Norwalk Board of Ed retreats to chart path forward

From left, Board of Education members Mike Lyons and Barbara Meyer-Mitchell discuss education issues Saturday in the Cranbury Park bunkhouse, as Norwalk Public Schools Assistant Chief of Talent & Director of Labor Relations Anthony Shannon and Communications Director Brenda Wilcox Williams look on and BoE member Bryan Meek studies his tablet.

Updated, 3 a.m. July 31: Barbara Meyer-Mitchell comment added. Correction, 1:32 a.m. July 31: Tracey not slated to go Quad D; typo fixed. Updated, 7:55 a.m.: Typo fixed; 6:06 a.m., 6:11 a.m.: Copy edits

NORWALK, Conn. — Norwalk Board of Education members convened Thursday-Saturday for a three-day meeting marathon intended to review performance and determine the future direction of Norwalk Public Schools.

The fifth annual board retreat featured reams of information and a belly laugh inspired by Superintendent of Schools Steven Adamowski, a first in the nearly-four years that NancyOnNorwalk has observed him.

Board Chairman Mike Barbis and Board members Heidi Keyes, Erik Anderson, Barbara Meyer-Mitchell, Sarah LeMieux, Julie Corbett, Bryan Meek, Bruce Kimmel, Lyons and Erik Anderson – who had been missing from Board meetings since March – began Thursday evening at the Cranbury Park bunkhouse by meeting Brenda Myers, the choice for chief academic officer, in an executive session.


Board considers role

After the executive session, Board members considered their roles and responsibilities over a working dinner.

Corbett led a discussion based on a lengthy article that members had been given to read, “Moving Beyond the Killer Bs, The Role of School Boards in School Accountability and Transformation,” by the Academic Development Institute.

“The thing that struck me most… (was) where you draw the line, how do they put it, ‘don’t waste time doing what staff does.’” Kimmel said. “That’s tough.”

Kimmel was on his first retreat, having been elected to the BoE last fall after a 6-year stint on the Common Council.

Constituent complaints have a totally different context on the Board of Education, because there’s a child involved, Kimmel said.  A Council member can forward a complaint to the correct City department, but as a Board of Ed member it’s easy to “send an outraged email at two in the morning.”

Meek said he’d heard an eloquent statement regarding corporate boards: “nose in, fingers out,” meaning, be aware of what’s going on but allow the staff to handle it.  But under some circumstances, “constituent pressure might force {a Board member} to get involved,” Meek said.


‘Trust and confidence’ amid ‘insane and unrealistic’ expectations

“We are in a situation I think now with a fair amount of trust and confidence but at a certain point, trust and confidence can do you in if you are not careful, so this balance is tough,” Kimmel said.

From left, Board of Education Chairman Mike Barbis, Norwalk Superintendent of Schools Steven Adamowski and BoE member Erik Anderson, Friday in the Cranbury Park bunkhouse.

“What is being expected of school systems today is completely insane and unrealistic,” Barbis said. “We are supposed to be nurturing kids, we are supposed to be teaching them how to dress, we are supposed to be teaching them manners, all this stuff that used to happen at home now is being transferred to the public school system. We are supposed to be figuring out if kids are eating right, if they are healthy, if their eyesight is good.”

“It is difficult … because how far do you go?” said Anderson, who left before the session ended. “If you go too far, you are going to have a group of individuals telling us ‘you have no right telling us how to raise our child.’ If we don’t go far enough then we have children slipping through the cracks.”


Large gain creates dilemma, math achievement gap shrinks,  SAT scores drop

Friday’s all-day session brought reams of data for Board members to consider, with Lyons, Meek, Meyer-Mitchell, LeMieux and Corbett beginning by reviewing state accountability assessment results.

Norwalk Superintendent of Schools Steven Adamowski said the much-ballyhooed gains in the 2016-17 Connecticut Next Generation Accountability Report, which included a 56-point improvement, showed the results of school funding increases, but “it does create a dilemma for us as we go into next year,” he said.

“You never want a gain that large in one year,” Adamowski said, drawing laughter. “If you had two 25-point gains everyone would be absolutely delighted. Now … statistically it’s very hard to avoid regressing to the mean after that.”

Testing and Evaluation Specialist Diane Filardo painstakingly reviewed SBAC (preliminary Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium) results, cautioning that statewide results are not yet available so for the time being it’s only possible to study local trends.

English Language results point to a need to refocus on improving performance, but math results were very positive.  “Based upon this data, it seems possible if not probable to us that at the end of next year we will have closed the achievement gap in math,” Adamowski said.

