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Norwalk schools culture seen as an obstacle to growth

Norwalk Assistant Special Education Administrator Joe Russo discusses the 2012 Capital Region Education Council report with the Norwalk Board of Education in early February.

NORWALK, Conn. – Norwalk’s public schools are “independent city states” with their own rules, with a strong faction of staff members who are resistant to change, according to a 2011 independent study by GE Capital.

The report is one of four recent studies (two done by one organization) that strike a consistent note: While there are many upsides to the school system, there are problems with its culture.

The reports, done over a period of five years, stand as a reminder of what the new Norwalk Public Schools superintendent will be up against when she or he takes the reins this summer.

The troubled culture is the reason former Superintendent Susan Marks resigned after two years in Norwalk, Board of Education Chairman Mike Lyons said.

“I think the primary reason Susan left is because she did not anticipate how hostile the powers that be in the school system – starting with the unions – would be toward her efforts to improve things,” he said in an email. “She came from a consensus-driven school system to Norwalk, where everything is a fight, and just decided it wasn’t the kind of environment that fit her.”

It’s an environment that is spelled out over and over in the studies:

 “There appears to be two groups of school administrators – insiders and outsiders. Insiders have been with the district for a long time and are holding on to the ‘NPS way’ of doing things; outsiders are new leaders (and often new to the district) who are challenging the current ways, suggesting new ideas, and calling for common direction, programing and networking across schools,” the GE Report states on page 12. The review was done in preparation to the transition to Common Core State Standards (CCSS).

 “The challenges facing the district are significant obstacles to overcome as the CCSS pushes forward in Connecticut. A number of these challenges are rooted in the very heart of the Norwalk Public Schools culture. We know that culture is difficult to change. Culture reflects the deep and lasting collective beliefs, assumptions and norms for how we need to behave around here in order to maintain the system. One cannot underestimate the power of obstacles and challenges to disrupt growth and forward momentum.” GE Report, page 20.

• The district culture and climate “is regarded by many people in schools, central office, and the community (including parents) as lacking in openness and authenticity. Many staff and parents feel undervalued, dis-empowered, and isolated. District senior leaders need to take action to improve the district’s culture, in part by improving communication as noted above.” Cambridge Education report, page 4, done in 2007.

 “All focus groups indicated that if someone did not agree with the decision of the person who had decision-making authority, they would ‘skip over’ that person and go to someone else who would most likely overrule the original decision. … The practice of shopping for a different decision is long standing, not specific to special education, and practiced by parents, building administrators, and central office staff. While getting the individual what they want, the practice leads to a lack of collaboration and communication and feelings of resentment in those involved and those who observe what they deem to be special treatment.” Capital Region Education Council (CREC) special education report, 2008, page 9.

 Members of the focus group said that sometimes the style of decision making gets them what they want but “overall they are frustrated with the way decisions are made, believing most decisions to be arbitrary, capricious and based on who you know, not what is best for the district or the students in the district.” 2008 CREC report, page 9.

 “The special education department meets regularly with union representatives. Although there is communication we see a lack of collaboration. It is disappointing to see the parties have not sought a ‘middle ground’ given that this lack of movement will hurt the students and staff in Norwalk.” 2008 CREC report, page 16.

 People are reluctant to express an opinion as they fear retaliation. That was true in every group involved, from parents to staff to administrators to the BOE. “Unfortunately when a negative culture like this exists for an extended time it erodes the organization and interferes with the ability of the organization to work together for the benefit of the students.” 2008 CREC report, page 16.

Norwalk BoE Feb. 5 2013 209

Norwalk interim Superintendent Tony Daddona listens as Peg MacDonalds presents the 2012 Capital Region Education Council (CREC) report to the Norwalk Board of Education on Feb. 5.

The 2008 CREC report makes a prediction:  “Until there is consistent adherence to the lines of authority and better collaboration and support between and among central office, the Board of Education, the union, and the schools, the recommendations in this report have little chance of success.”

CREC returned in 2012 and performed another review. Not much had changed, it said.

“The inconsistencies in process and inequities that exist from school to school are still a problem in the district,” the 2012 report states on page 10. “This has a huge affect on the parents and students who are uncertain of the level and quality of services from school to school.”

Board member Sue Haynie said the culture of the schools isn’t good for anyone.

“I’ve seen this ‘culture’ in action and it must change,” she said in an email. “It negatively impacts students, parents and staff, and the community as a whole. In its current iteration, it is regressive and works well only for  the ‘lucky and the brave.'”

As the BOE winds down its search for a new superintendent — expected to be announced on June 25 — Haynie said there is an opportunity to change the culture and put the schools back on track.

“I think a new, clear-eyed, reform-minded superintendent, supported by the  Board of Ed, all local Norwalk leadership and an invigorated Norwalk ACTS/STRIVE partnership,  can change this toxic mix.”

