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    Friday, May 24, 2024

    Norwich hopes to bring some special education students home in new program

    Norwich ― The school system will create Rose City School, a new program this fall designed to serve some special education students now transported to costly out-of-town programs.

    Rose City School will allow students with severe emotional and behavioral disabilities to better integrate with their hometown school district, Acting Superintendent Susan Lessard said. The students would have access to the full public school curriculum, be able to participate in after-school programs and sports and go on field trips.

    It also will help the district curb skyrocketing special education costs, Lessard told the Board of Education.

    Currently, the city is paying about $12 million for the approximately 126 students placed in out-of-town specialty programs.

    The board voted unanimously to endorse the program following Lessard’s presentation Tuesday.

    The plan will come years before four new elementary schools are built as part of the $385 million school construction project just getting underway.

    The plan calls for starting with one classroom in the former Bishop School at 526 E. Main St. The building now houses central office and support staff departments.

    Rose City School will start with about five students already identified who are experiencing severe emotional and behavioral disabilities.

    Lessard said over time, she hopes one entire floor of Bishop could house elementary school students, and the second floor would serve middle school students. The 1925 Bishop School was renovated in the 1990s and has an elevator.

    No cost estimates were provided Tuesday, but school leaders hope to save money by avoiding out-of-district tuition and transportation. Lessard said the cost would be minimal to prepare the classrooms and make the school more attractive.

    The plan reverses decisions last summer to close Bishop as an early learning center and move dozens of central office and support staff to Bishop. The board voted in February to turn over the vacated former central office building to the city for sale and redevelopment.

    But with the Rose City School plan, some central office staff will move back into the 90 Town St. building, Lessard said. Board Chairman Mark Kulos said a potential buyer for the Mason School fell through, freeing up the space for the new plan.

    Lessard said as the Rose City School expands, she estimated about 20 staff would move to 90 Town St.

    Students in the new program will have the potential to integrate back into their local schools. Rose City School also will collaborate with Norwich Free Academy’s newly restructured special education programs for a smooth transition into high school, Lessard said.

    The four-phase plan started in April with site visits to a kindergarten through 12th grade day school in Fall River, Mass.

    For staffing, Rose City School initially will need one special education teacher, a psychologist and a social worker, Lessard said. The positions will be posted in late May.

    Implementation of the new program is expected to be completed by the end of July. Classrooms and a welcome center will be created. The district will create a video tour and will market the school to surrounding school districts looking for a less expensive placement option closer to home.

    School board members praised the plan and school administrators for finding a creative way to address special education costs. Board member John Iovino called it “a budget solution” taxpayers and city leaders are looking for in the budget process.

    “I want to emphasize that this decision was made with the best interests of our students at heart,” Lessard wrote in a letter sent to staff and families following the vote Tuesday night. “We are excited about the potential of the RCS program and the positive impact it will have on our students and our district as a whole.”

    c.bessette@theday.com

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