NFA'S alternative model

Norwich desperately needs to drastically change or outright replace the Thames River Academy alternative high school. Norwich Free Academy, a quasi-public regional high school with a reputation for excellence, is exploring the potential of opening a transitional high school program. Could this provide the solution to a big problem for the Norwich Board of Education?

A recent state audit concluded that Thames River Academy (TRA) alternative high school is profoundly failing at the primary mission of any school - educating students. Granted, these are challenging students. Because of poor academic performance, social or personality issues and other special circumstances, school officials and parents have judged them as better suited for the alternative high school, rather than NFA.

But the audit of TRA found a shocking lack of discipline, students who were disinterested in class subject matter, and standardized tests scores demonstrating most were learning very little.

Trying to revamp the alternative high school under new leadership and build a new culture is one option. Starting with an entirely new program, with a fresh perspective, would be the better alternative. It appears NFA may offer that choice.

NFA transitional high school, offered in a building separate from the main campus, would provide intense instruction in small classes, along with the added social intervention and counseling help to meet the needs of these challenging students. There would be the option, when appropriate, to transition students into traditional NFA programs. Conversely, students from the NFA campus could transition to the smaller school if that is judged the better choice for them.

NFA had been targeting the 2013-2014 school year to offer the transitional program, but is eyeing the potential of opening as soon as the fall semester to provide Norwich an alternative to TRA.

This is exciting for a few reasons. First, the public can have confidence that NFA will do this right. A presentation by Head of School David Klein to the school's Board of Trustees demonstrated the concept is well thought out; enough so that the trustees authorized Mr. Klein to begin discussions with Norwich public school officials.

Secondly, such a proposal would end the isolation that the state cited as one of the problems at TRA. Students in the transitional program would be part of NFA, with the opportunity to participate in sports and other activities.

Third, the program could accommodate students with the same issues who come from other towns sending students to NFA.

A non-elected, privately appointed board directs policy at NFA, which serves as the public high school for Norwich and several surrounding towns. The academy charges these municipalities a per pupil cost for every student. It's an unusual arrangement, but one that has served the community well since the mid-1850s. Tuition for students sent to the transitional program would be significantly higher.

That high cost could prove the biggest impediment, but it is one that can be overcome if all parties are willing. The Norwich school board will meet with Mr. Klein and David Whitehead, chairman of the NFA board of trustees, on May 29. This is an option well worth exploring.

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