Wheeler High School seeking a few new students among ranks of out-of-towners

North Stonington - Wheeler High School officials have finalized plans to lower the out-of-district tuition rate in an effort to draw more students and create an additional revenue source for the town.

The Board of Education voted last week to set the annual tuition at $10,972. The original tuition rate of about $14,000 was set at "school level," or the cost of running the school divided by the number of students attending.

The new rate was set by taking the 2012-13 student enrollment numbers and dividing it by personnel, student activities and discretionary costs. Other area private schools offer steeper tuition costs: The tuition for St. Bernard School in Uncasville is $11,400; Norwich Free Academy, $12,155; and The Williams School in New London, $26,375.

Principal Chris Sandford first pitched the idea to the board in February to broad support. Applications are now available on the school's website, and interested students are encouraged to take a tour of the facilities.

"Chris and I have been talking about this from the beginning," said Superintendent Peter Nero, who came to the district last summer.

Nero and Sandford said Wheeler's biggest draw is its intimate environment: Enrollment stands this year at about 200 students, with two attending from outside the school district.

"Students don't always function best in a big school district," Nero said.

Nero said that he is not looking to bring in a large number of new students. But even a handful of tuition-paying students would create new revenue for the town, and eventually, Nero said, perhaps even buffer the education budget. "I think we could have some moderate success out of this," he said.

Because North Stonington is not a "school of choice," where an associated town would pay for the tuition, a student's family would pay the full price for their child to attend Wheeler.

Sandford said the school has room for about 20 new students. He is planning to launch an advertising campaign sometime next year to publicize the option. But for now, the target is to bring in a handful of new students for the 2013-14 school year just through word of mouth.

"If we get five or six, I'd be really happy," Sandford said.

Officials will market Wheeler not only for its small size, but also for what Sandford said is a wide array of options for students.

"We offer an unbelievable amount for a small school," Sandford said, including Advanced Placement courses, college credit options and "comprehensive" extracurricular programs.

Wheeler is not NFA, Sandford said - its academic and extracurricular programs are far slimmer. But that's not the image they're looking to promote, he said.

"That's not our niche," he said. "We're looking for the kid who wants to grow academically in an environment that's small."

a.isaacs@theday.com

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