Norwich - It's as if officials at Norwich Free Academy and Norwich public schools were hurrying to complete a senior project at the end of the school year.
NFA Head of School David Klein and a committee of school representatives have been doing research since last fall on a proposed transitional program for high school students who need alternative learning methods and more individualized attention. Their plan was to start in the 2013-14 school year using the three-story office building NFA owns at 80 Sachem St., two blocks from campus.
The transitional committee members visited programs in East Lyme, Putnam and Providence, and looked at programs in Hartford, Bloomfield and even North Carolina, said committee chairwoman Lisa Wheeler, NFA director of special education and student services.
New information came flooding in that changed the plan at the last minute. On March 1, a state-mandated program audit of Thames River Academy - the Norwich public school system's alternative high school - was highly critical of all aspects of the school, from management to curriculum, discipline and program layout in the Bishop School.
State recommendations to address the poor audit call for more money, a new principal, additional staffing and a much more rigorous curriculum.
NFA officials quickly adjusted their proposal and will make a presentation this evening to the Norwich Board of Education on a transitional program that could start this fall for Norwich students and in essence replace the troubled TRA.
The NFA Board of Trustees recently heard the proposal and authorized Klein to discuss a possible partnership with Norwich school officials for the coming school year. Beyond solving Norwich's immediate problems with TRA, Klein believes a comprehensive NFA transition program could be a model for all of eastern Connecticut - where few alternative or transitional high school programs currently exist.
The door could swing both ways he said, with students in the transitional program coming to the NFA campus for certain programs, clubs and after-school activities and students at NFA who are struggling taking advantage of alternative learning methods at the transitional program.
"It's even more comprehensive than the state recommended (for TRA)," Klein said. "We just believe this is the right time to do it."
NFA officials presented two possibilities. A program with 55 students - all from Norwich - could start this fall. The original plan called for a larger program of 80 to 100 students from any of NFA's eight partner towns starting in the 2013-14 school year. Klein hopes families from throughout the region would consider the program on a private tuition basis as well.
Staffing for the different-sized programs would be similar. The larger program would have two social workers, a special education teacher and a vocational instructor. The smaller program would have one combined special education/vocational teacher and one social worker. Some support staff also would be reduced slightly.
A key aspect of the NFA transitional program is its connection to NFA, which offers 250 courses, 36 sports, 25 advanced placement classes, 65 clubs, eight world languages and 38 visual arts courses.
TRA's isolation from a more comprehensive high school experience was noted strongly in the program audit. TRA's state-mandated test scores, which are among the lowest in the state, also stand out, often with fewer than two dozen students taking the test.
If TRA students attend the NFA transitional program, their test scores would be calculated with the hundreds of other 10th graders, and seniors would graduate with NFA diplomas, Klein said.
The proposal has little time to come together for the start of next school year, but neither board can vote on anything just yet.
Norwich Superintendent Abby Dolliver and the Norwich school board are awaiting a June 4 City Council vote on the 2012-13 school budget. The board's request of $71.5 million budget was cut to $69.1 million by the city manager. Dolliver hopes the City Council will restore some of the request.
If the 55 students projected to attend TRA next year instead enroll in a new NFA transitional program, the cost would be about $1.3 million at $25,000 per student.
The NFA board is expected to schedule a special meeting for early June to consider the proposal. Rich Rand, NFA chief financial officer, said renovations to the Sachem Street building would cost $2.5 million, including replacing heating and ventilation systems, replacing walls, floors and windows and realigning the front entrance to create a bus loop and covered entrance.
If the work can't be done on time, the program could start at Bishop School where TRA is now, and move into the new building later in the 2012-13 school year, Rand said.
If the partnership is approved by both boards, Klein would spend the summer hiring teachers and a program administrator.
If the partnership doesn't happen, then Dolliver would interview the eight candidates for TRA principal and make curriculum and program changes required by the state.
TRA staff, students and parents also have little time to consider their own options for next year. Dolliver recently met separately with staff and students at TRA. She said she tried to assure students that the school system would have a place for them come fall. She invited them to Tuesday's meeting to hear the NFA presentation.
Dean Browning would be entering his senior year at TRA in fall. He said he is confused and undecided about the changes and wants to hear more. Browning feels TRA currently "isn't going anywhere," but he doesn't want to lose some of the teachers he respects.
Browning is a budding artist and is interested in checking out NFA's many art offerings. In March, he was one of two "Best in Show" winners at the Norwich Art Center's Rising Artists exhibit. Browning won a wall in the NAC gallery and has sold some of his pieces.
"I would of course see if I would like it," he said of the NFA art program.
Dean's father, Jerry Browning, is chairman of the Thames River Academy School Governance Council. Given the shortcomings identified in the audit report, Jerry Browning doubts that Norwich could improve the school enough.
But he has many questions about the NFA proposal and will try to get other parents to attend Tuesday's presentation.
He is concerned that the teachers who helped Dean succeed won't be at the new program. He also wants to make sure the students in the transitional program would be given the same opportunities as other NFA students on an educational and social basis.
"I think that I'd like to hear more about it," Jerry Browning said, "find out what the classes are going to be like, particularly the social aspect, the guidance counselor aspect, the things that TRA didn't have. … I do not want the kids to get lost at NFA. There are some questions that I need to ask. If you're talking about a partnership or a merger with NFA, I want to keep the model that TRA has, with the resources that NFA has."