Plans submitted for transformation of former New London synagogue

New London — LEARN has submitted plans to the city’s planning department detailing the proposed transformation of the former Beth El synagogue on Ocean Avenue into a regional facility for students with special needs.

Plans for the Ocean Avenue LEARNing Academy are expected to be taken up by the Planning and Zoning Commission next month.

LEARN, a Regional Educational Service Center that serves 25 towns in southeastern Connecticut, plans to consolidate its student support services programs for children with developmental disabilities and emotional and behavioral issues from leased classroom spaces at four different locations into the one site. The new facility also will house a diagnostic and wellness consultative program.

LEARN purchased the 36,000-square-foot former synagogue, with more than six acres of land, from Beth El in October for $1.9 million. While Beth El listed its address as 660 Ocean Ave., city records show the property is at 582 Ocean Ave.

Beth El, which established its roots in the community in 1932, cited shrinking revenues and increased costs of upkeep at the sprawling synagogue as reasons to move out. It is now holding its religious services and leasing space at three different locations. While the arrangements are at times confusing, members have managed to stick together, Beth El President Judi Goldberg said.

Beth El is now holding services at both Temple Emanu-El and Crossroads Presbyterian Church in Waterford and established its administrative offices on Shaw Street in New London. Regular Saturday morning services are held at Temple Emanu-El, while larger gatherings and most congregational meetings are held at Crossroads.

Beth El also is collaborating for some monthly services at Beth Jacob Synagogue in Norwich.

“All of our hosts have been incredibly kind and receptive in working with us,” Goldberg said. “Everybody has literally been great at all of the locations.”

Beth El is working on its plans for a future location and has established both a real estate steering committee and wants and needs committee.

The future may be unclear now, but Goldberg said there is a lot of thought being put into “what we as a congregation want to look like and what we want it to look like for our next generation.” There has been some talk about some sort of community campus for the Jewish community, she said.

Meanwhile, renovations are expected to get underway at the former synagogue by early next year, according to documents submitted to the city by John F. Cross, LEARN’s director of development.

The project includes the renovation of existing classrooms used by Solomon Schechter Academy and construction of an 875-square-foot addition that encloses an elevator and stair lobby. Construction is slated to finish in time for the new school year. Solomon Schechter has since relocated to Temple Emanu-El.

Along with the creation of customized space to meet the needs of the school programs, the renovations will include a new sprinkler system, plumbing, heating and cooling system and modifications to the electrical infrastructure. The project includes the renovation of the existing lower-level classrooms.

The school is expected to support 60 students transported to New London mostly by small buses and vans from 18 different school districts, including New London, for an extended school year.

The students will range in age from 3 to 21. A staff of more than 80 will include approximately three administrators, 16 certified special education teachers, 14 licensed professional staff members and 50 highly trained, noncertified instructional assistants and intervention specialists, according to LEARN.

The school is expected to operate from 6:45 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday during the regular school year and an additional six weeks with shortened hours. No significant changes are contemplated for the exterior of the building.

g.smith@theday.com

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