Hartford - With the state Board of Education's approval Thursday of a three-year turnaround plan for the John B. Stanton Elementary School in Norwich, school officials are poised for what they called "herculean" efforts to improve student and teacher performance and parent and community involvement.
The pre-K through fifth-grade school is one of the first four schools to become part of the Commissioner's Network, which will eventually include 25 of the state's lowest-performing schools.
"It seems odd that we would be thanking people because we've been noted as one of the lowest performing schools in the district, but we're thrilled to be able to make a difference in the lives of our students and their families with this designation," Superintendent of Schools Abby Dolliver told the state board.
The three-year, 63-page plan for the school - in a district with the state's ninth-lowest standardized test scores - will focus on academic improvements and school climate and must also address the school's low performance on standardized test scores. The plan was drafted this summer under an effort that Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor said was "really remarkable to see because it's been truly from scratch."
"There is a great need (for the plans) at each of these schools. I'm pleased that the stakeholders at the local level have taken so seriously this process that has a real chance of creating momentum at these schools that for too long have not shown progress," Pryor said.
Turnaround plans also were unanimously approved for Hartford, Bridgeport and New Haven.
For additional support, the state plans to provide each of the first four designated schools in the network with between $1 million and $1.5 million a year to help carry out their plans.
Dolliver said that a majority of the $1.5 million provided to the school by the state will be used for new personnel to help meet the goals outlined in the plan.
The Stanton School's plan includes ways to improve the quality and effectiveness of the family and community connection to the school, student attendance and punctuality and the percentage of students enrolled in the school-based health center. The school also plans to open a Greeneville satellite office, launch a summer language immersion program for students who speak Spanish and Haitian Creole and extend instructional time throughout this school year, beginning in the second semester.
In a district sandwiched by two of the country's largest casinos, Dolliver said that besides English, the main languages spoken in the district are Chinese, Spanish and Haitian Creole but that there are a total of 35 languages, broken down into many dialects.
The district has made adjustments to meet the challenge of providing additional multi-language support for students and parents and most recently hired a Chinese translator. Twenty percent of the Stanton School's approximately 418 students are not fluent in English, and parental involvement has been limited due in part to parents' work schedules, transportation and language barriers.
"Our demographics are all varied, but we feel that everybody can learn, but we need the resources for us to get there and this (designation) will do that for us," Dolliver said. "We have to test the kids no matter what. Some kids come in and there is only social English spoken in their homes; it's the other deeper meaning, reading comprehension, that's harder to grasp and teach."
Thomas St. George, a teacher at Kelly Middle School in Norwich and a member of the Turnaround Committee, said that the district plans to add student work to the Stanton School's website to attract parents who speak different languages. He said technology will draw parents in if they know their child's work has been published online.
"Adding student work on the website engages parents and increases parent involvement and also involves their family in other countries to participate in their education," St. George said.
State Board Chairman Allan B. Taylor noted that the school, despite its challenges, has 90 percent of its parents coming to parent teacher conferences in the spring.
"That is a remarkably strong number. You're really building this turnaround on something that is already quite strong in your system. You're poised to take off here," Taylor told Dolliver.
The creation of the Commissioner's Network came with the recent signing of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy's education reform legislation. The new law allows Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor to intervene in 25 of the state's lowest-performing school districts. According to the network guidelines, most of the selected schools will participate for the 2013-14 and 2014-15 school years, but a limited number will be considered to join the for 2012-13 year.