No longer a simple question: Where are you going to high school?

Gary Etienne, right, laughs as he talks to Devon O'Keefe, an instructional leader in Ledyard High School's agri-science program, as Etienne's daughter, Elizabeth, an eighth-grader at Kelly Middle School, looks on during High School Night on Wednesday, Nov. 15, 2017, at the school in Norwich.  The event offered an opportunity for middle school students in the region to learn more information about high school choices.  (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
Gary Etienne, right, laughs as he talks to Devon O'Keefe, an instructional leader in Ledyard High School's agri-science program, as Etienne's daughter, Elizabeth, an eighth-grader at Kelly Middle School, looks on during High School Night on Wednesday, Nov. 15, 2017, at the school in Norwich. The event offered an opportunity for middle school students in the region to learn more information about high school choices. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)

It’s November, so school guidance counselors are busy compiling student transcripts with grades, attendance and standardized test scores, as well as proofreading their application essays, so they can enter the schools of their choice.

Students are busy navigating the complex choice of a dozen or more schools for next year, deciding whether large or small, specialized or general, sports or arts, manufacturing or agriculture is best for them.

But these aren’t high school students and guidance counselors preparing college applications. The region’s 13-year-old eighth-graders are mulling through the increasingly complicated and competitive realm of high school choice for next year.

What used to be a fairly basic choice of your town’s regular high school, a nearby technical school or the closest parochial high school has expanded for students in many towns to include a myriad of magnet schools, multiple state-run technical high schools with varying specialties, plus private schools.

For districts without their own high school, neighboring town schools have come knocking, wanting to open their doors and available classroom space to outside students.

Norwich students now have a choice of more than a dozen high schools, from the Norwich Free Academy mainstay and its smaller Sachem Campus transitional program to state-run Norwich, Windham or Ella T. Grasso technical high schools, magnet schools in New London, Windham and Groton, and Ledyard High School’s regular or agri-science program.

Bacon Academy in Colchester was added to the mix last year, with a cap of 10 freshmen per year. St. Bernard High School in Montville and the Academy of the Holy Family girls’ Catholic school in Baltic are among the parochial and private school choices.

“We start the conversation in seventh grade,” said Susan Neilan, a 26-year Norwich middle school guidance counselor, “because the high schools look at their seventh-grade attendance and marks, and at the first quarter of eighth grade."

“It’s daunting for parents, as well,” Neilan said, “so we are available to parents with questions.”

In October, Norwich eighth-graders listened to parades of presentations over a two-day period from many high schools. On Wednesday, Kelly Middle School hosted a high school fair that resembled the college fairs of old.

Tables draped with school banners, staffed by principals, admissions directors and student ambassadors lined the hall and community room. They handed out glossy brochures, pens, rulers with school logos, mini rubber sports balls, chip clips, nylon drawstring bags and even free tickets to upcoming school plays. They offered “shadow” opportunities for eighth-graders to spend a day at their schools.

Eighth-grader Aricelitis “Ari” Alers of Norwich worked her way from table to table Wednesday and said she is considering Norwich and Grasso tech schools and loved the Arts at the Capitol Theater, a magnet performing arts school in downtown Willimantic, because she wants to be a writer.

Alers plays trumpet in the newly revived Kelly Middle School instrumental music program, so, she said, "I'm always looking at NFA because of the band."

But her father, Andrew Alers, spent time at the table for the Academy of the Holy Family. A graduate of a Catholic high school in the Virgin Islands, the elder Alers said he doesn’t want his daughter to overlook the value of the strong academic education, smaller class sizes and the spiritual and community service values offered by Catholic high schools. He signed up for a shadow tour for his daughter with Sister Kateri, director of admissions.

“It’s so many to choose from,” Andrew Alers said. “For us parents, we kind of forget that we get to make the choice, too.”

When eighth-grader Dylan Boxley said he likes math and robotics at the Bacon Academy table, Principal Matthew Peel pulled out his smartphone and quickly called up a photo of the seven-gun T-shirt shooting machine Bacon students recently invented and built in the school’s robotics program.

Bacon, Peel said, might seem far away, but the school is only a 12-minute drive from Kelly Middle School.

Dylan said he is keeping “an open mind” but is considering Bacon and Ledyard for next year.

“I think it’s great to offer so many opportunities,” said his mother, Elizabeth Boxley.

Population growth in Norwich

The expansion of high school choices coincides with a statewide and Northeast trend of declining population projections, driving up competition for fewer high school-aged students. A report released in August by the Connecticut State Data Center said slow population growth is expected through 2040, fueled in part by an aging population and a low birth rate.