SAT scores are down slightly statewide and in Norwalk as well, Filardo said. Adamowski acknowledged that Norwalk’s average SAT score is 10 percent lower than the state’s average SAT scores, but “we have known this.” He pointed to the SAT results as justification for the expense of eliminating high school study halls because the SATs are a “general achievement” measure, and general knowledge is improved by increased learning time.

Investment in eliminating study halls will show up in a few years in better SAT scores, he said.

Friday’s working lunch was spent learning about a new data dashboard, which had been downloaded onto Board members iPads.  Director of Technology and Innovations Ralph Valenzisi said the dashboard will go public in about a week and will give community members visibility on information, including assessment data.


Working toward the future

After lunch the conversation returned to financial issues.  Meyer-Mitchell asked about the expense of adding capstone achievements to the high school program, which will bring the minimum number of credits required for graduation to 25.  Capstone achievements are projects that tie many facets of learning together into a culminating academic and intellectual experience, edglossary.org states.

While there might be student expenses, other schools have created capstone projects without adding staff, Adamowski said.

“We will have to develop a system but I am fairly optimistic that that aspect of that is not going to cost money. Whether or not there would be student costs, that’s a good question,” Adamowski said.

Later Adamowski highlighted Tracey Elementary School for developing a culture that exudes kindness and consideration for others, an important option in a district that competes with a Catholic school. Parents used to avoid Tracey but that’s changed, Board members said.   Adamowski noted that the district line for Silvermine goes right to Tracey’s back door because people didn’t want to send their children there.

Board members asked when NPS should consider redrawing the district lines and Adamowski said it should be done in two years – after his planned retirement. That drew the aforementioned belly laugh.

Norwalk Superintendent of Schools Steven Adamowski explains an educational initiative underway at Naramake Elementary School, Saturday in the Cranbury Park bunkhouse.

The Board moved on to goals for continued improvements, and Adamowski explained that the “Quad D” program at Naramake has created an “incredible level of engagement” for children, who are “less passive” and “more engaged in learning in education.”

“It’s not like the teacher lecturing all the time,” he said.

The Naramake initiative, inspired by education pioneer William Daggett, began two years ago and allows the school to experiment, with positive results already seen, Adamowski said.  Last year, grades 3 and 4 moved to the program, and six teachers received formal training.  There are plans this year to expand the program to grades 2 and 5.

“It’s what you would dream for a teacher in our school district to get to that professional level of accomplishment,” Adamowski said. “… it’s a talent development strategy.”

Instead of putting new teachers right into a classroom, as is currently done, they could spend their first six months in the Quad D “lab school,” he said.

Tracey Elementary School has improved student achievement each year, he said, announcing that Tracey was recommended to be a certified School of Character in 2020 and Naramake Quad D magnet school in 2021.

Corbett pushed back on the expense that would incur.

“Of course, I would love to do all of this but most likely we are not going to be able to do all of this. So I am trying to think about a balance here of what amount of funds are actually needed to run some of these programs,” she said, asking if it’s really necessary to provide an additional $1,000 per student for magnet schools.

The statewide allocation for magnet schools is $3,000 per student, Adamowski said, calling the $1,000 the bare minimum.

Board of Education member Mike Lyons, right, shares some lighthearted conversation with BoE member Bruce Kimmel Saturday morning in City Hall, before the retreat gets underway.

The retreat moved to City Hall on Saturday, and Adamowski opened the proceedings by clarifying with Board members that they wanted the Naramake experiment to continue as a lab school, not the more expensive magnet option.

After an update on Special Education, Lyons, Meek, Meyer-Mitchell and LeMieux moved on to a private session to evaluate Adamowski’s performance over the past year.


Origins of annual retreat

The annual board “retreat” had its origins four years ago in Board dysfunction, former Board Chairman Mike Lyons said afterwards.

“We had a retreat while Tony Daddona was Acting Superintendent that was just designed to address personal relationships on the Board,” Lyons wrote Saturday in an email. “This has now evolved way beyond that.  {Then-Superintendent} Manny Rivera had retreats that worked on board functioning but also increasingly on goal-setting, resulting in our first Strategic Plan (whose first goal, in 2015, was closing the achievement gap by 2020).  Steven Adamowski then ramped it up into the much longer, more detailed evaluation, analysis and planning function it serves today.”

Former Board of Education member Shirley Mosby, right, chats Saturday with Norwalk Public Schools K-12 English Language Arts Instructional Specialist Janine Goss in the Cranbury Park bunkhouse.

Former BoE member Shirley Mosby attended parts of the retreat in what she said was her capacity as NAACP education reporter.  Norwalk Federation of Teachers President Mary Yordon also attended, with NFT First Vice President Joe Giandurco sitting in Saturday.

