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Norwalk BoE looks to future after resolving NHS/NECA GPA controversy

Norwalk Board of Education Chairman Mike Barbis, left, explains grade point average issues Tuesday in the Center for Global Studies. Listening at right is Board of Education member Bryan Meek.

NORWALK, Conn. — A polarizing firestorm ended Tuesday with a Norwalk Board of Education unanimous vote to create co-valedictorians for the Norwalk High School Class of 2018.

“It’s a very complex issue … a very polarizing issue,” BoE Chairman Mike Barbis said to begin the Board meeting in the Brien McMahon High School Center for Global Studies. “The professionals who run our school system should have addressed this, but the ball was dropped, and it’s been left to the nine members of the Board of Education to fix this.”

BoE member Bruce Kimmel later said it’s not a matter of a ball being dropped but of “growing pains” as the district moves toward 21st Century education standards, and Adamowski suggested that deeper changes may be in order.

Both Norwalk Early College Academy students and NHS students attended the May 16 BoE meeting to complain about what they said was a shift in grade point average calculations and, as a result, class rank.

“Up until two months ago I was valedictorian of my graduating class,” NHS senior Katerina Karaiskos said. “Why the sudden change? I lost my slot because of the currently proposed method of calculating the NECA students into the traditional ranking system pool.”

The NECA student who moved up to be valedictorian, Ryan Stelly, “simply happens to be an incredible student with incredible work capacity and intellect, who just worked and worked and worked, and got an A is every college class he took,” Norwalk Superintendent of Schools Steven Adamowski said.

Norwalk High School senior Chaz Bethel-Brescia talks to the Board of Education on Tuesday.

Chaz Bethel-Brescia, an NHS senior, said he’d been checking his transcripts routinely and had been ranked second, but in mid-March dropped to third.

Bethel-Brescia spoke to the Board on Tuesday to express appreciation for the short-term solution, creating co-valedictorians and a salutatorian based on the end of the year GPAs and working over the summer to create a permanent solution.

“This issue is beyond who is being graduated this year. This affects the college and scholarship application process, the entire student body at NHS,” Bethel-Brescia said.

Bethel-Brescia said after the meeting that he really liked the language the Board used in its resolution, calculating the GPA when all the facts are in, and that he didn’t know if he’d be third or fourth.

The Policy Committee will be taking a careful review… the goal will be to create a level playing field for all students,” Barbis said at the outset of the meeting.

“Many seem to think there was a conscious decision that was made by the district that allowed this to happen. This is not correct,” he said.

The last time the Board voted on a change to the GPA policy was 2012, when Genesis was the software used for the grading database, he said.

“The fields and weights for courses were established at that time. This system was transferred identically three years ago when we made the switch to PowerSchool,” Barbis said. “When NECA began four years ago no specific changes were made to the database. PowerSchool automatically calculated its GPA, and thus class ranks, based on the information that is fed into it, grades and credits. Nothing more, nothing less.”

“The way a computer was programmed a number of years ago thus explains the current situation that came about,” Barbis said. “Some might argue it should have been foreseen but let’s remember all of the moving pieces that were required to build a brand-new cutting edge school.”

NECA is a great achievement but, “The grade point average and its ensuing impact on class rank was overlooked in all of the many steps that it took to establish and grow this program from nothing four years ago to a school of almost 400 students today,” Barbis said.

When it came time for a vote, Board member Barbara Meyer-Mitchell suggested that the coming Board new policy be retroactively applied to underclassmen.

“We will be working on that,” Policy Committee Chairwoman Heidi Keyes said, explaining that the Policy Committee doesn’t normally meet over the summer but this is a pressing issue.

“I don’t think it’s a question of we dropped the ball and we missed something. Of course we did but the bigger issue is that I think we’re experiencing growing pains,” Kimmel said. “As district grows and it becomes more aligned with 21st century education we are going to find ourselves in uncharted territory when it comes to a lot of things… Our kids come to school with different academic entanglements, we are going to constantly be adjusting the way we think, and the way we calculate things.”

“I am hoping that as the Policy Committee looks at this, as the Board as a whole considers this issue further, that we can use it as an opportunity to create a more contemporary updated system that may be less competitive than the traditional system,” Adamowski said. “As one looks at the history of high schools and then looks at the best high schools today, you can see this evolution occurring.”

GPAs are a remnant of the old industrial high school system that created winners and losers, and NPS is moving toward an expanded high school program of study with multiple pathways, “all designed to create a situation in which virtually every student can be successful,” he said, predicting, “not winners and losers but a lot of winners.”

