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    Sunday, April 14, 2024

    Norwich scrambles to assign school buildings by opening day

    Norwich ― Amanda Gonzales was at work Aug. 28, when she received an automated email from Veterans’ Memorial School offering an after-school program for her 6-year-old daughter, who was supposed to attend Samuel Huntington School.

    “And nobody (at central office) even told me they switched her school,” Gonzalez said last week.

    A summer of turmoil over budget cuts and rapid changes to preschool plans is now causing a last-minute scramble as schools reopen Tuesday.

    Gonzalez said she and her four children moved from Colchester to Norwich last year to escape an abusive relationship.

    Her traumatized daughter was scared to go to school, eventually consenting after much coaxing and counseling by teachers, a social worker and the principal at Huntington School.

    Her daughter was excited to start school at Huntington and show her music teacher the new songs she had learned this summer.

    Gonzalez fired off an emotional email plea to the Board of Education.

    “I am begging, with tears in my eyes dropping on my keyboard as I type this, to please put Eviana Gonzalez, age 6, first grade, back at Huntington with the people who have become her biggest cheerleaders and supports,” she wrote. “She has come so far with their guidance, and completely understanding to the fact that school is necessary. I am in a much better place this year than last.”

    Gonzalez praised Huntington Principal Peter Fragola and his staff, saying they all should receive awards for how well they helped her troubled daughter feel safe and want to go to school.

    Gonzalez spoke with Superintendent Kristen Stringfellow on Thursday, and her request to keep her daughter at Huntington was denied, she said.

    Enrollment information provided by the district showed two first-grade classes at Huntington are closed, with 25 and 26 students enrolled.

    Norwich Public Schools went with a post-Labor Day start of school this year, a change from a longstanding practice of opening the week before Labor Day. Assistant Superintendent Tamara Gloster said attendance prior to Labor Day has been spotty, and the district will focus on improving attendance this year, starting with opening week.

    The summer started with June budget cuts that led the school district to close the Bishop Early Learning Center and consolidate administrative offices there to save more money. But initial plans to shrink preschool to minimally required, half-day classes drew public outcry and objections from state and local preschool advocates. The state provided a $600,000 additional school readiness grant to augment preschool in Norwich.

    Stringfellow moved the suddenly expanded preschool classes into four aging and already cramped elementary schools, four at Huntington, six at John Moriarty, three at Veterans’ Memorial and two at Thomas Mahan. Combined, they can serve up to 400 preschool students in a mixture of 10-hour full day, six-hour school day or half-day classes.

    The moves now limit space for older elementary school students, forcing the shift of students to other schools if classes are full.

    Speaking during the staff convocation day on Thursday, Stringfellow said keeping class sizes down will be a priority this year. Sections with class sizes in the high 20s are closed.

    “While it is very difficult to maintain equity among class sections in Norwich, because there is a wide variability in the number of families with young children in each school boundary zone, I want you to know that class size matters to me,” Stringfellow told the gathering. “I work directly with registration and we close sections or open sections on a weekly basis all summer long, all year long, in order to attempt to equalize class size throughout the district and to keep class sizes as low as possible.”

    Classes for first, fourth and fifth grades at Huntington already are closed with 25 or 26 students and no plans to add new sections. First grade at Mahan, third grade at Uncas and fourth grade at Veterans’ were approaching capacity. Closed classes mean new families moving into those neighborhood school districts will be shifted to other schools.

    Parent Yessenia Walker spent last week emailing back and forth with school officials pleading for an exemption to allow her daughter to attend fourth grade at Huntington. Her daughter had a difficult time adjusting to school, and like Gonzalez, she praised the Huntington staff for helping her daughter feel comfortable there.

    Walker’s daughter attended second and third grade at Huntington, and “my daughter’s child care is literally across the street from Huntington school,” she said. Walker goes to work at 8 a.m., too early to wait for the bus to Uncas School, her neighborhood district. She was denied a request to have the bus pick up her daughter at her current child care center to go to Uncas.

    She next will try to switch to Mahan School, with an earlier bus run.

    “They’re not giving me any options,” Walker said. “There’s no day care options. A lot of parents are in this situation. You can’t even provide the transport, nothing?”

    c.bessette@theday.com

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