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Norwich — State Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor has been a regular fixture at the opening convocation for Norwich public schools staff, accepting the invitation to attend as guest speaker for three straight years.
One week after Pryor announced he would step down from the position at the end of December, he made his final convocation speech Tuesday to more than 700 Norwich school staff and supporters at the Kelly Middle School auditorium.
Along with Pryor’s appearance, the event featured its characteristic festive atmosphere combined with a motivational speech by the reigning teacher of the year, giveaways and even a T-shirt toss.
“In Norwich, one gets the warmest of feelings and gets the greatest energy in the entire state,” Pryor told the audience.
The annual morning event kicks off the school year, as teachers and administrators then attended afternoon professional development sessions to prepare for today’s opening day of school.
Norwich has been an early and repeat beneficiary of education reform programs initiated under Pryor’s supervision. Norwich is one of 30 Alliance Districts in line for several million dollars in school improvement funding, and the John B. Stanton School was one of the first four Commissioner’s Network schools three years ago.
Uncas School was added as a Commissioner’s Network School this year, ushering in its school turnaround plan with new staff and added positions, such as classroom interventionists, a family liaison coordinator and an improvement coordinator.
Superintendent Abby Dolliver said more than 50 percent of Uncas School staff is different this year, either new employees or transfers from other positions. A similar turnover occurred at Stanton three years ago when it became a Network School.
Some staff requested transfers, either into or out of Uncas, Dolliver said, while others were administrative changes or new hires.
“That’s to be expected,” Dolliver said. “Some was at their request, some we shifted.”
Throughout the school district, Norwich added about 50 new staff members, Dolliver said.
Including state Network and Alliance District funding, regular state school grants and federal grants, fully one-third of the Norwich public school staff is grant-funded.
Pryor said the state has been committed to the school improvement plans, and test scores are starting to show results. Stanton’s standardized test scores rose 6 points in one year after receiving funding, Pryor said. Alliance District funding to Norwich’s $3.89 million Alliance District grant this year is a 63 percent increase over last year, and a 220 percent increase over the initial 2012 grant, he said.
Teacher of the Year Lara Garber, a first-grade teacher at Samuel Huntington School, used a low-tech prop to engage her audience Tuesday. Garber, entering her 25th year as a Norwich schoolteacher, lifted a gift bag onto the podium with a happy face on one side and a frown on the opposite side. She turned the bag as she described the many surprises a teacher is likely to face in a typical school day or school year.
New math curriculum, frown face.
A new manageable size class of students, happy face. She quickly turned it around to the other side to mark how that teacher might react when several new students are added to the class.
“What other job can you go in every day and get a surprise?” Garber said. “In Norwich, some days have lots of surprises.”
Garber said last year, one boy in her class broke up into hysterical laughter — and the entire class joined him — whenever the word “nugget” showed up in a story. It could be a chicken nugget or a corn nugget. There was no turning back, Garber said, so she learned to avoid the word altogether until near the end of the school year, when an adventure story about Mount Rushmore turned into a gold mine story, and yes, someone found a gold nugget.
“The best thing is trying to figure out what you’re going to do with those surprises,” she told her colleagues.