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Norwalk schools superintendent sets his course

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Norwalk Superintendent Manuel Rivera starts the process of getting to know Norwalk Public Schools activists as Lisa Thomson introduces herself after the July 9 Board of Education meeting.

NORWALK, Conn. – Manuel Rivera began his tenure Thursday as Norwalk’s newest superintendent of schools. The former Norwalk resident brings to the job experience not only as a superintendent, but as a CEO in the private education sector and deputy secretary of education in New York state.

In Rochester, N.Y., he was a teacher and administrator before ascending to superintendent. He left to go into the private sector, then returned to Rochester, where he won, in successive years, New York State Superintendent of the Year and National Superintendent of the year awards.

NancyOnNorwalk caught up with Rivera shortly after he was introduced at the July 9 Board of Education meeting and asked him about his priorities and the challenges of coming to Norwalk. His responses:

Getting familiar

“Norwalk, if you take a step back, people say it’s a good system with some gaps.

“One of the things I want to do is really understand and dive into the profiles of each and every school, each and every grade, and really examine that at a school level. I did a district-wide scan and I was able to get a sense of some unique needs. I was particularly disappointed that the percentage of black and English language students and Hispanic students … were not meeting certain goal targets on state exams.

“But, again, that’s one measure. I think when I’ve had more time to really come in and digest – and meet with the community, and meet with staff and meet with schools – I’ll have a much, much better sense of where to focus my time and energy. Obviously there’s a lot to do in the short term. I’ve got to put a team in place. That means I’ve got to search and find the right people.

“There are lots of different things that I am familiar with and have experienced that may apply, probably will apply, but you really want to come in and make sure you understand what the critical needs are and then later strategy out to address what your bigger needs are and then try to get some low-hanging fruit and fix some other issues as you go about your work.”

Aiming for August

“Number two, you want to make sure that you’ve got schools that open well this coming August, so there’s a lot to pay attention to to gear up for the opening of school. Just listening to the parents tonight (July 9) about the changes in the number of teachers in math and science in one school, staffing is really important. (Ed. Note – Nathan Hale Middle School.)

“So there are sort of multiple paths I’m going to be running on at the same time. Wanting to get out into the community; meet with the heads of, whether it’s the college president or the head of the Norwalk education foundation, the head of the PTA, a lot of other folks I want to connect with to get their perspectives and have the one-on-ones, or meet with their respective groups; and then get into schools as much as possible, to the extent I can, and when school opens, as often as I can, every week.”

Common Core

“Obviously, the implementation of the Common Core is critically important because that has huge ramifications for the kind of training that we need to do for teachers, as well as materials and curriculum selection, as well as other resources that we can bring in to support teaching and learning and the implementation of Common Core. I am particularly interested in programs that are currently operating for English Language Learners. I want to make sure that they are reflecting, to the extent that they are, best practices for English Language Learners.

“Obviously, I think a decision was made a year ago on the math program that has proved to be a good one. There has been some progress that the district has seen. I’d like to build on that. A friend of mine actually works for Common Core and does all the literacy development for the state of New York. Another person who worked for me for last five years is the new head of professional development for the Common Core organization. I want to get these people connected, working with us.”

Focus on Briggs

“I am very interested in and I just grabbed the proposal for Briggs. As a turnaround school, I am particularly interested in making sure that, if we do that, it does become a school of choice. I’d like to see that school take off.

“So there are some key areas that I want to focus in on. Obviously, I think leadership is critical. Knowing your principals, knowing them very, very well, and supporting their growth and development and making sure that we are providing the best possible leadership that we can in our schools is essential.”

On technology

“I want to look at technology and the extent to which we are using technology to really help teachers and administrators work more quickly and effectively. … Those critical dashboards? I want to be able to look in real time at how each school is doing and how kids are progressing. Principals ought to have that at their fingertips. Teachers ought to have it when they meet in professional learning communities so that they can spend time talking about kids and what their needs are. Making adjustments in practice for kids who need a different approach; making sure you have schedules that accommodate that so you maximize time for learning.”

Questions about Rochester

We asked Rivera to address some of the questions brought up by NancyOnNorwalk readers in the commenter section.

“To understand what was behind that you almost have to understand the political dynamics of New York. That context is very important. There was an audit done and I think the only real violation – which wasn’t even really a violation of policy, it was a clerical error – someone was paid $78 a year more than they should have been. But everything that we did, that I did and under my tenure, was in accordance with board policy. We had board committees that reviewed contracts; everything was in accordance with the law.

“Basically, what I will say is that, with some of the issues that I read that people had raised, they did not have the full information of what actually happened, nor was the information necessarily accurate. It’s something quite honestly that I don’t even worry about or think about. It is what it is. It’s in the past and anyone who knew what was going on at the time would kind of shake their head and tell me, ‘Rivera, just ignore the noise.’”

7 comments

M Allen July 19, 2013 at 3:54 pm

The last line of the story, “Rivera, just ignore the noise.”

Great advice then as it is now: Ignore the noise.

MarjorieM July 19, 2013 at 10:41 pm

I don’t see a vision or plan for this superintendent. As I read this, I find focus lacking. Perhaps he is too new. I’ll give him time. Is it just me, or did he really not answer the Rochester mystery? Ignore the noise? Huh? Not have the full information? That could mean anything. I will wait until next week to see what he does on Monday…….

M Allen July 23, 2013 at 9:21 am

Hopefully ignoring the noise, unpacking and preparing for a multi-year run in Norwalk. Do we have a first five days expectation?

MarjorieM July 23, 2013 at 4:10 pm

Considering we have some important temporarily filled positions, an unsettled elementary curriculum, many administrators looking for direction and a promise to ‘hit the ground running’, I would say we have high expectations!

M Allen July 23, 2013 at 4:49 pm

high expectations are good. Unachievable ones will only backfill the disappointment you already seem to be exhibiting. 5 Days? Why don’t you try and give the man the leeway you would expect in the same circumstance. There is no point laying the weight of the past on the new guy just because of bitterness.

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