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Norwich Free Academy's restructured administration is in place

Norwich — An administrative restructuring at Norwich Free Academy forced by budget cuts has brought “the perfect team” to support students and faculty, according to Head of School Brian Kelly.

Kelly announced his plan to restructure the academy’s administration during his budget presentation in January in response to projections of sharp declines in enrollment and the loss of dozens of international students due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Kelly eliminated the five house principals and the director of student affairs position, reworking those duties into new positions. The new group, some new and some NFA veterans, has started working on issues ranging from curriculum to family engagement, professional development and potential new programs.

“I am really proud of this, because we are serving our kids and our faculty in a much better way by the restructuring,” Kelly said. “We have people dedicated to specific jobs rather than having five people trying to do everything themselves.”

NFA will have two deans of students, 20-year NFA veteran Clarence “CC” Cooper and newcomer Amy Labas, teacher and faculty manager for schools in the Capitol Region Education Council system. Two associate principals, former Groton teacher and magnet school developer Amy Murphy and Stephani Jones, a 24-year NFA veteran, will work on curriculum and staff development.

Winallan “Win” Columbano was named coordinator of alternative programs. A newcomer to NFA, Columbano grew up in New York City and taught at a 5,000-student high school in Brooklyn. Most recently, he worked at the Synergy Alternative High School in East Hartford, where he focused on social and emotional learning and strategies to teach students who have experienced trauma.

Longtime NFA Director of Student Affairs John Iovino was named director of community relations. He will work on student recruiting, building relationships between the community and the academy and work with the NFA Foundation.

His former duties will be “absorbed” into the new structure, NFA officials said.

The salaries for the new and reworked positions were not available this week. NFA spokesman Michael O’Farrell said the academy is confident the changes will save about $300,000 per year.

Cooper said the new position is “exactly” what he has wanted in his career, a chance to focus on students and families, meeting their needs and challenges. He plans to visit homes and accompany Director of Diversity Leo Butler to churches and community events to meet families.

Cooper has taught math and has overseen night school and the Wildcat Academy for expelled students, helping them keep up with academics.

“My whole educational career has been about students,” Cooper said. “I feel this position is designed for me, because I really care about students. I’m always advocating for them. It gives me a little bit more power to advocate.”

For the first year, Cooper will be assigned to 10th and 12th grades and Labas to ninth and 11th grades. They will switch the following year, Kelly said.

Labas, a former athletic director in Plainville and Wallingford and a high school and middle school science teacher, said she also loves to focus on students.

“We’re here for the staff as well,” Labas said, helping teachers and staff support and work with the students.

The associate principals will be co-responsible for curriculum development, teacher evaluations and teaching and learning methods, Kelly said. Murphy will concentrate on the humanities, while Jones will focus on science.

“My biggest passion is the building of curriculum through the lens of student engagement,” Murphy said, “to take a critical look at the curriculum we are offering our students and finding ways to teach them in a in a deeper, more real-world way.”

Murphy is a Norwich resident, whose students attended local schools and NFA. “I can’t believe I’m lucky enough to be here,” she said.

Jones served for 10 years as head of NFA's science department and has held numerous positions since 1997, including co-facilitator of the School Data Team. She said the new position is “made for me” and called NFA "a magical place."

Columbano’s main office will be at the Sachem Campus transitional program, and he will have a “drop-in” space on the main campus. Columbano called working with teenagers in alternative learning paths his passion.

“The important thing to remember is every kid can find success,” Columbano said. “It’s just what structures and what systems and supports do they need to get there? Whatever path that might be, that’s my job to work with the faculty to give them those supports.”

c.bessette@theday.com

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