Board member Bryan Meek had produced an article that talked about trends at highly successful high schools, one of which is to identify a larger group of top scholars, Adamowski said, explaining that another trend is to eliminate having valedictorians and that this is done at Staples High School.

A third trend is to allow faculty and students, but mostly students, choose a class representative for their graduation ceremony, a student who best embodies ‘the values of the class in terms of their activities, commitments and values,” Adamowski said. “… I hope that as we have updated the program of studies and as we are seeking to create not only a level playing field but to create success for all of our students.”

17 comments

Susan Wallerstein June 6, 2018 at 7:33 am

Sounds like a good resolution and plan. Chuckle when I remember how my class rank was calculated by high school math teacher who reviewed my report cards from four schools in two states grades 9-12.

Nora K King June 6, 2018 at 8:06 am

My problem with the students choosing this person – is then it becomes a popularity contest and though the thought process is lovely about the student body voting – that is really not the best way to reward the students that work hard every day to get straight A’s and great grades.

Kathleen June 6, 2018 at 12:52 pm

I agree Nora. And, I see a big problem with this issue not being foreseen. All aspects of beginning NECA should have been carefully examined. The same issue applies to the calendar change. Makes me wonder what other executive decisions surprises are coming up. And, I’m not talking about the BOE that is saddled with these issues. Talking about the superintendent.

Norwalk Mom June 6, 2018 at 6:10 pm

I attended the BOE meeting last night as an observer and a parent. It confuses me as to how the ranking issue is just now being found? Haven’t the NECA students been attending NCC classes since Freshman year? Wouldn’t the grades have been calculated at the end of every semester/school year including the NCC grades? If they haven’t been putting in the transcripts of the NECA students NCC classes till this year, why not? By the logic of the BOE, the disparity of the calculations would have become obvious prior to March of this year if the grades had been calculating from the switch from Genesis software to Powerschool back in 2012.

Another observation – Dr. Adamnowski proposed the removal of class rankings in our High Schools “to create a situation in which virtually every student can be successful,” he said, predicting, “not winners and losers but a lot of winners.”
Any student who successfully completes HS, by definition, is a winner. Some achieve academically better then others but that in no way diminishes the fact that all students are attaining the same ultimate goal, successful completion of HS with the option of going on to either viable jobs or continuing at a college level. The goal should be to give each student the best tools needed to attain their ultimate goal. Keeping the students aligned within their pathway/school for the purposes of class ranking is the most logical solution.

Some points as to why discontinuing HS class rankings is not a good idea:

1) Competitive colleges still use class rank as a criteria when making admittance decisions – Fairfield U, Boston College, and Yale have all told us that during college information sessions this past fall and spring.
2) Scholarships still use rank i.e., Kevin Eidt Scholarships require the student to be in the top 10% to even apply.
3) National Honor Society only offers invitations to the top 100 students.
4) Valedictorian and Salutatorian are many times bright but unsung during their academic pursuits. This allows them to be given an honor they have worked hard for and deserve.
5) NPS struggles to compete with school districts like Wilton, Westport, Darien and New Canaan at the competitive college levels financially. By taking the ranking away you have now reduced two aspects of the application process that could benefit a NPS student’s application: admittance and merit scholarships.

My two cents:
1) Pick people to be on the GPA evaluation committee who have a stake in the game – students who are academically going to be affected by this decision, parents who can speak intelligently and provide insight as to what is being evaluated for college applications, faculty who are guiding students and HS administrators.

2) Before taking away what Dr. Adamnowski perceives is an antiquated evaluation of students be sure he isn’t creating a roadblock for any student who wishes to pursue a higher education with the potential of receiving thousands of dollars in helpful merit aid. I find very often NPS is quick to make changes without fully realizing the repercussions.

3) As it relates to Dr. Adamnowski’s suggestion of voting to have a class speaker instead of using a Valedictorian the speaker choice becomes the equivalent of a popularity contest and you already have that with the class president who typically speaks.

EZ Rider June 6, 2018 at 6:23 pm

Nora is 100% correct. It will turn into a huge popularity contest, rather than basing it on actual data. How can our leaders not foresee this?
It also doesn’t surprise me that Staples High School no longer names valedictorians. That’s Westport these days; can’t hurt anybody’s feelings. Sort of like the Norwalk High softball coach not naming captains this year for fear of hurting somebody’s feelings.
American suburbs of 2018 at its politically-correct worst.

Kathleen June 6, 2018 at 6:52 pm

@Norwalk mom: “Another observation – Dr. Adamnowski proposed the removal of class rankings in our High Schools “to create a situation in which virtually every student can be successful,” he said, predicting, “not winners and losers but a lot of winners.”

This explains a great deal. Thanks for this observation. It answers major question on how this happened. Perhaps he should walk the talk and create a situation where he receives the pay of school administrators.

