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Mothers blast Norwalk’s new preschool facility

The Norwalk Early Childhood Center is adjacent to the Norwalk Senior Center.

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.

A Norwalk Early Childhood Center classroom, seen through a window.

“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.

Avon preschool_general_information_1

Swedesboro FAQ for IPS 4-22

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.

The Norwalk Early Childhood Center playground.

“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.”

14 comments

Mother February 6, 2018 at 8:02 am

As I read this article I’m taken back. When my child 1st started I had my concerns and Board memeber Mr. Lyons said in response to my question that this was the best decision and my child will receive the same care if not the better at this new facility and it has been anything but. My son lost Services when I say lost I mean is sharing speech sessions with other children. Now this wouldn’t be a problem if he was actually learning to be verbal while working with the students but he’s not at all what could my possibly nonverbal son getting out of being in a session with three other verbal kids I feel as if he needs to be in a session alone and working on Pacific‘s gear to him . Also he supposed to receive ABA services but the fearless leader will not hire any more abies or is least that’s what I’m thinking because he has yet to have our ABA therapist instead he’s receiving some services when they can from other abies how is that fair . I’ve seen 1st hand over crowded classrooms there is never 6 adults in a class expect one 1 room may have a lot of one to one but other than that NEVER! I seen a child through a window climbing on tables and someone running leaving another child to help!!! But it’s always 6 adults right!!!

EverMindful February 6, 2018 at 9:26 am

It nice to see that the BOE (Mr. Anderson) realizes that communication is an on going problem. Perhaps if he actually LISTENED at the BOE meeting than these problems at NECC and across the district would not pop up.
I am an avid BOE watcher and have seen parents, students and teachers speak at the meetings. It appears on TV that many of the BOE members ignore the speaker and concentrate on their cell phones and tablets. I seem to think this is rude, and bordering on arrogant. This behavior would not be allowed in school but its demonstrated by BOE leaders. Puzzling to say the least.

I do not pretend to have all the answers but I would guess that a partnership with parents, and teachers would be something the BOE would welcome and not ignore.
However based on the tone and actions on the BOE I could be wrong. The ego of some on this BOE have cost the distinct time and money, something our children can’t afford. Listen UP! Respond properly and engage the parents and teachers to avoid situations like this.

Tysen Canevari February 6, 2018 at 12:21 pm

Thats terrible to hear. My hope is that this gets corrected and you and the kids are happy. Its a vital time in their development. The kids are supposed to be first in line! Lets go Norwalk get it together…

Skyler D February 6, 2018 at 2:12 pm

Thanks Joe G for your comments. You are a broken record. The unions will save NPS from the awful BOE.

Give them a Break February 6, 2018 at 3:48 pm

I applaud the teachers that teach the most challenging and special needs of children. They are dedicated and caring in the face of such ungratefulness. Maybe it would be best to have the school benefit only those with special needs, as a means to help bridge the gap kindergarten or even add a kindergarten alternative, rather than red-shirting.

Perhaps it would behoove the mother in this article to research actual preschool costs in the area. Be thankful that the city offers services to those with special needs and those with limited income. People always want the services other town budgets have but don’t want to pay the money.

EverMindful February 6, 2018 at 4:42 pm

@Give them a Break…

Just because the service is given at a discount doesn’t entitle the city to violate the rights of the students and IEP. The ratio of typical students and special needs students is not correct. The problem with this BOE is they prefer to “build the plane while its flying”.

Where are they to answer this questions in this forum? Several of them have no problem posting in closed Facebook groups, but won’t address it here. Its sad that again our students pay the price for the egos of many on the BOE.

Sped Parent February 6, 2018 at 4:48 pm

The parents whose children’s IEPs are out of compliance should document each and every area and instance where that is the case and file a formal complaint with the CT Department of Efucation Bureau of Special Services. This is absolutely unacceptable and is mandated by law. For each session where there is no BCBA etc, document it each and every time. Good luck to you. It’s sad to see so little change with Norwalk sped. To the poster about parents being ungrateful, you just don’t get it. One can be very grateful and yet still require rules and regulations to be upheld for ones child.

