Norwich — State Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor on Tuesday helped Norwich school officials kick off the second straight year of great change for the public school system, participating in state-funded reform efforts and possibly launching two magnet elementary schools "any day now."
The school system is awaiting approval of its Alliance District plan that includes $2.3 million in additional state funding. The John B. Stanton School already has received its $1 million Commissioner's Network School grant.
Superintendent Abby Dolliver said the John M. Moriarty School and Wequonnoc School are part of a regional federal grant application to become magnet schools — Moriarty as an environmental science school and Wequonnoc for arts. The schools hope to learn soon about start-up grants.
The school district also this year expanded full-day kindergarten to all seven elementary schools, using Alliance and Network grant money to pay for the program in five schools. The district relocated nearly all preschool classes to the Bishop School as the new Early Learning Center.
"When I say we are redesigning our whole district from the foundation up, I mean it," Dolliver told several hundred teachers and support staff at Tuesday's convocation conference on the eve of today's school opening. "Our foundation starts below sea level, and we are redesigning our entire school district."
Pryor told Norwich school staff that he is playing "just a small role" in the school district's efforts and called this a "challenging year." Norwich is starting to implement the new so-called Common Core curriculum and is preparing for new standardized testing that will replace the CMTs. New teacher and administrator evaluations also will be launched this year, Pryor said.
The state Department of Education has not yet approved Norwich's Alliance District plan but last week released $360,000 in partial funding to hire staff needed for the start of school. Pryor said Tuesday the final plan could be approved soon, along with the remaining $2 million grant.
Pryor told a story of a young girl who was an accomplished musician by age 9 but suffered from debilitating seizures. Three surgeries removed half her brain to end the seizures, and the girl picked up the violin and continued where she had left off.
Pryor quoted a neurologist describing the case: "Youth recover quickly because their neurons haven't decided yet what they want to do when they grow up."
"Ladies and gentlemen, our children are amazing," Pryor said. "What a privilege it is for us to work with the young people of the city of Norwich."
Tuesday's opening session was not without fun and humor. Teacher of the Year Elisha Millerd Lewis was introduced through a lively video to the song "Let's Work Together" that starred dozens of students enrolled in summer programs, Norwich 4-H Club members and their animals, teachers, custodians, Board of Education members and Dolliver dancing to the song.
Forgoing a conventional speech, Millerd Lewis, the music teacher at Teachers' Memorial Middle School, asked her colleagues to pull out their smartphones and engage in an online quiz about use of technology in the classroom.
She showed them interactive educational websites that instantly reward positive student behavior and programs that help create videos that she often uses in her classroom. Millerd Lewis invited others to try it, urging them not to be afraid of new technologies the kids love.
"I encourage you to try something new in your classrooms," she said.