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Norwalk schools make finals for Race to the Top grant

Norwalk BoE 090313 025

Norwalk Public Schools Superintendent Manny Rivera, left, and Board of Ed Chairman Mike Lyons, right, are excited by the prospect of receiving a Race to the Top grant.

NORWALK, Conn. – Norwalk Public Schools is one of 31 finalists announced Tuesday by the U.S. Department of Education for nearly $120 million offered to school systems that propose plans to improve student performance.

Up to 10 winners are expected to be chosen nationwide. If Norwalk is one of them, it could mean a grant package of $4 million to $30 million, according to federal officials.

Norwalk should find out about the grant by the end of December.

Norwalk and New Haven were among only four New England school districts to make the list. Lawrence, Mass., and Nashua, N.H., were the others. Newark, N.J.’s TEAM Academy Charter School was the only other school in the Northeast to make the list.

The 31 finalists, representing 80 school districts across 21 states, were selected from over 200 applications the department received in October to demonstrate how districts could personalize education for students and provide school leaders and teachers with key tools that support them in meeting students’ needs.

“We made a decision not long ago to go forth and to submit an application for Race to the Top funding,” Norwalk Schools Superintendent Manny Rivera said in October. “We went ahead this year and, given work that has been ongoing in our schools to create a more personalized learning environment, we thought we had a very good opportunity to be able to use some of that work and build that into this particular grant, because the focus of this grant is on personalized learning. So at the same time we’ll be capitalizing on some of the investments that we made through Nellie Mae funding, some of the work that began some time ago at Brien McMahon and at Norwalk High.

Grantees will be selected based on their vision and capacity for reform as well as a strong plan that provides educators with resources to accelerate student achievement and prepare students for college and their careers, according to the press release announcing the finalists. Plans will focus on transforming the learning environment so that it meets all students’ learning abilities, making equity and access to high-quality education a priority.

Teachers will receive real-time feedback that helps them adapt to their students’ needs, allowing them to create opportunities for students to pursue areas of personal academic interest that prepare them for success in their future.

The program also offers competitive preference to applicants that form partnerships with public and private organizations to offer services that help meet students’ academic, social, and emotional needs, outside of the classroom, the release said.

Rivera said Norwalk’s plan is centered on its libraries.

“We’ve been thinking about the future of our libraries, and as we think about technology and access to information, we wanted to use this grant potentially as an opportunity to create a different type of environment within our libraries,” he said “to take and create what we call a learning commons. So basically, what this proposal, if it is funded — again, it’s highly competitive, but if it’s funded — it would give us an opportunity to create learning commons, which would be an information center. We would be redesigning, reorganizing that space to create opportunities for four to six students in small areas of that library, within that configuration, to work together on projects.”

Board of Education Chairman Mike Lyons said he was impressed with the plan.

“I think this is really state of the art thinking, not just from the technology point of view but from the whole process, engaging the whole community, Norwalk ACTS, and organizations that want to reach out, in the birth to 4-year-old range, to help kids get ready. … This is not just technology. This really puts together curriculum, technology, community involvement.”

“This year’s finalists created innovative plans … that serve as an example for the rest of the country,” U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said in a statement.

32 comments

Lisa Thomson November 21, 2013 at 6:55 am

This is the sort of thing that our BOE should direct its energies into. Additional resources and foundation money will come to districts that demonstrate reform. A strong superintendent supported by a bi-partisan BOE focused on enhanced learning and student achievement should be the focus, not who swears them into office!

Carolyn Chiodo November 21, 2013 at 8:41 am

Well said Lisa Thomson. Great to have a Superintendent that is reform minded on a national level. Teamed up with a mayor that supports his vision who knows what they can accomplish. Thank you Dr. Rivera.

bsmith November 21, 2013 at 8:51 am

Great news for Norwalk. This is what comes when a top notch leader, Dr. Rivera, with vision and know-how is hired. The mere fact that Norwalk made it into the finalist pool of this highly competitive, national grant is amazing.

Dairy November 21, 2013 at 9:34 am

Maybe this will shut up Mellion and Ditrio about how little Moccia did for them – unless Harry wants to take the credit after 24 hours in office?

