Published June 30, 2019
By Claire Bessette

Norwich — About a week ago, school Superintendent Abby Dolliver got a phone call at 1 a.m. from Norwich police that an alarm kept going off at one of the school buildings.

The dispatcher apologized for disturbing her and said: “Happy retirement!”

“I won’t miss those calls,” Dolliver said last week, nor the 4 a.m. winter weather calls with fellow superintendents in the region.

Dolliver’s last day in the office was Friday, and her successor, former South Kingstown, R.I., Superintendent Kristen Stringfellow will move in on Monday. Dolliver cleaned out her personal items and received many farewell wishes throughout the week. Dolliver donated many of the children's books in her office book case to city elementary school libraries. She offered the adult leadership and education books to school staff. Others will travel halfway across the world with American Friends of Kenya.

“It’s just been so honoring,” Dolliver said of the numerous tributes. “It’s just me, I’m not someone special.”

One final tribute brought tears to her eyes. An old friend and colleague from her days in the East Lyme school district, Lloyd Johnson, now special education director in Voluntown, arrived with a guitar. He played and sang Bob Dylan's “Forever Young.”

Central office staff gathered at the door to watch and listen.

During a retirement gala June 13, the Community Foundation of Eastern Connecticut gave Dolliver a $1,000 donation to a youth program of her choice. She divided the money between the Madonna Place in Norwich, which serves parents with young children, and the Thames River Family Program, a homeless shelter for families.

The nearly $1,000 in proceeds from the gala was donated to the Norwich Public Schools Education Foundation, and the Dolliver family has established the Abby I. Dolliver Family Fund, through the Community Foundation of Eastern Connecticut to support youth programs. Dolliver will take applications for funding from various youth programs in the Norwich area.

“To me, anything that supports our schools, our kids, is a good thing,” Dolliver said.

Following her parents’ — Stanley and Pauline Israelite — example, Dolliver will remain active in the community. She will become chairwoman of the United Community and Family Services Board of Directors this fall. And she will find something in education, perhaps mentoring, and will never stop reading to children, one of her joys.

Dolliver had a rocky start as superintendent. As interim superintendent in March 2010, a month before her permanent appointment, she and her staff were forced to close at least one elementary school in a budget crunch.

“It can’t be Greeneville,” they kept saying. But that building needed the most work, had no parking and couldn’t be expanded. Dolliver reluctantly closed the beloved neighborhood school, an integral community center for many immigrant families. “I still hear from people about that,” she said.

Annual budget fights ensued. In addition to Greeneville, Norwich closed Bishop elementary school and William A. Buckingham as the adult education center, a special education school, shifted middle school grades at times, combined some grades and increased class sizes over the years.

A $145 million renovation and consolidation plan for long-term savings was rejected by the City Council in May 2017. A second school facilities committee is working on a new proposal. Stringfellow will take Dolliver's seat as an ex-officio committee member. Dolliver counts lack of progress on a long-term plan as one of the biggest disappointments of her tenure.

Dolliver said she feels there is a general lack of respect for city schools. Schools were often omitted from economic development and city planning. Schools were not included in meetings to write a Plan of Conservation and Development several years ago until Dolliver intervened.

The City Council planned an economic development retreat without inviting school leaders. A community center study committee didn’t include schools, although they are used for many activities.

“I don’t think it should be a blame game every year,” Dolliver said of the budget. “We say we’re going to work together, and every year we don’t. … I know money’s tight, but I don’t feel the commitment to education.”

Dolliver also made sure the public schools were included in the annual Native Son/Daughter Award presentation, because most recipients attended city schools. In January, middle school students were included for the first time in the Norwich NAACP’s annual Martin Luther King Day luncheon celebration at Norwich Free Academy.

In response to tight city budgets, Norwich schools aggressively pursued state and federal grants. Norwich has received about $4 million per year through former Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s Alliance District school improvement program. Four city schools received additional state funding as Commissioner’s Network or turnaround schools.

And Norwich received four federal grants to convert the Wequonnoc and Moriarty elementary schools and the two middle schools into themed intra-district magnet schools.

About 40 percent of total school staff is grant-funded. Technology and even instructional supplies were purchased with grants. Dime Bank recently donated computers and office furniture to the city schools.

The funding has helped, as no Norwich schools will be deemed “turn-around” schools needing additional state help in the coming year. Dolliver thanked teachers and school staff for enormous extra effort needed to comply with strict grant requirements to design and follow school improvement plans that have become models in the state.

“I feel really happy,” Dolliver said. “Maybe our test scores don’t show it, but I know the kids are getting a lot out of their education here, and their families too.”

She also thanked the boards of education she has worked with in the past nine years for supporting all the grant efforts and for putting party politics aside.

“I feel so blessed to have good boards,” she said. “Together we made a commitment to the students, to meet the needs of our kids.”