Norwich – Some of them grew up in the city and attended the schools where they will now teach, while others only vaguely were familiar with the long history, complex demographics and financial challenges facing the schools where they will work.
About 30 new teachers, principals and school support staff boarded a school bus Monday for a 2 ½-hour tour of the city, its schools, key neighborhoods and historical points of interest as part of a day-long orientation session prior to the start of school.
The group got off the bus just in time to witness the peak of the solar eclipse, sharing the several pairs of special eclipse viewing glasses some participants brought along.
After a last-minute, $1.5 million school budget cut by the City Council in June, Norwich schools created no new positions this year. But the hired staff include teachers who filled positions left vacant by retirees and departed teachers or positions reconfigured after budget cuts. An example of the latter is Alex Choiniere, hired to serve as the new Kelly Middle School safety officer, a lower-cost position that replaced the cut school resource police officer.
Spanish teacher Stephanie Glenn, a 15-year teaching veteran, knows about budget cuts. She has been laid off twice in recent years, this year from the Groton school system after that district had to plan for a projected large cut in state education aid. Her high school teaching position first was eliminated and then reworked and filled by someone else, she said. Five years ago, her position in Waterford public schools also was cut.
She said she was thrilled to be teaching Spanish at the Teachers' Memorial Sixth Grade Academy in Norwich this year.
Monday's tour started at the Norwich Rose Garden at the edge of Mohegan Park. Participants had several minutes to meander through the aromatic displays before being ushered back onto the bus to head to the Moriarty Environmental Sciences Magnet School to see the school's outdoor classroom and butterfly garden.
Tour leader Sarah Fuchs, district administrator for professional learning, said she designed the tour so new teachers could become familiar with the community and the neighborhoods where many of their students live.
She started with a minute-long synopsis of Norwich history, listing founding fathers with names of Mason, Fitch and Huntington.
"You'll see those names all around town," she said.
She described the special relationship Uncas School has with the Mohegan tribe – ally and friend of Norwich settlers from the beginning.
Driving past the Ponemah Mill in Taftville, once the largest cotton manufacturing plant in the world, Superintendent Abby Dolliver said it's unclear how the renovations converting the mill into 116 apartments will affect Wequonnoc School, one of the city's smallest elementary schools. The apartments are expected to open this fall.
"Our students and families live in all these houses and all these streets," Dolliver said as the bus traversed the Greeneville former mill village, still dominated by mill housing.
Following the tour, Norwich Human Services Director Lee Ann Gomes gave the teachers an overview of the city's demographics and its many social challenges.
For Kylene Thompson, a new art teacher at the sixth grade academy, the tour was more of a homecoming. Thompson grew up in Norwich, daughter of former Norwich principal Christy Gilluly and now lives in a historic home on the Norwichtown Green and is married to the city's public works director, Ryan Thompson. A four-year teaching veteran, she had worked for Woodstock Academy, but wanted to come home.
"I wanted to work in my hometown," Thompson said. "I'm very proud of it."