whenever possible, a new immigrant student speaking little or no English is paired with another student from the same country to learn how NFA works, said senior Alexandra Pires, president of the Cape Verdean Student Group.

Haitian Club members welcomed three new students last week. Club members said they started by asking what town they came from, what clubs they want to join at NFA and what sports they like to play.

"We try a lot to collaborate between new Haitian students and American Haitian students," Merise said.

Outreach

Like all NFA student clubs, the ethnic-oriented clubs often participate in community events, awareness programs or fundraisers. Last week, students from several NFA groups performed at Norwich Rotary's first Celebrate Diversity event at the Marina at American Wharf. More than 200 people attended and sampled international foods from 19 local restaurants.

Native American students danced and sang, as did their Haitian club peers and the NFA Gospel Singers. Miranda Lauture, wearing an "I love Haiti" sweatshirt, read a poem she wrote expressing how outsiders viewed Haiti after the devastating earthquake. Haitians were thought of as "poor, lazy, uneducated, not clean and weak," she started. She then turned to a positive note, saying Haiti was the "voice of the proud people" and "the mother of all independence."

Butler attended the Rotary event and frequently visits students' homes, churches and family events to forge long-lasting connections to help immigrant families feel that they are part of one of the strongest intangibles connected with NFA - the lifelong loyalty of its alumni.

The effort paid off this year, as two former NFA students who started in English Language Learners' classes several years ago have returned to work as ELL intervention specialists. Benilda Fernandes and Evi Correia, both Cape Verdean, work with new students and help them integrate into NFA.

"What better role models could we have?" Butler said. "Mr. Klein and myself are just thrilled to have them here. They know everybody. That's a big help to our population."

Donations pour in

Because NFA is a private high school, it doesn't qualify for state grants for building projects. But that's not why NFA alumni are so supportive when the school needs a capital project, said NFA Foundation President Glenn Carberry, Class of 1972. The tradition goes back to the founders, who donated land and even their own houses to the effort.

"Every building on this campus has been given to this campus by someone," said Deborah Lee, director of development, who works at the Levanto Alumni House on campus.

The most recent capital campaign raised more than $12 million to build a glass atrium between Slater Museum and Norton gym that made four connected buildings handicapped accessible with ramps and an elevator.

In 2003, Grey Goose vodka tycoon Sidney Frank, Class of 1938, donated $1 million to NFA. He loaned the academy artwork valued at $2 million and then, in 2004, made a record donation - $13 million in unrestricted cash over a five-year period.

"We exist to respond to requests from the Norwich Free Academy and its board of trustees and its administration," Carberry said.

NFA alumni also love to come back. NFA invites the 50-year reunion class to graduation each year. Dozens of participants march onto the field with graduates and one gives a speech.

This year, 175 people attended the Red & White reunion for those who graduated 51 to 69 years ago. The Jubilee reunion for graduates from 70-plus years ago drew 300, Lee said. The oldest alum was 104.

"What really makes NFA unique is that the founding fathers knew the support of the alumni would be key," Lee said.

Instilling NFA loyalty starts with current students. Every Friday, the alma mater is sung on campus. At graduation or other NFA public events, many adults in the audience still sing along.

Although the student body has changed dramatically over the decades, the founding fathers from the 1850s might not be surprised at today's growing number of minority students. NFA was a fully integrated school from day one, boys and girls and whites and minorities.

Escaped slave James L. Smith, who settled in Norwich in the 1840s, wrote with pride of his daughters' education in his autobiography.

"My two daughters, Louie Amelia Smith and Emma J. I. Smith, after completing, the former a classical and the latter an English course at the Norwich Free Academy, graduated from that institution and thus qualified themselves for future usefulness," Smith wrote.

c.bessette@theday.com

Students head to their buses Friday afternoon at Norwich Free Academy. The NFA student body is uniquely diverse in the region, with more than 30 languages spoken by students.
Buy Photo Tim Cook/The Day Students head to their buses Friday afternoon at Norwich Free Academy. The NFA student body is uniquely diverse in the region, with more than 30 languages spoken by students.

If you go

IF YOU GO

WHAT: Norwich Free Academy-Glastonbury high school football game

WHERE: Glastonbury High School

WHEN: 6:30 p.m. Friday

LIVE STREAMING: www.theday.com beginning at 6:15 p.m.

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