Lamont: Everybody should know about 'amazing' Slater Memorial Museum at NFA

Feb. 1—NORWICH — Prepped only by state Sen. Cathy Osten's assertion that Slater Memorial Museum at Norwich Free Academy is "the best museum in the state," Gov. Ned Lamont on Wednesday walked into the main gallery of rare replicas of some of the world's most famous sculptures.

"You're right, Cathy. This is amazing!" Lamont said. "I thought you were being facetious."

"No, I'm not," said Osten, D-Sprague, a 1974 NFA graduate. "This is absolutely the best museum in the state."

Slater Museum, one of only two museums in the country located at a high school, recently underwent a major renovation, including restoration of the plaster casts and replacement of the slate roof.

Museum Director Dayne Rugh gave Lamont a preview before the museum reopens in spring with a new exhibit of Norwich African American artist Ellis Ruley's folk art paintings.

Rugh said Slater Museum opened in 1888 with 227 "exact duplicates" of the original iconic sculptures.

"Each of these casts has a unique story," Rugh said. "Each of them is irreplaceable. You can't duplicate art like this anymore, so it's quite literally irreplaceable."

NFA senior Carissa Testut, president of the Student Advisory Board, recalled an assignment in her freshman year to learn about one of the cast sculptures and write an essay about it.

"So not only do we learn in the classroom, we can use what's around campus to also learn," Testut said, "which I think is incredible since we are only one of two schools that have a museum."

"It's an amazing classroom you have here," Lamont said. "If you have somebody to tell you the story about these pieces, it brings it to life. ... I hope everybody knows about this. So, if you're traveling this part of the state, you know to visit."

Over the past 130 years, Slater expanded its collection of more than 10,000 pieces of artwork from around the world, tying art into the school's diversity education, Rugh said. The NFA Diversity office is in the Slater building.

Three students in the Diversity program, headed by Director Leo Butler, credited the program for helping them to succeed in school and in the community.

NFA 11th grader Naema Charles, president of the Norwich NAACP Robertsine Duncan Youth Council, told Lamont NFA mental health support helped her get through the COVID-19 pandemic.

Lamont made his first tour of NFA Wednesday, hearing from students in school-to-work nursing, EMT and manufacturing training and apprenticeship programs, student government leaders and students in NFA's Diversity program, which helps immigrant students acclimate to the school and American life.

Head of School Brian Kelly said he has had a long-standing invitation to the governor to visit NFA to see what the privately endowed academy, which serves as the designated high school for eight public school districts.

NFA receives no annual state Education Cost Sharing grants, as public school districts receive from the state budget. Local legislators, led by Osten, pushed to include NFA in the distribution of COVID-19 emergency funding to shift to remote learning and COVID recovery grants.

"It's frustrating that the endowed academies get lost in the shuffle," Kelly said prior to the governor's arrival. He said it's important to let state leaders know that 48% of NFA students qualify for free and reduced priced lunches and for them to see the diversity of the student body.

Following the Slater Museum tour, Kelly invited Lamont to stand at the second floor of the glass atrium to watch many of the school's 2,100 students walk past outside during a class change. Along with the ethnic diversity, Lamont noted the cultural differences, as some students were bundled in winter coats while others wore shorts.

Standing at the atrium window, Osten explained that NFA did not receive federal COVID-19 grants directly, but the General Assembly directed a portion of the state's school COVID-19 funding to NFA and charter schools in similar situations.

Lamont suggested NFA invite U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona, former Connecticut education commissioner, to discuss federal school funding issues.

"I think he would love this," Lamont said.