New Norwich school residency officer has busy first two months

Norwich — During his 22 years as a Norwich police officer, retired detective Sgt. Ed Peckham enjoyed most the nitty gritty detective work, “putting the pieces together” to solve a crime or resolve a mystery.

Peckham has returned to the work of surveillance, tailing cars, tracing mail and interviewing people in his new position as the Norwich Public Schools’ first residency/attendance officer. Superintendent Kristen Stringfellow created the position in November in the hopes of resolving questions about whether some students attending Norwich schools or Norwich Free Academy as Norwich residents actually resided in the city.

In the second aspect of the job, Peckham visits with families of Norwich students who are chronically absent from school, defined by the state as absent 10% of the school year without excuses. Norwich tracks chronic absenteeism on a quarterly basis, which is defined as students who miss 4.5 days of the 45-day marking quarter, Stringfellow said.

In responding to both residency and attendance issues, Peckham, unlike many school officials, can leave the building and visit students’ homes and meet parents there to discuss reasons for frequent absences or residency questions.

Stringfellow said the $58,000 salary for the new position paid for itself in just the first week in cost savings, such as avoided future high school tuition costs for children deemed not legal Norwich residents or support services needed for specific students.

“I’ve done it in every school district I been in,” Stringfellow said of the residency officer position. “It’s unusual to me not to have it (in Norwich), but we’ve been cutting the budget so much, a lot of essential positions have gone by the wayside.”

Stringfellow is enacting another new policy this spring in which families of all eighth-grade students must provide proof of Norwich residency as they confirm their high school choices with Norwich school officials. Norwich pays tuition to most high schools on the list of choices for Norwich students, including Norwich Free Academy and several other town high schools and magnet schools.

Stringfellow said Norwich schools are crowded and adding even a few out-of-district students could be costly, if it tips a classroom enrollment to the point where a paraeducator must be added or the class needs to be split into two and another teacher hired. Students with special needs, behavioral or medical support services also add to costs.

The number of cases changes daily. By Wednesday afternoon, 42 residency question cases had been referred to Peckham since November. Of those, 28 had been resolved with 24 students deemed to be legal Norwich residents. Peckham found that four students were not legal Norwich residents and were transferred to schools in Groton, Montville, Griswold, and one teenager to New London Adult Education.

In another case, a family requested a residency hearing, which was held this past Tuesday before the Board of Education Residency Committee. Board members Yvette Jacaruso, Patricia Staley and Kevin Saythany sit on the committee, with Mark Kulos as an alternate. The student was determined to be a Preston resident, Stringfellow said, and will be transferred to that school district.

Stringfellow stressed that school officials never question or confront a student with residency questions.

Families have given a variety of reasons for wanting to stay in Norwich schools, Peckham and Stringfellow said. Some don’t want to disrupt their children’s education following a move to another town. Some feel Norwich school services are better for their children. Some want the high school choices Norwich provides.

Peckham keeps a chart with the Norwich Free Academy tuition charges for regular and special education at his desk in his tiny office in the Bishop Early Learning Center School.

“If parents say ‘What do I do? My kid has been going to NFA for three years,’” Peckham said, “I tell them they can pay the tuition to stay there.”

Stringfellow said for children receiving special accommodations, for physical or medical needs for example, Norwich school officials emphasize that their home school districts must by law provide the same accommodations. Norwich school officials will work with the family and the home school district to discuss each student’s specific needs, she said.

In all five transfer cases, Norwich school officials will work with the home districts to ensure the student’s transfer is done smoothly, Stringfellow said.

“I understand that, as a parent,” Stringfellow said of a parent’s concerns about needed services. “Be truthful with us, and we’ll make sure the children get the support they need. If that means staying in Norwich, then they can be tuition students to stay in the Norwich schools. And it is quite complimentary that families want to stay in Norwich schools.”

Stringfellow said information on possible residency questions comes from many sources. Young children might tell a teacher or school staff person that he or she lives “far away” and maybe mom or dad or grandma had to drive the student to school, and that’s why he or she is late that day. Residents in a neighborhood might notice a school bus dropping off a student who doesn’t live in the neighborhood. Mail sent by the school to a Norwich address might be returned as undeliverable.

An anonymous tip line, (860) 859-5015, ext. 2138, is listed on the school website, www.norwichpublicschools.org. Peckham said the phone, which sits on a filing cabinet behind his chair, doesn’t ring but goes straight to voicemail. He gets email alerts when there is a message.

“It’s totally anonymous,” Peckham said, “unless someone wants to give their name.”

Peckham said his long-time skills and experience as a Norwich police detective are coming in handy in his new position. He might end up coming to a school and watching a parent or guardian drop off a student. He’ll track addresses and ideally, find out where they might live outside Norwich.

“I find out where they live and I go there early in the morning to follow them to school,” Peckham said.

So far, those drives have been from Willimantic, Ledyard and New London, he said. Sometimes a visit to a Norwich home confirms the child lives there, with a bedroom, clothes, toys, school supplies and personal items.

But Peckham said other police skills come in handy as well, like being personable and talking calmly to parents.

“So far, everyone has been really great,” Peckham said, “even the parents who I find don’t live where they should. Parents have been very understanding. I’ve always had the ability to talk to people. It’s a lot like what I used to do.”

c.bessette@theday.com

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