NFA to consider partnership to run Thames River Academy program

Norwich — The Norwich Free Academy could launch its own transitional high school program starting this fall that could encompass the current Thames River Academy alternative high school program run by the city’s public school system.

The NFA Board of Trustees voted unanimously Tuesday to authorize Head of School David Klein to enter into formal discussions with Norwich public school officials to form a partnership to run the Thames River Academy alternative high school as a “transitional” high school under NFA’s administration.

Klein told the Board of Trustees Tuesday that the NFA administration has since last fall been considering starting a transitional high school program in the 2013-14 school year. But when the state-mandated program audit of Thames River Academy strongly criticized the management and everyday programs there, Klein said he started talking informally with Norwich Superintendent Abby Dolliver about possibly starting the program by the end of August.

He said he would not call it an alternative high school, but rather a transitional program in which students could move into NFA at any point. Students from the NFA campus could also transition to the smaller program if it suited them.

“This is a school under the umbrella of the Norwich Free Academy,” Klein said. “They are not ‘those kids.’ We’re not going to call them that. These are our kids. I feel that way now.”

Klein presented two possible scenarios, one for 55 students — the number of students estimated to come from Norwich public schools alone in the coming school year — and a larger program for up to 80 students for all NFA partner towns and possibly some private tuition students.

Klein said he believes NFA could run a model transitional program, unmatched anywhere in eastern Connecticut, in which participating students would have access to NFA’s broad range of clubs, athletics and afterschool programs.

Klein said the school could be located at the three-story office building NFA owns at 90 Sachem St., not far from the main campus. That building currently houses the school’s print shop and would need an estimated $2.5 million in renovations. He called it an “investment in Norwich students.”

It might be too late to renovate that building in time for this fall, Klein said. If the NFA board and the Norwich Board of Education agree to the partnership, the program could be located at the current TRA building — the former Bishop elementary school on East Main Street — for the first year.

Financially, a program for 55 students would cost about $1.5 million, including one-time startup costs to buy technology, furniture and supplies. At a proposed tuition rate of $25,000 for regular education and $39,090 for special education, the program would run at a deficit of $181,900 during the first year.

The larger program for 80 students would cost $1.9 million and would show a surplus of about $100,000 after the first year.

Board Chairman David Whitehead asked the board Facilities Committee and the Academic Success Committee to review the proposal and said the board could have a special meeting in early June to discuss the program further. The board’s unanimous vote authorized Klein to negotiate a potential partnership agreement with Norwich public schools to launch the program.

Dolliver, who did not attend the NFA board meeting, welcomed the vote and said she looked forward to discussing it formally with Klein.

Dolliver said the TRA budget now is about $660,000. She added $500,000 for next year to start some of the state-mandated improvements, but funding depends on the City Council’s approval of the school budget, expected June 4. The city manager’s budget would give the school budget a 1.5 percent increase, but Dolliver said she would need a 2.8 percent increase to cover all current programs plus the TRA improvements.

Dolliver said eighth-graders who might be considering TRA have been told that the school system will find an appropriate program for them, but it remains uncertain exactly where. Dolliver will meet with TRA staff on Thursday.

If the partnership with NFA is approved, staff at the alternative high school could move into other positions based on seniority and qualifications. She said she would try to accommodate them as best as the school system allows.

c.bessette@theday.com

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