11 comments

EastNorwalkChick June 14, 2013 at 8:24 am

It is sad that our school system is like this, I’ve seen this type of culture in the private sector, “this is the way we’ve always done it” mindset. It will take a strong superintendent and time to change it, I wish whoever gets the job the best of luck, because they are going to need it.

Bruce Kimmel June 14, 2013 at 10:02 am

Nancy, very interesting and much needed article. I served on the BOE between 2005-2009, and one of my lasting memories was how the Cambridge Report was received in 2007. Without going into specifics, I was appalled as BOE staff members across the city pooh poohed it, trivialized it, and in general did not take it seriously. And this included the superintendent, who wrote a cover letter to the report that strongly suggested that the report was based more on “perceptions” than reality. Again, good article.

rburnett June 14, 2013 at 10:14 am

Lord help us!! Our children are the ones suffering. Time for sweeping change and reform. To all those elected and appointed officials I say; get working or get out!!! At least with the elected officials, we can dump them in November.

LWitherspoon June 14, 2013 at 11:17 am

If the vitriol, name-calling, and immaturity on display at http://norwalkspeaks.blogspot.com is any reflection of the prevailing culture in NPS, changing that culture would be a monumental accomplishment.
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I’m confident that the NPS teachers I know would view such behavior as beneath them. I hope people don’t start to think that “Norwalk Speaks” is an indicator of the level of professionalism of NPS employees in general.

LisaLen June 14, 2013 at 1:06 pm

One can only hope that people think “Norwalk Speaks” or other outlets for the negativity are not an indicator. However, we are having a hard time attracting good talent to the NPS, especially in the area of administration. If a good candidate does their research they will read the letter to the editor, the blogs, the negative press and ask themselves, “why would I want to come to Norwalk and work under these conditions”.

There are forward thinking, collaborative candidates out there, who may be up for such a challenge. However, our public servants need to be committed to doing the PR necessary to attract these candidates and rebuild our schools – including engaging in civil debates both in chambers and in social media.

We have a chance to let the politicians know that their conduct/civility is important to us. Yes, the taxpayers and voters do matter on election day.

Bryan Meek June 14, 2013 at 2:42 pm

Putting it bluntly, this will never change until people have a certain healthy fear about the status of their jobs. In the real world, this drives innovation, competition, and best of breed. Thanks to state laws we grant tenure to teachers after 3 years service time.
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Tenure is something Princeton gives to Einstein so as to retain his talents for the university. It is earned after many, many years of producing and contributing published knowledge that adds value to human existence.
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How we ever got to the current system is a mystery to me, but what is clear is that it will not change until we remove the entitlement mechanisms and mentality. The worst part is it seems to rub off on the kids who now expect everything to be handed to them after being brainwashed that their future is dependent on taxpayers shedding more dollars to the cause year after year.
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Of course we need to spend money, but the rate of growth is unsustainable. Education spending is increasing at a rate 100% more than the economy is. This has to change course.

WakeUPNorwalk June 14, 2013 at 5:26 pm

1.The tenure issue is done. If the Admin. did thier job teachers who are failing would not continue to work.

2. Mr. Kimmel please get off your soap box, every post begins with your service. Wonderful you left the BOE and didnt change “what some noted as a problem”, how can you accept praise for that?

3.If Norwalk is really about moving forward then EVERYONE must come together. The Unions, the BOE and the City to make peace. Throwing fire bombs at each other doesnt help.
Mr. Lyons constant praise of the NFT freeze certianly doesnt help.
Why was a deal not considered to kick the can down the road with a small increase each year for the teachers then this one. Yes a 0 in year 1, 2 plus in year 2 and most likely 2 plus in year 3, thats roughly 4 plus percent. I am sure that teachers would have jumped at 1% a year for 3 years to advoid all this mud slinging.
Norwalk is a messy, and its becuase people want to protect thier “homestead” and ignore the others

Piberman June 14, 2013 at 11:12 pm

Helpful article Nancy but the monthly NFT Vangurd bulletin spews forth hostility towards the BOE and Supt reportedly found nowhere else in the state. It’s a hostile union that precludes a well functioning school system together with lack of leadership by elected officials unwilling to demand change. The NFT Vanguard should be required reading for all our Councilmen, especially those with union sympathies. Sadly the NFT finds that hostilities bring fat paychecks – 5th highest salaries in CT.

Thoughtful citizens will support the new Supt, the BOE and urge our elected officials to protest ongoing NFT hostilility.

M. Murray's June 15, 2013 at 2:44 pm

The union is doing what it is supposed to be doing. Protecting and working for it’s members. The Board has their job to do too. That will often put them in conflict. Wait and see how bad it will get if the Board tries to bring in an out of state Superintendent again. All the flaws and skeletons won’t come out until the union and the public do their own background investigations. We will end up with another 2 year superintendent and another expensive search.

dc2 June 15, 2013 at 4:44 pm

As the discussion for the desperate need for sweeping change continues, one of my favorite quotes comes to mind:

“And when people in power can stay in power they do very little to tinker with the apparatus that put them in power.”
DeForest Soaries (minister, author, public advocate….)

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