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    Friday, September 29, 2023

    New NFA Head of School enjoying ‘fire hose’ of first-month experiences

    Norwich Free Academy Head of School Nathan Quesnel poses for a portrait at the school’s campus in Norwich on Thursday, July 27, 2023. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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    Norwich ― New Norwich Free Academy Head of School Nathan Quesnel describes his first four weeks on campus as a “fire hose doctoral course of what NFA is.”

    During that brief time, Quesnel, 44, of Portland, has met with teachers, staff, Board of Trustees members, superintendents in NFA district towns, some students on campus for summer camps, and even sat with a 100-year-old alum at the recent jubilee reunion for the Class of 1963 and earlier.

    “Impression number one for me is the commitment, love and dedication people have to this school,” Quesnel said Wednesday. “I’ve had countless conversations that begin with: ‘My grandmother went to school here. My mother went to school here. I went to school here and my children go to school here.’ So it’s a story of longevity, it’s a story of history and it’s a story of family here.”

    Quesnel said he is excited to begin his chapter in that story, recognizing that he is a steward with a responsibility to honor the 169-year history of the academy and ensure that its legacy continues into the future.

    Quesnel, who previously spent 10 years as superintendent of East Hartford Public Schools, was hired last fall by the NFA Board of Trustees as the new head of school, succeeding Brian Kelly, who departed June 30. Quesnel arrived on campus full time July 3. He immediately sent out emails inviting staff, local superintendents and municipal leaders to stop by his office in the Allis House or call to chat.

    When he is not on the phone or meeting people, Quesnel enjoys meandering across the expansive, college-like NFA campus, greeting everyone he encounters, from maintenance staff and security to teachers, coaches, and students.

    “The beauty of this place is staggering,” Quesnel said.

    He marveled at an encounter with a coach leading a workout for some 15 to 20 female athletes. As they worked, the students sang the NFA alma mater.

    With a projected enrollment of more than 2,100 students, mostly from eight partner districts with additional tuition-paying students, NFA is the largest high school in southeastern Connecticut. The academy’s diverse student body includes students of immigrant families from across the globe, urban Norwich students and students from farm towns of Preston, Bozrah and Voluntown.

    Quesnel said his goal is to make sure NFA is a safe, comfortable place for all students. He said while other schools need to work to expose students to diverse experiences, “diverse experience is the essence of the day here at NFA.”

    Quesnel said one challenge will be finding ways to make the big place of NFA into a “really small” place that addresses the needs of each student, parent and staff member.

    “We make sure every kid here is connected to an adult,” Quesnel said. “Every teacher understands where they can go for supports. Every family knows who they can call if things aren’t going, or are going, the way they want them to go. I think those are things for us to continue to rethink. We are a kid business, and our organization has to center on what are the needs of our kids. And not just the needs but focusing on the strength of our kids.”

    The upcoming fall semester will be busy with more than academics, sports and campus governance. An enhanced Parents’ Night is planned for Sept. 21, with academic and arts demonstrations, and participation by outside human services agencies that help families, including United Community and Family Services, Norwich Youth and Family Services and United Way.

    In mid-October, the Connecticut Appellate Court will set up at NFA to hear appeals of one criminal case and one civil case before an audience of students and teachers. The attorneys and judges will discuss the cases with students following the court proceedings.

    NFA also is entering into negotiations with the partner districts for a new designated high school contract. NFA also will go through a re-accreditation process in late October by the New England Association of Schools and Colleges.

    “We want to continue to position NFA as the premier school of choice for the region,” Quesnel said. “Our parents need to see our school as a place where their child has an unlimited future, and where their child is going to be treated in a unique and caring manner. … We really are eager to give our parents a chance to see what we can do to meet their child’s needs.”


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