Published March 01. 2014 4:00AM Updated March 01. 2014 7:32AM
Norwich - Billie Shea, principal of the John B. Stanton School, stumbled across a puzzling statistic two weeks ago when she prepared a status report on Stanton's second year as a state Network School.
Could it be that since the school year started in August, 91 new students have enrolled in the 390-student elementary school, and another 88 students have left the school, a 23 percent turnover in seven months?
Not only was this year's turnover rate accurate, but it has been compounded over the years. Only 12 of the current 61 fifth-graders at Stanton attended kindergarten there. And only 15 of the 67 third-graders were there in kindergarten.
Those statistics present a major obstacle in the effort to improve Norwich schools' performance on state-mandated tests taken each year in March, Superintendent Abby Dolliver said.
As a state Network School, Stanton received $1 million per year for the past two years to extend the school day, launch full-day kindergarten and hire classroom intervention instructors to improve students' academic performance.
Already, many of the students at Stanton who benefited from those programs no longer are at the school to take the state test in March. And a nearly equal number of new students have arrived from points across the city, the state and even the world in time for the test.
"It makes it difficult to compare (the same students) year to year," Shea said.
Stanton's reforms seem to be helping students who stayed at the school. Last spring's fourth-graders who were at Stanton in third grade improved their scores 7 to 10 percentage points in math, reading and writing.
As Shea prepared to meet with Dolliver Monday to discuss the enrollment statistics, she also handled three more student transfers earlier that morning. One student was moving in with grandparents out of town. A full-day kindergarten student was moving to the John M. Moriarty School in Norwich, where there might not be room in the one full-day kindergarten class. The school also has two half-day kindergarten classes.
And a third student was moving back to Massachusetts just three weeks after she had enrolled at Stanton.
Dolliver said students on the move are distracted by everything from trying to find their classrooms and cafeteria to getting to know new teachers and an entire new set of peers.
"It takes a little while to become part of a school," Dolliver said. "We reach out. We have family engagement. (The students) are trying to get their bearings. And then they move, or they've come from several moves."
Districtwide, 818 new enrollments were recorded from Aug. 28 to Feb. 19, when the statistics were compiled. Of those, 281 students, 43 percent, went to a different Norwich public school. Another 374 students, 57 percent, moved out of the school district.
"The biggest question for me is, how do we adapt our district to meet their needs?" Dolliver said of the transient student population.
This is the first time Norwich school officials have looked at transiency, so there are more questions than answers, Dolliver said. On the surface, enrollment appears stable at about 3,000 students for kindergarten through eighth grade. But that figure doesn't reflect that 44 percent of students moved in or out of one school or another, some students more than once.
Shea said she knows of one family at Stanton in which the father works construction and moves to warmer states during the winter. So that student might start and end the year at Stanton, and spend the winter months at a school in a southern state.
Jolea Cannon, student registrar at the school system's new central registration office, said she was surprised by the extent of transiency.
"It was that fifth-grade class (at Stanton) that really stood out," Cannon said. "And our overall enrollment doesn't really change. It's puzzling. It's absolutely puzzling. The amount of intra-district movement is puzzling, the kids who move within the city. There are just as many kids coming in as are leaving. It affects the continuity and learning at the school."
School officials have no control over social factors that could be causing moves - jobs, housing, family issues. According to statistics from the Norwich Community Development Office, 46 percent of the city's residential housing units are rentals, a total of 7,785, while 54 percent, or 9,145 units, are owner-occupied homes.
School officials are trying to ensure that students moving from one city school to another will at least recognize the classroom lessons. Kristie Bourdoulous, administrative literacy specialist, is working to integrate the new Common Core curriculum and standardized lesson plans throughout the district.
Bourdoulous said lessons are divided into units lasting 30 to 35 days for upper grades and about 25 days for lower level grades. The goal is to have all classes on the same schedule, switching to the next lesson unit at the same time. That way, if students move from one Norwich school to another, the lessons will be the same, including the biographies or fiction books that are being read.
But Shea said school is more than classroom lessons.
"When you pick a garden plant and move it to another spot in the yard, how long does it take for it to bloom again?" Shea said. "It takes a while to get acclimated."