Norwich residents hear NFA plan for transitional program

Norwich - Parents of students at the troubled Thames River Academy alternative high school offered mixed reactions to a proposal by Norwich Free Academy to start a transitional program that could replace their school.

NFA Head of School David Klein presented the proposal Tuesday to the Norwich Board of Education and about 40 residents, including TRA parents and students, and members of the City Council.

NFA officials stressed that a proposed new transitional program would be part of the academy and not a separate school - a key difference from the city's alternative high school, which has been criticized as being isolated and insufficient.

NFA officials have been studying whether to add a transitional program for 80 to 100 students since last fall, with a planned start date of fall 2013. When a state-mandated program audit of TRA was released March 1, NFA administrators adjusted their proposal to start this fall with a smaller program of 55 to 60 Norwich students that could replace Thames River Academy.

If approved by both the NFA Board of Trustees and the Norwich Board of Education, the NFA program would be housed at 80 Sachem St., a three-story office building owned by NFA. The building would need a $2.5 million renovation, and the program could start at the existing TRA and move to Sachem Street when the building is ready - like moving to a new school, Klein said.

Following the presentation, school board members concentrated their questions on the finances and logistics of the program, such as credit requirements and graduation terms, while parents commented on the overall concept of replacing TRA.

Jerry Browning, chairman of the Thames River Academy School Governance Council, told the school board bluntly that he didn't care to emphasize the cost, when the NFA program seemed clearly to be superior to anything Norwich public schools could offer.

"I'm tired of talking about dollars and cents," Browning said. "My son needs an education, and right now he's not getting one."

But Susan Gladue, who has two children at NFA and one at TRA, said she is concerned about sending alternative high school students to NFA. She said students at TRA were told they wouldn't make it at NFA, because they couldn't earn enough credits to graduate. They ended up feeling they weren't "good enough" for NFA.

"And now NFA is going to take over this school?" she said.

Tuition would be $25,000 for regular education, as compared to the $10,900 per student Norwich now pays to NFA. Klein said a specialized program with more individualized instruction and supports such as social workers and vocational coaching and with a quality high school curriculum would require the higher tuition rate.

The program graduation requirements could be different than NFA's, Klein said. Students who complete the transitional program would get a graduation certificate inside an NFA diploma jacket. Students who transition to the NFA campus and complete the 25 credits required would get an NFA diploma.

Students in the transitional program "who are good citizens" could join NFA clubs and sports under the same criteria NFA students must meet for extracurricular programs.

Klein also said there could be a "blended model" with some students attending some classes at NFA while still being enrolled in the transitional program.

Norwich Superintendent Abby Dolliver told the Board of Education that if Norwich made all the improvements the state is requiring for Thames River Academy, it would cost "minimally" $1.3 million.

The proposed budget now for TRA next year is $1.1 million, but is inadequate to meet the state's requirements.

"We would spend this amount of money for a lesser program," Dolliver told the board. "We have to look at what we are providing for our students."

What's next

June 4, 7:30 p.m., City Hall: Norwich City Council to vote on final budget, including school budget total.
June 12, 5:30 p.m., Kelly Middle School: Norwich Board of Education will meet June 12 to discuss its final budget.

Both the NFA Board of Trustees and the Norwich Board of Education would need to approve a partnership agreement to launch the program for 55 to 60 Norwich students starting Aug. 29.

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