Norwich – A year ago when cooking class started, Anthony Nagel lingered outside the small kitchen at Norwich Transition Academy, claustrophobia overcoming his love of hot and spicy food.
Nagel, 21, of Danielson, in his final year of the post-secondary vocational training program, is now all-in when it’s time to cook.
Thanks to a federal court ruling that requires Connecticut to provide education for students with learning disabilities until age 21 — not ending on their 21st birthday — Norwich Transition Academy had to relocate that year in larger premises to accommodate the increase in enrolment. The program is aimed at Norwich students and fee-paying students from across the region.
Last summer, the program moved from Hickory Street School, a former convent in Greeneville, to the former Case Street Early Learning Center at 30 Case St., once a banquet hall. The building includes a commercial kitchen similar to restaurant kitchens that students will find in possible future jobs, spacious classrooms, private consulting offices, an activity room and dining room, and outdoor grounds for a garden and a picnic area.
“I think it’s a 10 out of 10,” Nagel said, evaluating his new school.
The program director, Thomas Dufort, agreed. And now, with the easing of COVID-19 restrictions, the NTA is ready to show the space to parents, the school board, city leaders, representatives of the job site companies that employ the students , potential new employment partners and the public.
The school will hold an open house from 5:30-7 p.m. Wednesday at 30 Case Street. The students will bake cookies and muffins, and Dufort will buy coffee and donuts for the guests. Participants will tour the school and learn about its vocational training, life skills and independent living programs.
Dufort said he hopes families with students eligible for enrollment will attend.
COVID-19 anxieties are still affecting the program. Last summer, 36 students were identified for the voluntary post-secondary program, but Dufort said more than a dozen never participated. Some lost interest when the programs went online at the start of the pandemic, making it difficult for students to get the hands-on vocational courses. Some never started the online sessions.
The Norwich Transition Academy combines academics with life and professional skills, with individual and group lessons. The program has two teachers and seven employment counsellors, two of whom are currently vacant. Professional coaches accompany students to their gainful employment in local supermarkets, restaurants, casinos, Advanced Auto Parts in Norwich, Tamarack Lodge in Voluntown and other locations.
Last Wednesday, teacher Alison Orcutt reviewed maths lessons with new pupil Gabriella Musella, 18, from Norwich. Math is important for jobs that require students to measure kitchen ingredients or retrieve a specific number of supplies from a store, Dufort said.
In the kitchen, several students, under the direction of teacher Sarah Falcone, chopped fruits and vegetables and cooked sausages for the day’s “breakfast for dinner” omelettes and fruit.
The central work table in the kitchen can accommodate four students, while others cook at one of the two stoves or the hot plate. The kitchen has triple sinks, one for soap, one for rinsing and one for sanitizing, required for commercial kitchens. Students will find the system familiar when working in local restaurants, Dufort said.
A stacked washer dryer stands in a corner next to a laundry rack. Students wash and iron their work uniforms every morning. Each student has a tall, narrow locker for hanging uniforms and a separate, wider locker for backpacks and personal effects.
Students must learn to navigate public transport to live independently. About twice a week, students and teachers take a bus from the southeast area on Case Street to shop at Walmart, Target, and other stores. They compare the prices of clothing, food, housekeeping and items. They learn bus schedules, fares and how to change buses to get to work and home.
They also take the SEAT bus to Mohegan Park for disc golf or Old Tymes Restaurant for lunch outings, Dufort said.
The goal, Dufort said, is for students to grow into independent adults, take jobs and manage money to see if they can afford a car or an apartment.
While the court ruling requires the state to provide education until their 22nd birthday, Dufort hopes state officials will authorize a change that would allow them to stay through the current school year. Now students “age” as soon as they turn 22, rather than completing the school year. They graduate and leave, some continuing with adult services through the state’s Department of Developmental Services.
Some students also leave early if they’re ready to seek full-time jobs or are hired for jobs, Dufort said. They receive their diplomas.
Dufort invites graduates back for the graduation barbecue at Tamarack Lodge in Voluntown. But they have to find their own means of transport. Graduates are not allowed to use school transportation and teachers cannot transport them, Dufort said.
“Hopefully that will change to run until the end of the school year,” Dufort said. “The school year ends in June.”