After losing more than 160 certified staff last school year—48 of them in May and June alone—Norwich educators have taken their case to state legislators, state agency investigators, and the press.
“We are operating in an atmosphere of abusive leadership and fear of retaliation,” one Norwich educator said in a meeting with lawmakers organized by CEA last week. “And it shows,” she added. “We are hemorrhaging teachers.”
Dozens of Norwich educators met with Representative Kevin Ryan and Senator Cathy Osten about ongoing and deepening concerns with their district’s superintendent and assistant superintendent, which include chronic special education violations that deprive students of the services they need, retaliatory behavior against teachers and certain principals, and other serious issues shortchanging Norwich students and leading to high staff turnover. Discussions with other elected officials are planned in the coming days.
Pattern of abuse
Osten and Ryan pointed out that they were familiar with complaints about Superintendent Kristen Stringfellow and gave assurances that they will stand with teachers in their fight for better leadership. Before being hired by Norwich in 2019, Stringfellow was under investigation in her previous district, in Rhode Island.
“We are 100% invested in Norwich schools, and we are not leaving,” one teacher told lawmakers. “But our situation is dire, and the fear of retaliation is real. Our teacher retention rate is one of lowest in the state, and both our exit surveys and districtwide school climate surveys find that 89% of Norwich teachers feel their job security depends on their remaining silent on the issues, and 95% fear retaliation from the superintendent and assistant superintendent if they speak up.”
In open-ended survey comments spanning more than 100 pages, teachers consistently describe a climate of fear and an eroding school environment. Among their comments:
“Special education students aren’t getting their services and their needs met. This is the worst district and most poorly run central office I have ever worked for. I didn’t want to leave, but I have to for my own mental health.”
“The school environment feels very tense, and everyone feels as though if they were to speak about any issues they are going to get in trouble.”
“I am deeply concerned about the future of Norwich Public Schools. If we do not make some serious changes, I fear that we will continue to lose staff members, and our schools will continue to decline.”
“With the loss of paraeducators and social workers, student behaviors have escalated. Some of these behaviors have resulted in classes having to evacuate because students are throwing objects, making it unsafe. Students often don’t feel safe, making it more challenging to teach and have students grow as learners when nothing is being done to curb behaviors.”
“Stringfellow and Tamara operate on a system of fear. It undermines teachers’ beliefs about themselves. Stringfellow does not care about us and that is felt every day. She comes into schools, and the whole building feels tense.”
“I have been working in NPS for years and have never felt more scared for my job than I do now. The superintendent and assistant superintendent are, plainly said, SCARY. They do not look out for teachers. They look out for ‘friends’ they have hired into the district in every role: sub, teacher, principals, etc.”
“Principals in the various schools are so scared, frightened, and fearful of the superintendent that they don’t have any autonomy over their own school to make and implement procedures, schedules, and other important decisions. This is a detriment, because each school has different needs, and the principals have little say. It’s all closely monitored. If a school administrator pushes back, the superintendent will retaliate.”
Parents echo concerns
Teachers are not the only ones raising concerns and demanding change.
Less than two years into Stringfellow’s tenure, parents began sounding the alarm about the current administration. A petition that garnered nearly 1,000 signatures stated, in part, “Since her contract began in July of 2019, Kristen Stringfellow has run our schools into the ground. She has forced students to change schools needlessly, run good teachers and administrators out of town, and covered up violence taking place within the school walls and on buses. Parents have been left in the dark…We aren’t given any communication from the school about safety issues our children are faced with every day and we are ignored by Mrs. Stringfellow when concerns are brought up. We have lost our amazing principals, staff and teachers due to her leadership. Our schools in some cases have no math, history and language arts teachers! The principals that she has placed in positions are underqualified and ill-prepared.”
Not backing down
In their meeting with legislators and colleagues, teachers ranging from those with three years of experience in the district to more than 30 wore “We Are Norwich” stickers and shirts and pledged to stand strong as a union.
“I found my home here,” said one educator, “and I want to fight for it.”
CEA is preparing to take action at the state agency level to address specific violations related to Norwich administrators. Educators also plan to meet with board of education and town council candidates ahead of election season to ensure the city’s decisionmakers are aware of their concerns and committed to addressing them.
“We stand with the Norwich Teachers League in their fight for a school environment where educators and students are supported,” says CEA President Kate Dias. “Their story points to the value of union solidarity and the importance of electing pro-education candidates to our local boards of education, town councils, state legislature, and beyond.”