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Norwich - Kevin Cutsinger and Katelynn LeBlanc stood before about 30 schoolmates, teachers, family members and friends and said they are proud to be Norwich Free Academy graduates.
And more than that, LeBlanc declared, "I have a job!"
Cutsinger, 21, of Sprague and LeBlanc, 19, of Lisbon are the first to complete NFA's post-graduate Life Skills, Employment, and Adult Development program, which opened with the new Sachem Street transitional high school program two years ago.
In the program, special education students may continue their educations with a curriculum designed to prepare them for independent adult living. The school has a simulated apartment with laundry machines and a kitchen, and teachers and job coaches prepare students for positions at one or more of several partner businesses throughout the region.
Coaches accompany students on the job for a time before they begin work on their own.
Both Cutsinger and LeBlanc attended high school at NFA and walked with their graduating classes, Cutsinger in 2011 and LeBlanc in 2012. Both received certificates at that time. On Wednesday, NFA Head of School David Klein handed them their official NFA diplomas.
Lisa Wheeler, director of student services at NFA, who oversees the program, said it started with just four students. This year, there are 12, and next year, NFA anticipates that 15 will be enrolled in the program. As with the Sachem transitional high school program, LEAD is open to all eight NFA partner school districts and to outside districts as well.
"I'm really proud of myself," Cutsinger said. In a brief speech during the graduation ceremony, he said that when he was an eighth-grader at Sayles Elementary School in Sprague, he had to select a high school from a number of choices.
"I came to NFA," he said. "I picked it because I wanted to be a Wildcat. And now I am."
Cutsinger will work full time for the Arc of New London County bakery in Groton, making bread, doughnuts and cookies. He said that for now, he will live at home with his mother, Dawn Cutsinger, in Sprague.
LeBlanc told the audience that when she first entered NFA, she was terrible in school, had trouble reading and doing math. She couldn't count change.
"Now, I can run the cash register by myself," she said.
LeBlanc will work full time at the Dunkin' Donuts at the Norwich Wal-Mart. She has been working there part time since February.
Her mother, Christine Favro, her sister, Kim LeBlanc, 21, her best friend, Ashley Ferando and her godson, Xavier Ferando, 1, attended Wednesday's ceremony to cheer her on. All said they were proud of Katelynn's accomplishments.
LeBlanc said she was hesitant to enroll in the LEAD program after she completed NFA, but Tom Dufort, LEAD transitional specialist, persuaded her to try it.
"I learned I am a hard worker and can get the job done," she said.
While both students thanked their families and teachers, Dufort thanked Cutsinger and LeBlanc for taking a chance on what was then a fledgling adult transitional program.
"The kids here worked so hard," he said. "Two years ago, they signed on to a program they didn't know."