NORWALK, Conn. — Norwalk Public Schools touts its new preschool center as an upbeat innovation that successfully fills a need for Special needs children.
A union leader and three mothers, speaking on the condition of anonymity, say otherwise.
“When you tear it apart, when you really look deep, there are a lot of issues, a lot of problems,” said a woman we will call Mother One, detailing issues ranging from a reluctant school leader to overcrowded classrooms at the Norwalk Early Childhood Center (NECC) on Allen Road.
Parents complain and when she’s walking the halls, she hears school staff complain, too, she said.
The Board of Education is holding its Tuesday meeting at NECC, after holding an open house last week. The Ad Hoc Special Education Committee in December briefly touched on NECC, with Committee Chairman Erik Anderson promising a “deeper dive” in February.
“Despite some of the pieces that have come up in the developing program at NECC we still have a very successful program,” said Anderson, who has since updated NancyOnNorwalk with the news that the “deeper dive” will be in March.
NECC was conceived in 2014 under then-Superintendent of Schools Manny Rivera. The old Roosevelt School, at 11 Allen Road, was renovated at a cost of $2.9 million into a centralized location for pre-K schooling and opened in September 2016.
“It’s wonderful place — a bright, happy environment with dedicated staff who are committed to both our typical and special needs children,” Norwalk Public Schools Communications Director Brenda Wilcox Williams said in a Dec. 11 email.
NECC is “a true Norwalk Public School success story,” Board of Education Chairman Mike Barbis said in December.
Former Kendall Elementary School Principal Tony Ditrio, vice president of the Norwalk Association of School Administrators (NASA), came first to NancyOnNorwalk with complaints about the Norwalk Early Childhood Center, in September.
“They continue to have only 5 classes with some sessions having more than 18 students, including some heavy duty cases,” Ditrio said in a Dec. 4 email, asserting that the overcrowding he alleged in September was continuing. “They also are not servicing students from the birth to three program when they turn three which I believe is not legal. They are telling them that they must wait until they open another class or spots become available.”
“I have heard that there are many children that were supposed to transition out of birth to three into the classroom but they just don’t have the space,” Mother One said.
“The fact is that we are doing exactly as we said we are doing at NECC. This is an awesome operation and parents are thrilled. The only person with a problem is Mr. Ditrio,” Barbis said in a Dec. 18 email.
Ditrio’s original complaints including the reassignment of his wife, who he said was the only deaf education-certified teacher at the facility, and the lack of response he had gotten from the Board of Education.
His wife’s departure, “and the subsequent closing of her class,” left “only five overcrowded classes to service all of our 3-4 year olds,” he said. “I have researched class size for integrated preschools and I can not find any instance were either 18 or the now 20 students per class exists. I did find one State, I believe NJ, where you could have up to 20 students but only 5 could be special needs. Norwalk preschool classes usually have at least 50% special needs or more. This is being done with the knowledge that new students will be entering when they transition from birth to three throughout the year. This is not an educationally sound way to run a preschool program.”
Mother One, in early January, said NECC “looks so beautiful, but you really take a closer look, you’re like, ‘Oh my gosh. Wow. And not to mention, you know, there’s only five teachers. There were six last year and I even feel like last year the classes were at capacity, so you take another teacher away. You know, again, they don’t have enough staffing.”
“There is no capacity issue. NECC was designed for 216 students. There are only approximately 180 students currently, based on eligibility,” Barbis said on Dec. 17.
Federal law mandates a 50-50 mix of special needs children to “typical” children.
There were 170 children attending NECC as of Nov. 1, according to a document provided by Wilcox Williams in response to a Freedom of Information request. Of the 170 children, 67 were “typical” and 103 were special needs. There are three special needs children in other NPS preschools.
“Students are split into morning and afternoon sessions, so the class size is around 17 per class, per session,” Wilcox Williams said in a Monday email.
The total enrollment shows 60 percent special needs children; Wilcox Williams did not respond to multiple queries asking for more specifics in regards to the ratio.
