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Norwich — Norwich Free Academy started the new school year Thursday with a new fitness center and a science laboratory under construction, along with a new Sachem Street campus. But it was a recent demolition that made the campus look different.
The 160-year-old weeping European beech tree that had graced the front of campus was cut down last week on the advice of an arborist. Yellow tape still surrounds the lawn where the tree crews went to work last week, but the loss exposed a new view.
“Everyone is saying what a beautiful building the Norton Gym is,” NFA Director of Student Affairs John Iovino said. The historic gym was mostly hidden behind the tree for the past century-and-a-half.
The loss of the tree was a surprise, but many other changes at NFA this year have been in the works for months.
A new fitness center opened this summer for athletes and will be used by physical education classes.
Senior David Walencewicz of Windham will feel one change at NFA in his family’s bank account. Walencewicz, 17, decided four years ago that NFA was the best school for him, even though his parents, David and Jodi Walencewicz, would have to pay the annual tuition as if he was attending a private school.
On Thursday, Walencewicz walked onto campus for free to start his senior year. The Windham school system will pick up the $11,090 tab as part of a state-funded major school reform plan in that town that will give high school students six main choices, along with state technical schools, for their education. Up to 20 Windham students, mostly freshmen, can attend NFA this year as part of the program.
Iovino said he won’t know for several days just how many Windham students will attend NFA, as registrations are taking place.
“I definitely made the right choice coming to NFA,” said Walencewicz, who will play lacrosse and be on the swim team this year.
Now, his two younger brothers, Joseph and Rye, both at Windham Middle School, are planning to go to NFA.
Seniors Dean Browning and Jacadi Novoa were new to NFA but on Thursday found themselves in the same school building where they had attended the former Thames River Academy last year.
NFA started a new transitional high school program Thursday that replaced the city-run TRA. The program is expected to have about 60 students this year and could expand to about 100 students in the future.
But since the former three-story office building on Sachem Street, now being called the Sachem Campus, is under renovation, the program started in the former TRA building, the Bishop School on East Main Street.
For Browning and Novoa, it felt as if not much had changed — they were in the same building and had some of the same teachers. But it was also somewhat different, with new opportunities, they said. Both are scoping out offerings at NFA.
Browning is an award-winning artist and plans to explore art activities and cooking. He wants to be a professional chef, and new transitional program Director Kate Cote offered to take him to the NFA Brickview Inn, where he could end up working.
Novoa wants to write. She loves history and writing and hopes to join the NFA book club, writing club and Youth Peace.
The new Sachem Campus is expected to open in November.
“I’m looking forward to it,” Novoa said. “I heard it’s going to have a rock wall.”