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Pandemic relief grants to bring sports, music programs to Norwich schools

Norwich — It took an act of Congress for Norwich middle school students to be able to play baseball and softball and for elementary students to learn clarinet or sing in school chorus.

For the past two decades, Norwich parents, school board members and administrators have lamented budget cuts that eliminated middle school sports, universal instrumental music, many after-school activities and clubs.

Occasional grants and donations supplied some instruments, and federal magnet school grants allowed the Kelly STEAM Magnet Middle School and Wequonnoc Arts & Technology Magnet Elementary School launch full-fledged arts and music programs. But other city schools lagged in music offerings, as sports equipment gathered dust in closets.

Superintendent Kristen Stringfellow recalled when she was hired in April 2019, former Superintendent Abby Dolliver drove her around the district and explained how budget cuts wiped out middle school sports, middle school band, elementary school chorus and string instruments.

“I remember driving home and thinking, my family members are all athletes,” Stringfellow said last week. “I wondered what their lives would be like without sports and how can I get this for our children, our students.”

Stringfellow put restoring sports and music programs in her strategic plan for Norwich schools. But her first attempt to bring back some middle school sports last spring failed, again due to budget and staffing cuts.

Last fall, Congress passed two coronavirus relief acts, with broad-based funding for school districts to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic school shutdowns and lost learning, especially social and emotional learning. In the second CARES Act, Norwich schools received $8.5 million in Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief, or ESSER II, and expects to receive $18.5 million in the American Rescue Plan, approved by Congress in March.

The funding is for three years, so the district plans to use as much of the grant as possible to purchase lasting equipment and to establish the programs in Stringfellow's long-term plan.

Stringfellow worked with Uncas School Principal Peter Camp and Wequonnoc School music teacher Megan Engelhardt to launch middle school sports, elementary school sports and sports skills for kindergarten to eighth grade, expanded music for all students in elementary and middle schools and noncompetitive physical fitness and clubs.

Stringfellow presented her plan for kindergarten through eighth grade to the Board of Education on Tuesday. Later in the week, she told The Day that preschool, too, will get age-appropriate musical instruments and equipment for individual and group physical and social activities.

Middle school competitive sports — with games against other middle schools in the region — will begin in fall with boys and girls cross country and soccer. Basketball will start in winter, and baseball and softball next spring. Wrestling could be added in winter 2022-23, and boys volleyball that spring. Girls volleyball could be added in fall 2023-24 with indoor track, lacrosse and outdoor track in spring 2024.

In addition, Norwich will partner with Connecticut Special Olympics to field elementary school Young Athletes programs and middle school Unified Sports teams, which combine students with and without special needs.

“I want to include all students, including students with needs,” Principal Camp said. “The Unified Sports program is an opportunity to do that. We’re casting a wide net and building it up. In year two, we’ll offer more sports and activities, more opportunities, more play.”

Students will be polled on a host of choices for intramural programs, ranging from Double-Dutch jump rope, step groups, flag football, street hockey, badminton, cheerleading and other physical activities. Clubs for board games, chess, choral, debate, math Olympics and Lego robotics are planned, depending on student interest. Paid advisers will be assigned once the clubs are chosen, Stringfellow said.

Students in kindergarten through second grade will focus on physical fitness, and grades three to five will focus on sports skills and teamwork activities.

Camp said he had been talking with Stringfellow since she started to try to ramp up after-school activities, but “COVID put a stop to that.” Camp was a teacher at Kelly Middle School when the schools had cross country and basketball in the early 2000s. When sports were eliminated, the district used small grants to have some after-school programs.

“It’s not the same as when they had teams and competed against other schools,” Camp said. “It was a team approach.”

Engelhardt is just as excited about adding chorus and instrumental music in all elementary and middle schools.

The school district already is looking to hire three additional music teachers, going from eight to 11 total. The federal grant will pay for $500,000 in musical instruments and equipment, including keyboard and guitar labs — sets for an entire class — ukuleles for younger students, recorders and middle school band instruments, music stands and chairs.

Once the program is in place, all city schools will have what 15-year Norwich veteran teacher Engelhardt now has through the magnet grant at the Wequonnoc arts magnet school.

“Ever since I’ve been here,” Engelhardt said, “it’s been hit or miss. We’ve had adds and cuts. At one point, I was one of the middle school band teachers. I’m so excited not just to offer band, but also adding chorus, which we haven’t had in fidelity for seven years.”

c.bessette@theday.com

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