North Stonington pitches its high school as a choice for Preston students

Preston — If students from Preston are interested in an alternative to the college-like, 2,300-student Norwich Free Academy, North Stonington school officials hope they soon can consider the newly rebuilt Wheeler High School.

North Stonington school officials presented the Preston Board of Education with an overview of the offerings at the nearly 200-student high school Monday in the hopes of being added to Preston’s list of high school options.

North Stonington Superintendent Peter Nero said some Preston parents approached North Stonington officials four years ago and asked if the small high school could be considered for Preston students. Last March, Wheeler opened its new school on Route 2 after a long struggle to finalize plans.

With the new school now open, Nero said officials decided it was a good time to approach its neighbors. School officials made a similar presentation to the Voluntown Board of Education last month. Voluntown and Preston are among eight partner districts that have NFA as their main designated high school. But Preston students currently have eight public different high school choices between the designated high school, tech schools and magnet schools in the region.

Nero said Wheeler has space for about 10 students per grade from Preston, and maybe could go as high as a total of 50 students from Preston.

Nero said busing could be done through depot stops coordinated with Preston school buses, as Preston does for students going to other schools.

Tuition this year for Wheeler is $11,433 for regular education, and Nero said Wheeler can accommodate students with a wide range of special education needs.

Wheeler Principal Kristin St. Germain and Associate Principal Alison Reyes described academic and cultural programs at Wheeler, which was named a school of distinction in the state accountability index. St. Germain said while it is a small school, Wheeler has numerous honors classes and virtual learning classes for interested students. The school also has a strong international exchange student program, hosting seven students last year.

“It’s a great opportunity for our students to see diversity,” St. Germain said, noting that North Stonington is a small town with little ethnic diversity.

Nero said Wheeler is an apprentice program for the Electric Boat manufacturing pipeline. Community service programs and credit internships have taken students outside the classroom, including to Maine to work with veterans.

Athletes at Wheeler would have a better chance to break into varsity sports, St. Germain said, with everyone participating because of the school’s small size. Wheeler offers volleyball, cross country and soccer, basketball, cheerleading, lacrosse, softball, baseball and golf. The school has cooperative programs for other sports, such as football with Griswold, tennis with New London, swimming, girls’ lacrosse and gymnastics.

Preston currently has 47 high school students, with 37 at NFA, six at Norwich Regional Technical High School, three in the Ledyard High School agri-science program and one at the Marine Sciences Magnet High School in Groton. Other choices are Ledyard High School, the Science & Technology Magnet High School in New London and Grasso Tech in Groton.

The Preston board did not vote Monday on adding Wheeler High School. Board Chairman Sean Nugent said the board will hear from officials at Griswold High School next month and will vote on the possible choices in spring.

During public comment at the start of Monday’s school board meeting, three parents spoke in favor of adding Wheeler to high school choices, saying some Preston students might feel more comfortable in a school more in line with their small-town elementary and middle schools, rather than NFA.

Parent Heather Helwig has one child who is a senior at NFA, another who is a sophomore at Norwich Tech and an eighth-grader for whom “Wheeler would be an excellent choice,” she said.

Kim Demara has children in eighth and seventh grade in Preston and a 3-year-old child. She said it would be “really nice” to have an option of similar size to Preston, rather than enter a ninth-grade class of 600 students.

c.bessette@theday.com

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