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    Sunday, July 21, 2024

    Norwich Transition Academy holds first graduation ceremony in five years

    Graduates are applauded by teachers Sarah Falcone and Alison Orcutt, in background, and people in the audience, not shown, at the end of the Norwich Transition Academy graduation ceremony Friday, June 14, 2024, at Kelly Middle School in Norwich. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
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    John Chapman shakes hands with Susan Lessard, acting superintendent of Norwich Public Schools, before receiving his diploma with Director Tom Dufort looking on during the Norwich Transition Academy graduation ceremony Friday, June 14, 2024, at Kelly Middle School in Norwich. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
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    Gerray Isom, right, receives her certificate from Teacher Sarah Falcone with Teacher Allison Orcutt and Director Tom Dufort looking on during the Norwich Transition Academy graduation ceremony Friday, June 14, 2024, at Kelly Middle School in Norwich. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
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    Isaac Becker, right, shakes hands with Susan Lessard, acting superintendent of Norwich Public Schools, before receiving his diploma with Director Tom Dufort looking on during the Norwich Transition Academy graduation ceremony Friday, June 14, 2024, at Kelly Middle School in Norwich. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
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    Graduates listen while Director Tom Dufort speaks during the Norwich Transition Academy graduation ceremony Friday, June 14, 2024, at Kelly Middle School in Norwich. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
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    Norwich ― It’s been five years since Norwich Transition Academy graduates were able to receive their diplomas in a room packed with cheering family, teachers and supporters.

    Eight graduates of the post-high school special education vocational program got to do just that on Friday, thanks to a change in state law this year.

    Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Norwich Transition Academy served students to the end of the school year after they turned 21. In 2020, a court ruling said the state was obligated to educate special education students to age 22.

    But that initially meant students departed on their birthday, no matter when that occurred in the academic year. Last year, the state legislature changed the law to allow students to remain through the end of the academic year after turning 22.

    The last full graduation ceremony for Norwich Transition Academy was in 2019. The COVID-19 pandemic forced the group to hold a truncated diploma ceremony in the parking lot in 2020.

    “How nice it is to actually be here,” Norwich Transition Academy Director Tom Dufort said. “… We are able to celebrate folks as they exit our programs and embark on their adult careers. We are thankful we are able to get together and have this kind of day.”

    Graduates on Friday received certificates from the transition academy as well as diplomas from their high schools. They now move on to jobs at companies throughout the region, some in programs assisted by the state Department of Developmental Services.

    Graduate Gerray Isom of Norwich started working full time for Chartwells school food service company in November. She works at Teachers’ Memorial Global Studies Middle School in Norwich.

    “I’m just going to keep on working, and if I see a better job, I will go for it,” Isom said.

    Her mother, Venetta Liggins, praised both Norwich Free Academy and the Norwich Transition Academy for her daughter’s progress since the family moved to Norwich eight years ago. Back then, she said, she never envisioned her daughter being able to work a full-time job.

    “We’ve seen crazy, crazy improvement,” Liggins said. “Speech, language, coordination. All of that.”

    Dufort thanked transition academy staff, job coaches who accompany students to various job sites and the several employment partners, who hire transition academy students in training. Students work at local supermarkets, Papa Gino’s in Mansfield, Hyde Park Landscaping in Norwich, Home Depot stores, Chartwells school food service and at the region’s two casinos.

    Dufort said he enjoys going to events at the Mohegan Sun Casino, because he often meets former students working there.

    “I went to Comic-Con this year, and as I went in through the security checkpoint with my daughter, I was checked in by a former student,” Dufort said. “When I started slipping out a side door I shouldn’t have, another former student encouraged me to do otherwise.”

    Bill Donehey, manager of diversity, equity and inclusion at Mohegan Sun Casino, said Mohegan Sun works with 11 transition academies throughout eastern Connecticut and has hired more than 600 workers from the programs in the past 11 years.

    Donehey called people with disabilities “the most undertapped market out there,” for employment.

    “I get to bring inclusion to life,” Donehey said.

    Norwich Transition Academy graduates are: Isaac Becker, Amena (who does not use a last name), John Chapman, Patrick Cote, Gerray Isom, Izaiah Ramos, Falorie Alcius and one person who asked not to be identified.

    c.bessette@theday.com

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