Thames River Academy may face closure vote next week

Norwich - With an approved budget in hand, the Norwich Board of Education and Norwich Free Academy officials are ready for a busy summer that could start next Tuesday with a vote to close Thames River Academy and conclude Aug. 29 with the opening of a new NFA transitional program.

But the first move next Tuesday by the Norwich school board will have to be conditional. The NFA Board of Trustees has yet to approve the new program or the $2.5 million renovation to the office building at 80 Sachem St., where the program would be housed.

What could be the final Thames River Academy graduation will be held at 4 p.m. next Wednesday at Kelly Middle School.

NFA Head of School David Klein said Tuesday that the NFA board will schedule a special meeting soon after the June 12 Norwich school board meeting to act on the plans to launch the transitional program.

NFA officials had planned to start a transitional program for 80 to 100 students in the 2013-14 school year. After a highly critical state-ordered program audit of TRA was released in March, NFA officials altered their proposal to start one year early with 55 to 60 Norwich students only.

Norwich school officials heard a presentation and asked many questions on logistics, costs and staffing last week, a meeting attended by parents and several members of the City Council.

At a proposed tuition of $25,000 per student, Norwich faces a bill of about $1.37 million to send students to the new program, nearly $300,000 more than the proposed TRA budget. The City Council on Monday voted unanimously to add that money to the school budget with a strong endorsement of the NFA transition program.

Warren Logee, lead consultant on the state Department of Education technical assistance team assigned to Norwich schools, also welcomed the NFA transition program as a solution to the shortcomings discovered at TRA. Logee said data shows that every high school dropout costs the state $500,000, so the investment in a transitional program to keep them in school is worth it.

"Given the magnitude of the issues and the small number of kids," Logee said Tuesday, "it really makes sense to shut the program down there and let NFA do it. They obviously have the track record to make it work."

During his presentation to the Norwich school board last week, Klein said establishing the criteria for enrolling students in the transitional program would be critical. Norwich officials will work with the middle school principals and NFA officials in the coming weeks to determine criteria for identifying students who might fare better in the smaller transitional program.

NFA officials also have to work on criteria for moving students from that program onto the main NFA campus, and to allow struggling NFA students to enter the transition program. Norwich public school officials would have input in those decisions, Klein said.

If renovations at 80 Sachem St. cannot be completed by Aug. 29, the program could start at the city's Bishop School, where TRA is currently located.

If the program moves by the end of August, that could trigger a series of other school moves.

Norwich public school administrators are considering moving the 33 students at the Deborah Tennant-Zinewicz special education high school into the Bishop School. The school system then might move the 20 students in the Hickory Street School special education elementary program to the Deborah Tennant-Zinewicz School on Case Street.

Various school offices now housed at Bishop School could move to the Hickory Street building.

School Business Administrator Athena Nagel said the cost of those moves would be minimal, with school staff and perhaps some hired temporary summer help doing the work.

Staff at TRA, including 12 teachers, would be shifted to positions in other schools as much as possible after the school closes, Nagel said.


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