“We do not have that data as you requested broken down automatically available,” Barbis said in December.
Mother One said that administrators claim NECC is at a 50-50 mix, or close to it, but parents scoff at that assertion.
“I see (the teachers) more out of the classroom than in the classroom,” she said. “That’s a big concern,” she said. “So, I think who is running these classrooms? Is a paraprofessional running the classroom?”
“The class size is 18:3 (1 teacher and two paras),” Barbis said in a December email. “Once related services and one-on-paras are considered there are usually 6 adults in a class at any time. There is an approximate 50% split between special needs and typical students. This is all on our monthly enrollment report from Jean Starkman. We have received criticism over having more adults than students in a class at times. Individual classes may vary based upon children’s needs.”
The Avon, Conn., Board of Education advertises special needs preschool classroom sizes ranging from eight to 14 students; an integrated preschool program in Swedesboro N.J. offers a classroom size of 12 to 16 children, according to the school’s literature. A Bourne, Mass., preschool advertises a maximum classroom size of 15 students with one teacher and two assistants.
Class size is only part of the issue, Norwalk Federation of Teachers President Mary Yordon said.
“The staffing levels in any particular classroom would be determined by the needs of the student in that classroom. So there’s no single formula for any single classroom. It would fluctuate depending on the needs of the students and that’s the perennial issue for special education in Norwalk,” she said.
Mother One said that paraprofessionals who should be working one-on-one with students are being told by interim Administrator Maureen Sullivan and Chief of Specialized Learning and Student Services Yvette Goorevitch to work with two or three students at once. The paras are “wonderful” but those with less experience won’t know that they should refuse this directive, she said.
“I think it’s to cut costs,” she said.
Wilcox Williams did not respond to a Monday afternoon email asking for a response to that.
“There’s a lot of a lot of things going on right now at the school,” Mother One said. “I’d say almost every single IEP (Individualized Education Program) is out of compliance and that’s just the general feeling I get from all the other moms, because everyone else I know laughs, you know, when, like, ‘You’re in compliance?’ They are like, ‘Are you kidding me?’ Like that’s a joke.”
A second mother said in late December that she’s got experience with every Norwalk preschool and, “This is the worst one.”
“We are thrown all the way out on the Wilton/Norwalk line and we are forgotten about. It’s pretty sad,” Mother Two said. “We can’t even get a police officer there in the morning to direct traffic. I myself almost got hit three times coming out of the parking lot. One officer, that is all we are asking for, for drop off and picks ups… I think we can spare a cop to do pre-K traffic. It’s just excuses after excuses.”
Both mothers requested anonymity out of fear of reprisal.
There are safety issues with the drop off at the school, the Mother Two said.
The problem is that NECC shares a parking lot with the Norwalk Senior Center, with drivers going “like 100 mph” while kids are walking around, Mother One said.
Mother Two described a situation in which her child did not have enough adult supervision – not enough paras, she said, asserting that problems began when Sullivan took over, as information was not passed along from former NECC Director Kristen Mosher.
Sullivan took the job expecting it to be temporary and is doing the best that she can but she’s “pulled in all different directions” and “you know when you have somebody in charge of a school and they don’t want to be there … they don’t care as much,” Mother One said.
“They are out of compliance with several kids. How can you have state of the art facility and no handicapped accessible playground?” Mother Two asked.
Barbis said, “The playground was not part of the building program. The City is planning a new early childhood program. Accessible equipment has been requested in consultation with parents and staff (FYI Playgrounds are built/maintained by the City Parks & Rec Department, not BOE).”
“We were told it is city property, it’s not NECC,” Mother Two said, explaining that money suddenly became from to build a playground after parents pushed.
“It was important to open the new building for instruction, even if the playground renovation was to follow,” Wilcox Williams said in a Dec. 21 email. “Blueprints have been drawn up for the new, accessible playground. The design includes input from parents and staff, and they will also have the opportunity to provide feedback on the actual blueprints.”