The state Department of Education doesn’t keep high school enrollment projection data, spokesman Peter Yazbak said, but has enrollment trends for the past five years using Data Center reports. They show slowly declining school-age populations at all grades except preschool and grade 12 between 2011 and 2016. The state had 558,377 school-aged students in 2011-12, which dropped to 538,893 in 2016-17.

Norwich, however, stands out as an exception in southeastern Connecticut. The city is expected to have the seventh highest population growth in the state by 2040, and a steady rise in high school-aged population from 2,698 in 2015 to 3,328 in 2040, according to the State Data Center. Those figures make Norwich attractive to high schools throughout the region.

The vast majority of Norwich high school students attend NFA, the longtime designated high school with its sprawling campus, strong academics, dozens of clubs and sports and Slater Museum, one of only two professional art museums on high school grounds.

But other schools are drawing students, as well.

This year, Norwich has 1,261 regular education students at NFA and another 60 in the Sachem Campus transitional program designed for students needing more individual attention. Norwich Tech has 174 Norwich students and Grasso Tech has 36. The New London Science & Technology school has 31 Norwich students, and Bacon Academy has 24 students. Norwich school officials do not list students attending parochial schools.

Clubs, sports, honors classes

NFA hosted two open houses this fall that drew nearly 100 students each from public and private schools, charter and magnet middle schools well beyond NFA’s eight contracted designated high school towns. Families outside those districts pay tuition, said NFA Director of Student Affairs John Iovino, who led the open houses.

In Slater Auditorium, an impressive 19th century brownstone facility in the Slater Museum, Head of School David Klein greeted the group with a series of superlatives describing the “outstanding" school, its “magnificent college-like campus," “unparalleled” academic programs, “great kids” and “fabulous” staff.

Iovino dismissed the idea that a student could get lost in the crowd at a school with 2,000-plus students. He used the slogan that adorns the colorful brochure: “One you, endless possibilities.” Freshmen are grouped in units of about 100 students and spend most of their day in the Cranston House, the freshmen building.

NFA offers 15 “career clusters," including architecture and construction, finance, marine science, engineering, manufacturing, tourism and law and public safety. NFA has more than 60 sports teams, including 34 varsity sports, 70 clubs and a large community service program. Eight world languages are taught, including American Sign Language.

In the gymnasium, teachers stood at tables for each academic department and discussed specific programs.

“I like how much the school has to offer,” Sacred Heart School eighth-grader Andrew Kaika, 13, of Norwich said. “They have a lot of clubs, and I like sports. The big thing to me is honors classes.”

His mother, Nancy Kaika, said she likes that freshmen are kept in one building to reduce the feeling of being overwhelmed by the large school. Andrew has 17 students in his class in the small Taftville school.

Hannah Lin, 13, now at the Integrated Day Charter School in Norwich, said she is considering NFA and Marianapolis Prep, a Catholic school in Thompson. She said she has “mixed feelings” about NFA, impressed by the programs and choices, but concerned about going from a class of 30 students to 500 students.

“I was impressed today,” her mother, Winnie Lin, said. “We learned about a lot of clubs and programs.”

St. Bernard also held two open houses recently. Kimberly Hodges, director of admissions and marketing, said a total of about 100 people attended. St. Bernard has an enrollment of 332 students in grades six through 12, another smaller alternative to NFA for Norwich students.

Perhaps a reflection of the Norwich population projections, St. Bernard is one of only a few Catholic high schools in the state projecting “small incremental growth” in enrollment, Hodges said.

“When parents are looking, they want great academic, social and athletic experiences,” Hodges said. “We hear from (St. Bernard graduates) in college who say their friends are struggling and they say, ‘I don’t believe how well prepared I was.’”

Hodges has 21 years of experience in higher education and said the increasing numbers of high school and even middle and elementary magnet school choices are part of a trend that is asking students to prepare earlier and earlier for college and careers. She is preparing a blog post titled: “Why College Prep Starts in Pre-K.”

c.bessette@theday.com

Ryan Campbell, center, an eighth-grader at Kelly Middle School, holds his face as he reacts to Laura Jones, director of school counseling and admissions at Windham Technical High School, showing him the application he will have to fill out during High School Night on Wednesday, Nov. 15, 2017, at the school in Norwich.  With him are, from left, mother Angela Patterson, grandmother Linda Campbell and grandmother Jayleen LaCross (not pictured).  (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
Ryan Campbell, center, an eighth-grader at Kelly Middle School, holds his face as he reacts to Laura Jones, director of school counseling and admissions at Windham Technical High School, showing him the application he will have to fill out during High School Night on Wednesday, Nov. 15, 2017, at the school in Norwich. With him are, from left, mother Angela Patterson, grandmother Linda Campbell and grandmother Jayleen LaCross (not pictured). (Sarah Gordon/The Day)

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