Donna Smirniotopoulos February 7, 2018 at 7:41 am

One parent said, “I didn’t know Tony (Ditrio). I heard his wife had some really excellent skills. It is really sad. She was reassigned.”

Again from the article, “Ditrio’s original complaints including reassignment of his wife…..”.

Three anonymous mothers and two union officials does not add up to credible evidence that the BOE has dropped the ball at NECC, in my opinion.

The fear expressed by some parents that without proper early intervention special needs children could wind up like Adam Lanza completely overlooks the important role parents play in the development of their children’s behavior and character. What responsible parent with a mentally ill child living in her basement keeps guns unlocked in the house?

TONY DITRIO February 7, 2018 at 1:35 pm

Donna Smirniotopoulos – Why must you continue to make personal attacks rather than deal with the issues? I guess it is easier to just attack. You are the Rudy Julliani of Norwalk. Attack all on any issue you don’t agree with and shower praise on those you do.

I had a special ed pre-school program at Kendall for 17 years. I observed the work being done and the level of quality service that was provided directly. The integrated pre-school program was developed in Norwalk by Dr. Krawiecki about 25 years ago. The classes were in several different schools around Norwalk. They provided a quality pre-school program for identified students that provided the special education services required. They did this without isolating these students from their typical peers. Norwalk’s program was very successful. When the programs were all placed together at NECC it was said, to provide better services. That is not what happened. In spite of a new facility, it seemed that the move was more to save money then to help the students. Numbers of students in each class has gone up every year since Dr. Adamowski became Superintendent. While the building was newly renovated, it was far from ready to be occupied. Windows did not work properly, safety plans were not in place and the administrator had no experience running a building. These and many other issues were pointed out to the administration at the beginning of the 2016-17 school year. These concerns were expressed in consultation with the Superintendent several times. Last Spring, I sent an e-mail to Stacey Heiligenthaler outlining the issues. I got no response. I then sent my concerns to Dr. Adamowski, no response, Dr. Goorevitch, no response, Mike Lyons, no response and then the entire Board, no response. It was only after this that I contacted Nancy on Norwalk. My intentions have always been to have a quality program for students. The NPS leadership team, once again, is demonstrating that they have a public relations machine that distorts the truth and creates an illusion of progress at the expense of the students.

Donna Smirniotopoulos February 7, 2018 at 3:42 pm

@Tony Ditrio, I said I did not find the evidence credible in my opinion. Where was the personal attack?

Nancy, is that ascribing motives without proof? I did not attack Mr. Ditrio personally as he claims. I questioned the evidence presented in the article and the sources. My earlier comment was edited for ascribing motives, so I rephrased it. Can you help?

Brenda Wilcox Williams February 8, 2018 at 11:17 am

We appreciate Dr. Krawiecki’s many years of contributions to NPS, but a model that originated 25 years ago may not be the best one for students today. The CREC Report included establishing a location that will accommodate all preschool classes as one of their recommendations for improving Special Education in Norwalk. The investment made in NECC was certainly not about saving money.

TONY DITRIO February 8, 2018 at 12:33 pm

Brenda
You are correct it was not just about saving money. It was also about getting needed classroom space in the elementary schools. I believe that it is also true that money to build the center did not come out of the Boards operating budget. Whatever the motivation, the result was not as successful as claimed or the way these parents/students should be treated. How does one justify the largest class size for integrated preschools around, not entering students from birth to three, no playground for almost the whole first year, windows that are unsafe, security poorly planned out, services not delivered, etc?

Maryann Lombardi February 10, 2018 at 10:26 pm

Perhaps the thing to request is an independent program audit. This way parents can be validated, and a plan of action for compliance can be developed. The alternative is not a good one, because preschool is the age where every student with special needs has the greatest opportunity for progress. If the preschool is not handled correctly it will cost Norwalk Public Schools a fortune in future settlements. This is not a prudent place to save money.

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