New London - Nestled in a mostly residential area of New London is a tiny Jewish day school that parents rave about.
The Solomon Schechter Academy, a school currently serving 33 children from pre-kindergarten through sixth grade, is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year. For a school that started out unsure about its future, swelled to more than 90 children in the early 1990s and is readjusting to its smaller size, reaching 40 is a momentous occasion.
On Monday afternoon, children at the 33-student school were busy singing and painting in preparation for tonight's Arts Night, a community event Mayor Daryl Justin Finizio is expected to attend.
Arts Night will begin at 6:30 p.m. in the Beth El Synagogue with a demonstration of student art projects followed by a musical.
Children clustered together in the art room on Monday, adding some final brush strokes to their projects underneath the paper snowflakes and masks that dangled from the room's ceiling.
In the music room, the school's two sixth-graders - Ariel Sapozhnikov and Noah Shafner - rehearsed a song they'll sing with the pre-kindergarden students. During the song's chorus, the pre-kindergarteners echoed the older kids in a manner that was more shouting than singing.
The song, "Alef Bet," is how the young children learn the Hebrew alphabet, said Head of School Karen Rosenberg. SSA incorporated into this year's musical, "Harmony High," a story about a school where everyone sings.
"Harmony High" is a perfect fit for the school, said Rosenberg, because it demonstrates "the idea that learning should be an enjoyable experience."
That philosophy was foreign to Nelly Abramova when she first stumbled upon SSA, and it was the reason she decided to enroll her daughter Yana.
Abramova had never planned to send her daughter to a private Jewish school, but a mother suggested SSA at a child's birthday party.
Yana was a shy child, and the Abramovas speak Russian at home, so Nelly Abramova was worried about her daughter's ability to fit in at school and become more proficient at English. After a tour of SSA, Abramova "had this great hope that she would fit in here."
And she has. Her English vocabulary has grown, and Abramova said she begs to stay at school when the day ends. She credits Yana's development in part to the individualized attention students at SSA receive.
"Everybody feels very comfortable and happy here," said Abramova, describing how teachers go out of their way to find tasty, gluten-free recipes because one student is gluten intolerant.
Abramova, who never felt comfortable in school growing up, said SSA seems like "some kind of resort."
That individual focus culminates in the graduation project, in which sixth-graders research a topic important to them and give a speech about it at graduation.
Ariel, who hopes to be a doctor when she grows up, decided to do her project on the health impacts of eating genetically modified foods. Noah, a talented piano and harpsichord player who hopes to turn music into a career, is focusing on Jewish composers and the influence of Judaism on classical music.
Those kinds of creative projects are part of the reason Ellen Adelman-Hyde chose to drive her three sons from Bozrah to attend the school.
She described a first-grade social studies lesson in which the teacher arranged the classroom desks like an airplane with a teddy bear as the pilot and showed "in-flight movies" featuring different countries. The teacher stamped fake passports for each country the class "visited."
Adelman-Hyde's three sons still have their "passports."
She does occasionally worry, however, about the school becoming too small to sustain itself. Rosenberg said the size has caused budgetary problems, so they're working on the school's efficiency.
But they're also focused on "shrinking in a positive manner" and treating the small size as an opportunity to make the learning experience more personalized for each child, focusing on arts and social skills in addition to academics.
After all, as Rosenberg described it, "This is the place you teach (children) how they should grow up."