“I didn’t know Tony (Ditrio),” Mother Two said. “I heard his wife had some really excellent skills. It is really sad. She was reassigned. We have an empty classroom and they are looking for teachers.”
Classroom two is empty, even though there’s a Smart TV, cubbies and furniture, with the shades pulled down, she said.
“We need to fill it up but fill it up smartly,” she said, suggesting that the ratio of mainstream kids to special needs children is not 50-50.
“A new teacher was hired in January for NECC,” Wilcox Williams said Monday. “We are waiting for her to finish her commitment to her current district before setting the start date for the new class.”
She didn’t reply to an email asking if the new class is for children who have just turned 3.
“The decision to not re-open the 6th class in September was based upon enrollment and registration,” Barbis said in an email.
Integrating students early in life, with the 50-50 mix, leads to less bullying later and less suicides, Mother Two said, asserting, “It really is not just about a small percentage (of children)…. It really sends a big message to kids, when they know that they are equal. The Board of Ed isn’t doing that.”
Special needs parents were really worried after the Newtown shooting when it was revealed that murderer Adam Lanza had been a special needs child who hadn’t been integrated properly, she said.
“You worry as a parent, ‘Could this happen to my child? Keep on taking services away, this is what’s going to happen. You’re going to have another Sandy Hook,” she said.
“What can you do except for be a voice, complain, complain, complain – and worry about retaliation? We have five full classrooms there is an empty classroom today,” Mother Two said. “…I don’t see any advertising to get new kids in. We just got a new website… there’s no Facebook page.”
Mother One said a group of mothers organized in August primarily because a NECC speech therapist took the last week of the month off and parents were not informed. A parent found out by reading her child’s notebook, she said, calling that unfair, “possibly illegal and honestly disappointing.”
“We’re delighted to have a parents group at NECC, especially in a program that is a little over a year old,” Wilcox Williams wrote on Dec. 21. “Amy Hodgins and other parents have taken a leadership role to get it off the ground, and they are working with administration to grow a school community. Yvette Goorevitch meets with them once a month.”
PTO Vice President Kimberly Burke-Connors in an email explained, “A group of Moms including myself and other members of the NECC board and the newly formed PTO have scheduled monthly meetings with Yvette and Maureen Sullivan to discuss ongoing issues, classroom concerns and new ideas on how to continually improve the learning experience at NECC. We appreciate the level of engagement we have now with administration and we expect to move agendas ahead at a much faster pace once a permanent administrator is in place.”
A third mother confirmed problems with NECC, but did not go into details and instead said she knew multiple mothers who are unhappy. She connected NancyOnNorwalk with the two mothers who are quoted.
“Currently many parents feel that the BOE had this grand idea of what NECC would be like. It just hasn’t been ‘kept up,’” Mother Two said. “The teachers are wonderful. You can truly see they care about the children. But you can also see intimidation in their eyes. You know they know our children should be getting more service hours, but their hands are tied. With that being said, parents start to resent the school and the choice they made to put them in public daycare vs private daycare. Administration-wise is where we have our battles. … So judging that this school is by far the worst compared to the old system is correct. When pre-k was separated throughout the district it was so much better. Number one you didn’t have overcrowding of classrooms as where you do now.”
Goorevitch at the Dec. 22 Ad Hoc SpEd Committee meeting said that NECC is “a happy, delightful place filled with music and read alouds …There is room for growth, we need to remember we are only in year two of a program that is growing.”
“I very much am aware that it is growing program,” Anderson said. “We also know that it’s an area of focus for the district. In Special Education, we had a change of leadership. We had a change of leadership at NECC, an interim stepping in: Maureen who is doing a great job at keeping it going forward… I do look forward to the deeper dive on this because there are so many issues, you want to get to a little more. I think the biggest piece is communication. It is a new program and I think that is one area the district is continuing to improve upon, it’s communication and receipt of communications, from issues or concerns from the public as well.”