Mike Barbis June 7, 2018 at 8:26 am

Members of the BOE, unpaid volunteers who spend 50+ hours a week in their position, don’t have the time or the ability to get involved in every minute operating detail … but Norwalk Mom seems to have all of the answers … I’m surprised she could not figure out that this is the first group of graduating NECA students … when we first switched to Genesis the program had just started and the NECA studetns did not start taking NCC (college) classes from the beginning … it was only toward the end of their four years that they took more of those classes, with heavier GPA weights, which is why this issue did not materialize until this year … that’s my guess based on the facts I know. IN addition, let’s remember, this only happened with one NECA student … the next 10 in the GPA list are NHS students.

Concerned June 7, 2018 at 8:37 am

Mike Barbis, once again you mention that you are an unpaid volunteer. Only this time it’s 50+ hours a week, you usually mention 40+ hours a week. I find your comment combative and insulting and I feel that you don’t get the point. So what if it was one NECA student? What about the NHS students?

Norwalk Mom brings up very valid and thoughtful points and comments. One could almost say common sense. But if it was indeed common sense then why did Norwalk once again have a huge mess on it’s hands, one that it created?

This should not have popped up last minute as the year was winding down. It’s a shame that the students are the ones being punished again, both regular students and NECA students. This should have been a time for congratulations and celebration and instead they have to be pitted against each other to fight for recognition of their hard work. All because Norwalk wasn’t forward thinking. And I’m not talking four years ago. I’m talking back in September when everyone knew these kids would be graduating this year.

Norwalk Mom June 7, 2018 at 1:02 pm

Thank you Kathleen for coming to my defense. Contrary to Mr. Barbis opinion, I do not have all the answers, just offering observations from the outside world. My statements did not indicate that the volunteer (elected) BOE members are supposed to be micromanaging the schools, but it would be helpful if an open mind could be utilized now that the situation has been “discovered”.

According to some Freshman students currently enrolled in NECA, they are starting their NCC classes this year. In the current Program of Studies book for 2018/2019, the NECA courses at NCC all allow the NECA student to receive 3 to 4 credits PER class taken at NCC. Whereas the Courses at NHS allow a maximum of 1 credit per class. Mathematically this gives NECA students the ability to have a 4.6 GPA or higher (dependent upon the final grade). If the NECA students are indeed adding these college level 3/4 credit courses to their transcripts it begs the question, where is the level playing field?

Hypothetically, if a traditional NHS student were to take NCC classes (advanced Math being an example), are they allowed to add those NCC credits to their transcripts? If not, maybe they should. If they are allowed to add NCC classes the current Juniors, Sophomores and Freshmen are already behind.

Another question, is there an age restriction at NCC for taking their college courses? Is it a special circumstance that NCC allows HS students to take college classes only because they are a part of the NECA program? Again, a question that can be put forth to the GPA committee.

Lastly, I am aware that this is the first NECA class to graduate. This change in rank did not just happen to “one NECA student” – by including the NECA students into the ranking they have bumped ALL of the traditional students down, just by the nature of their calculated credit numbers. Logically, this is why having two separate schools of ranking (NECA school, and NHS traditional student) could be a solution that would seem more appropriate.

I am not here to battle the BOE, just trying to understand how the calculations are happening and trying to find helpful resolutions. We all want to create excellence in Norwalk schools and see that reflected in the colleges that our children aspire to, and create a process that gives them the best chance to succeed.

angry mom June 7, 2018 at 4:02 pm

It’s time to stop referring to NCC as a “college”. It is a community college. I different animal entirely.

I’m with Norwalk Mom June 7, 2018 at 5:53 pm

The comments and observations of Norwalk Mom are the most thoughtful, constructive, insightful thus far, in my humble opinion. It is exactly that kind of disposition that we need on the policy advisory committee. If the egos of responding board members could take a back seat (no room, time or need for snark), some positive and constructive work could get done!

The explanation of the computer glitch and Barbis’ “as far as I know” is not convincing. When the PowerSchool switch was implemented courses at NCC were not included or assigned a weight according to the Norwalk High School Handbook. Some one needs to clarify that with details… no where is it written except (retroactively) in next years’ NHS handbook!

Come on folks, in order to really resolve this issue we need TRANSPARENCY AND LESS PERSONALIZING!

Mike Barbis June 8, 2018 at 7:02 am

The attitude and lecturing is really telling … I love how you are so high and mighty with your anonymous criticism … so easy to do so under your fake names. No wonder the BOE has been so dysfunctional over the years. People like you drive away reasonable, rational, hard working volunteers. Good riddance

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