Published Jun 27, 2019
By Anna Maria Della Costa
NORWICH – Abby Dolliver’s office, once packed to the brim with books and keepsakes, dotted with plants and a nook for snacks – stashes for the hundreds of meetings held at the large conference table – is all but empty.
An M&M candy jar is the only token left.
“It’s like a shell,” Dolliver said during her final week as superintendent of Norwich Public Schools. “There’s nothing here that’s really me except my M&M jar. I bought a new one for whoever wants to own it. And they did. One of the departments took it on.”
Dolliver, the champion for nine years of a district that’s seen its fair share of struggles, is reflective. On Friday, she’ll turn in her keys and ID and leave the district’s central office at 90 Town St.
“I’ve always been the type of person who likes to know what’s next,” she said. “This is just a little awkward because it’s hard to know what’s next. I’ll find the right thing. It’s just hard to let go. But I’m ready. It’s time.”
Abby Dolliver, 66, Norwich superintendent of schools, is retiring from education after 25 years in the city school system - nine as its leader.
Dolliver announced in December that she was retiring after more than three decades working in education, 25 of those in Norwich’s public school system and nine as its superintendent.
The 65-year-old – she turns 66 on Tuesday – was named superintendent in 2010 and her tenure began with one of the worst budget seasons in years at the time. The trend continued: Dolliver oversaw tighter and tighter budgets, the closure of three elementary schools, programs cut and the reconfiguration of the middle schools.
A few Board of Education members dubbed her the “Energizer Bunny.”
‘Change isn’t a bad thing’
On May 28, Dolliver tweeted photos of the Global Studies Magnet Middle School spring concert and wrote: “Awesome drumming and instrumental music....#Letsgoband!”
Dolliver never missed a concert since the district re-instituted music. She’d start her day at 6 a.m. and walk the halls at Kelly STEAM Magnet Middle School before heading to her office around 6:30 a.m.
She tried to leave around 6 p.m., making sure everything ran smoothly with buses and after-school programs, among other things. She always attended Norwich City Council meetings.
“The thing I loved the most was when I went to the schools,” Dolliver said. “I loved watching the kids getting off and getting on the bus.”
Dolliver grew up in Norwich, the daughter of noted local businessman and civic leader Stanley Israelite. She first joined Norwich Public Schools in 1986, taking a position as a school social worker. In 1999, Dolliver left the district to work at the LEARN Regional Educational Service Center in Old Lyme. She came back to Norwich Public Schools in 2007 to assume the role of director of student services and special education. After briefly serving as interim superintendent, Dolliver was named the full-time superintendent in 2010.
Dolliver developed internal structures for committee work, ensured every person who worked for the district served in a role that best utilized their knowledge and skills and saw the development of the Norwich Public Schools Education Foundation. She’s also on the board of United Community and Family Services in Norwich.
“Her ability to always focus on the children, as well as value input from employees and citizens is remarkable,” Athena Nagel, the district’s business administrator, said. “The path she chooses is always in the best interest of the children.”
On Thursday, Dolliver credited others for her successes.
“It’s because of a very supportive board and staff that my career has been a good one,” she said. “It’s because of these people.”
Kristen Stringfellow, the long-time superintendent in South Kingstown, R.I., will take over in Norwich on Monday.
“I’ve been thinking about it,” Dolliver said. “A new voice wouldn’t be a bad thing. Change isn’t a bad thing. Sometimes a new voice can have other outcomes for certain struggles that we’ve had. I didn’t give up. I wanted to have time with family.
“This job is a lot of worry and responsibility. I had a 24-7 commitment to this job, and I was feeling the effects. If it’s not worrying about safety and the budget then it’s worrying about staffing. It was always at the front of my mind.”
Dolliver and her husband, Bill, who has been retired for several years, plan on taking a vacation soon. The couple have two sons, two daughters-in-law, three grandchildren and two granddogs.
“I’m going to take my time, but there are a lot of community groups that are looking for help,” Dolliver said. “I need to figure it out but I want to continue to engage in the community.”
Cynthia Beauregard, who works at Stanton Elementary School in the Family Resource Center, called Dolliver a great listener.
“She’s caring, compassionate and truly cares about the community and the families,” said Beauregard, who was named this year’s United Way Coordinator of the Year. “I admire Abby. She has a very special gift, and she has shared that gift throughout Norwich Public Schools. ‘We are all family’ is something Abby has said a few times. That’s what makes Abby such a great superintendent as she is truly passionate about her role.”
A long goodbye
In the weeks leading up to her last days, Dolliver has been inundated with messages, gifts and goodbye events.
“It’s hard. It’s emotional,” she said. “Everyone has been so kind. The things that people are doing and saying. I don’t see myself in that way. I see myself as me. You do what you do. It’s how you come across to people that you don’t always know.”
Dolliver said one community told her: “If it wasn’t for you, my daughter wouldn’t have graduated from high school.”
Various celebrations have honored Dolliver, including one at Lake of Isles when she was given a memory book and one colleague sang “Forever Young”.
“It was nice, and I didn’t let a lot of people talk,” she said, laughing. “I didn’t want a lot of yakking about me. I wanted people to visit and have fun.”
She didn’t accept a gift at that party. Instead, extra money – nearly $1,000 – was give to the NPS Education foundation.
The Community Foundation of Eastern Connecticut also is establishing the Abby I. Dolliver Family Fund, where money will go to a district program. The official description reads, in part: In honor of her June 2019 retirement as Superintendent of Norwich Public Schools and in recognition of her deep and abiding commitment to Norwich and its youth and families, the family of Abby Dolliver is creating a permanently endowed donor advised fund. ...The Fund’s primary purpose will be to support programs, services and organizations that benefit Norwich youth.”
“It came about as a few of our other Norwich fundholders and I talked about how this would be such a fitting, ‘living, breathing’ tribute to Abby as she retired,” Alison Woods, the vice president and chief development officer for the foundation, said.
Mayor Peter Nystrom has said the city owes Dolliver a huge thank you for all she has done for the school system and community, and Board of Education Chairwoman Yvette Jacaruso said she’ll miss a lot about Dolliver.
“Her honesty, fairness and kindness towards all people,” Jacaruso said. “Her love of the NPS students and the work they accomplish academically and socially. She looks at all sides of any issue before making a decision. She only wants the best performance from administrators, teachers and students. She listens to parental concerns and together they try to come up with a solution. ... We are going to miss her.”
And Dolliver will miss it all, too.
“We didn’t always have easy circumstances,” Dolliver said. “Our staff is phenomenal. You have to give them a lot of credit. This is kind of like my identity. That’s the part I have to get used to. Who will I be now?
“I cared about people. I cared about the kids. I cared about the families. That’s what I hope people will remember. Together, as a team, we made a difference.”