David November 21, 2013 at 11:20 am

This is fantastic news, and reflects well on the Norwalk school system. Let’s be fair and give credit to a lot of people involved in the education system – From Parents to the BOE and everyone in between. You don’t get to be a finalist by just writing a good entry submission. A solid commitment to the common core standards is a big part of the criteria and Norwalk has been taking a leading role in this for a number of years now. Here’s hoping for a positive outcome.

marjoriem November 21, 2013 at 11:28 am

When was this written and why were the people involved at the time not given any credit? If Rivera deserves the credit for writing the grant, then he should get credit. If not, why are we praising him? Let’s get the history of this grant, please. A grant doesn’t write itself!

M Allen November 21, 2013 at 11:43 am

Marjorie –
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“The 31 finalists, representing 80 school districts across 21 states, were selected from over 200 applications the department received in October…”
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“We made a decision not long ago to go forth and to submit an application for Race to the Top funding,” Norwalk Schools Superintendent Manny Rivera said in October.
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Sounds like the app was made in October. He was installed July 9? Gonna say it was done on his watch. Maybe?

marjoriem November 21, 2013 at 11:45 am

Oh yes, Lisa is back pointing fingers at Board members who don’t support the Apples. Please tell me why you need to do that in an article that is not about Apples, but about good news?

marjoriem November 21, 2013 at 11:47 am

Seems unlikely that a federal grant would require such a short lead time. One month? Did Rivera write the grant? Something doesn’t seem right. If I am wrong, I am wrong. Just looking for truth.

bsmith November 21, 2013 at 12:04 pm

Dr. Marks brought in millions of grant funding, like the Nellie Mae grant.

Dr. Rivera will do that too, probably much better.

M Allen November 21, 2013 at 12:10 pm

Actually marjorie – I think Lisa just pointed fingers at board members who acted like children, stomping their feet and throwing a tantrum. The fact that they were of the non-Apple persuasion may have just been a bonus.
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I’m pretty sure Lisa could have said anything and you wouldn’t have liked it. You are to Red Apples what a guy on here is to the Norwalk Police – obviously not a big fan (to put it nicely).

marjoriem November 21, 2013 at 12:22 pm

M Allen, Lisa took the opportunity to mention it here BECAUSE it wasn’t one of her Red Apples. Do you really think she would have brought it up if it were a pounding on the table, name calling Apple? Come on!

Carolyn Chiodo November 21, 2013 at 12:35 pm

Majorie- You are right other people deserve credit. Sue Haynie, Lauran Rosato along with the Red Apples pushed, jumped up and down to make the district apply for the Race for the Top Grant. Dadonna and the BoE didn’t want to participate in ’09/’10 but the RED Apples SHAMED the district and the BoE to sign off on the application. This is one of the reasons Sue Haynie was pushing so hard for teacher and administrator evaluations. Bruce Mellion never signed off on the application. This is also why Sue Haynie pushed so hard for the common core standards. The APPLES ARE DRAGGING THIS district into reform and without REFORM NO MONEY or would Bruce and the BoE NON Apples prefer to take it off the Norwalk tax payers. Thank you Red Apples, Sue Haynie and Lauren Rosato. They couldn’t get it over the finish line but I feel Rivera will. It will be his vision and he will deserve the praise.

Carolyn Chiodo November 21, 2013 at 12:41 pm

If your talking History back in 09/10. This grant was entirely Rivera and his vision. But the Sue and Red Apples started the reform process. Didn’t want you you to think Red Apples was taking credit for this Currant Grant.

M Allen November 21, 2013 at 12:49 pm

Typically, no single person deserves all of the credit for anything. But it isn’t out of the ordinary for the person at the top to be credited as a representative of all those who were involved. Hell, why are people even worried about credit? It’s a story about progress where Dr. Rivera said “we” a few times. How about we worry about getting the grant, and then later on we can hand out little trophy’s to everyone who had a hand in it.

