Old Norwich school receives new mission

Norwich - If buildings had personalities, the Bishop School on East Main Street would be having an identity crisis.

Over the past three years, one of the city's oldest school buildings has gone from housing elementary students to high school students in two successive programs and now to preschool students.

Starting Aug. 28, Bishop School will be named the Bishop School Early Learning Center, consolidating about 225 children ages 3 and 4 in preschool programs that are held in schools throughout the city. Only two preschool classes at Wequonnoc School and the John B. Stanton School with 20 students each will remain at their locations.

Preschool Director Lynn DePina said she is "ecstatic" at the prospects of having a dedicated preschool center. DePina's office already is in the school, but her duties require her to travel to the city's seven elementary schools to visit classes.

Now, DePina will take the former principal's office and students will occupy classrooms on the ground, first and second floors. State fire safety regulations prohibit young students from occupying the third floor, so school administration offices, including the technology specialists, will be housed there.

The main transition will start with the new school year Aug. 28, but school officials had to speed up the plan March 4, when a fire at Kelly Middle School caused water damage to 12 classrooms. Two preschool classrooms were moved to Bishop School to allow middle school students to use those classrooms.

Bishop became available at the end of January, when Norwich Free Academy's new transitional high school program moved out and into its new quarters at 80 Sachem St. Prior to that, the building housed the city's alternative high school, Thames River Academy, which closed when NFA launched its transitional program.

School administrators had to find a student-based use for Bishop School or face financial penalties by the state.

In 1996, Norwich voters approved a much-needed $4.3 million upgrade to the 1925 Bishop School, adding a gymnasium, an elevator and a new entrance. If the city closed the school, it would have owed the state $1.9 million in grant money used for the renovations. Moving the preschool programs keeps the building open for school use, avoiding the payment.

Dolliver said converting from high school to preschool was easy. Preschool classes will bring their desks, chairs and tables. The school system's food service program will pay for new cafeteria tables in its current budget, Dolliver said.

Starting Aug. 28, Bishop will have three full-day, year-round preschool programs from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m., same as the programs at Wequonnoc and Stanton, DePina said. Half-day programs will include eight integrated special education classes, four regular education classes and two half-day special education classes.

The full-day, year-round classes are paid programs with parents paying on a sliding fee schedule based on income, and parents bring their children. Half-day programs are free and mostly grant funded with bus service provided by the city.

"We're bringing everybody with us," DePina said of the staffing, with 10 classroom teachers and 20 support staff, including a full-time nurse to cover the long day from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Dolliver said the move would not add any money to the $71.9 million 2013-14 school budget approved Tuesday by the Board of Education. Consolidating the programs could even save money, Dolliver said.

Several years ago, Norwich school officials discussed the desire to start an early childhood magnet school for preschool and early grammar school grades. While this wouldn't meet that goal, Dolliver said school officials are excited at the consolidation, bringing professional development, planning time for teachers and support services together.

The move came too late to be included in a regionwide magnet school federal grant application submitted March 1 by the LEARN regional education agency to the U.S. Department of Education.

Bishop isn't big enough to house an inter-district magnet school program, but could pursue intra-district magnet school status for the program, Dolliver said.

"We will talk to (LEARN Development Director) Doreen Marvin on the opportunities that could come up," Dolliver said.

c.bessette@theday.com

Learning center information

Registration and screening is now open for the new Bishop School Early Childhood Learning Center to open Aug. 28.

Norwich parents with children born in calendar years 2009 and 2010 are eligible to apply.

Call (860) 823-4286 for information

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