Carolyn Chiodo November 21, 2013 at 2:13 pm

M. Allen You are 100% correct this is about progress. I was sucked into Majorie and the history of Race to the Top. Shame on me. The fact that Norwalk is a finalist and is being considered for Race to the Top shows that we have made progress.

bsmith November 21, 2013 at 2:44 pm

Marjoriem Not true. You sound like someone who wants Mr. Daddona instead of Dr. Rivera as superintendent just like Murray, Rivas, Kassimis, Bruce Mellion, Tony Ditrio and Mr. Dadonna himself.

Mike Lyons November 21, 2013 at 3:38 pm

Work on the Parent Portal did start some time ago, and credit goes to many people, including Mr. Daddona.

On the RTT grant, here’s the history. Dr. Rivera made the decision in late August to apply for the Race to the Top grant, not long after becoming superintendent. He had been working in his previous position on the theme of personalized learning. He told me that he thought this was a “natural” for Norwalk, because we already had folks at BMHS and NHS who were pursuing personalized learning initiatives under a Nellie Mae grant.

Dr. Rivera developed the concept (including his idea of the “learning commons” enhancement of libraries), and presented the concept to a committee that Tali Negroni (our Grants Administrator) had convened (it included Anthony Alison from Norwalk ACTS, Craig Creller (our Math Instructional Specialist), and others). The reaction was positive, and Ms. Negroni took it from there, working with other staff and Dr. Rivera to develop the proposal, and doing it within a 30 day period so we could hit the application deadline.

Making the first cut was beating long odds … hopefully we can beat them again!

jlightfield November 21, 2013 at 4:00 pm

Congratulations to all the peeps involved in making this happen. This is great news and helps establish Norwalk as an innovative school system again.

Carolyn Chiodo November 21, 2013 at 4:06 pm

I remember talking about the parent portal with Ralph when my son was in middle school 7th grade. Corda was at the helm and Ralph left to go work for Dr. Rivera. My son is now in college. Good thing Rivera brought Ralph back or we would still be talking about it.

Cluetrain Manifesto November 21, 2013 at 4:13 pm

Wow, in a few short months Dr. Rivera has already provided return on our investment of him. Assuming as a smaller city we get say 4 million that should easily cover his future years salaries and retirement benefits. Anything more is a bonus.
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Hopefully it isn’t for grants that are funded for just a few years and then leave permanent holes for mandates in future budgets. That seems to be the hook with most federal grants these days. Sound good on the surface, but in the end turn out to be methods to increase government at the local level.

marjoriem November 21, 2013 at 4:23 pm

Thank you, Mike Lyons for providing the history behind this grant. I believe we applied for this grant before, perhaps under Mary Peniston, but did not even get close to getting it. Tali Negroni should get credit for even getting this far. Anyway, congratulations from me, Talia, for taking the lead and writing this grant. Great job!

LWitherspoon November 21, 2013 at 6:00 pm

Congratulations to all those who had a hand in applying for the grant.
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@Carolyn Chiodo
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What does it mean that Bruce Mellion “never signed off on the application”? Did he provide any reasons why? Does that affect our chances?

Oldtimer November 22, 2013 at 9:26 am

Mellion didn’t sign off ? Is there any reason he would be asked to sign off ? If the application calls for some violation of the contract, or some significant change in working conditions for his members, he does not have the authority to sign off, or agree, without a vote of the members. He is first of all a teacher elected by teachers to lead the local teacher’s union. That position carries responsibility and limited authority to speak for the teachers, and that’s all. It might have made sense to get his opinion about how this may effect teachers, but “sign off” ? I would be surprised if Dr Rivera hasn’t discussed this with Mellion, but I doubt if anybody asked him to sign off.

JustAParent November 22, 2013 at 4:15 pm

I remember Sue H., Lauren, Lisa T and others pushing for this several years ago and it went no where. Along with many others, I give these ladies credit for pushing this along when others were pushing from it. I hope we win the funds and turn this system around!

marjoriem November 22, 2013 at 11:42 pm

Just A Parent, you don’t have your facts straight. It was a grant that Norwalk applied for, but didn’t win. It’s a shame how facts get distorted through time.

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