Mosby did not reply to an email asking for an opinion.

Lyons, Meyer-Mitchell and Bruce Kimmel attended every hour of the retreat.  Meek, Julie Corbett and Sarah LeMieux made it to most of the event.  Barbis and Anderson did not attend Saturday and Sunday discussions.

“The most interesting and most important part of the retreat was the use of data to evaluate what we accomplished last year and which enabled us to develop a detailed plan for the coming year,” Kimmel wrote. “I also thought the level of discussion among Board members was exceptionally high.”

Meyer-Mitchell on Sunday wrote, “The best part of the retreat was having time to discuss the strategic operating plan, receive data about where we are, and discuss the very exciting foundation partnerships that could help Norwalk be a leader in creating schools of Distinction that serve high needs student populations.”


Ron Morris July 30, 2018 at 1:57 am

Where is this retreat aka mini vacation that my tax dollars are paying for. What is the cost? Odd how Anderson can make it to this mini vacation, but he cant seem to find his way to the meetings.

Bob Welsh July 30, 2018 at 6:24 am

@Ron Morris

The retreat took place at the Cranbury Park bunkhouse on Thursday and Friday, and City Hall on Saturday.

steve July 30, 2018 at 6:59 am

I’m always amazed at the degree of time that BOE officers put in. BOE officers take away from their own families to work for no pay, often under the klieg light and w/many willing to throw them under the bus at a moment’s notice. There are some members I agree with more often than others but no one I always agree with. Regardless, they put their respective blood, sweat and tears into a job which is intended to benefit others, with no financial remuneration. Thanks!!!

Piberman July 30, 2018 at 11:05 am

As long as our BOE, Common Council and Mayor endorse keeping our public school salaries competitive with surrounding towns – among the nation’s wealthiest – we can continue to expect a stagnant Grand List, falling property values, punitive taxes, an influx of renters and major exodus of long time homeowners. Thereby transforming Norwalk into an ever more transient City. No amount of BOE spending is going to significantly reduce the substantial underperformance of the City’s school systems with surrounding towns. Our public school teachers mostly avoid living in Norwalk because of punitive taxes and schools.

Danbury with a population similar to Norwalk’s spends 30% less per capita than our City. But with similar student outcomes.

In a City with nearly a 10% poverty rate matching school salaries with some of the nations’ wealthiest towns guarantees our once proud Norwalk will just become another Bridgeport. Long past time for the BOE to consider homeowners ability to pay and their housing values rather than keeping school salaries at lofty levels matching wealthy neighboring towns.

Anne Sullivan July 30, 2018 at 11:36 am

Mr. Barbis, thank you for noticing the expectations on teachers: “We are supposed to be nurturing kids, we are supposed to be teaching them how to dress, we are supposed to be teaching them manners, all this stuff that used to happen at home now is being transferred to the public school system. We are supposed to be figuring out if kids are eating right, if they are healthy, if their eyesight is good.” I am evaluated on how much academic progress children in my room are making, yet the above MUST be attended to before a child can learn. Like the board, teachers realize we are educating and nurturing individual children and it is becoming more difficult to balance every year.

backwardation July 30, 2018 at 12:28 pm

The expanded roles mentioned in the article is part and parcel derived from the large and diverse multicultural community here. Undoubtedly, city residents should expect large year on year BOE budget increases with the school system expected to wear multiple hats and Norwalk being a favored destination for immigrant groups (last reported 38 languages from 40 countries from the ELL program) . The larger question, can a city such as Norwalk remain viable by placing exorbitant financial demands on struggling homeowners or is Norwalk a Bridgeport template in the making? One has to wonder how much longer will it take the dam to break by placing perennial demands on homeowners to pay higher property taxes multiples above any inflation or property appreciation rates? Something will obviously need to give no matter what superficial spin putting on this.

MarjorieM July 30, 2018 at 1:11 pm

Regarding the drop in test scores this year, here is the direct quote from Adamowski:
“You never want to a gain that large in one year,” Adamowski said, drawing laughter. “If you had two 25-point gains everyone would be absolutely delighted. Now … statistically it’s very hard to avoid regressing to the mean after that.”

I have been advising people here that a valid, statistical increase in test scores demands a longitudinal study of at least three years. In the case of a new superintendent, the starting point to track test scores needs to begin after the first year. We are now hearing about a regression to the mean to explain the drop in scores. Dr. Adamowski, didn’t you receive a large bonus for bringing up test scores last year? Perhaps there should be a regression to the mean in bonuses if test scores were not really statistically valid scores? Perhaps those great test scores shouldn’t be attributed to your changes, but are a part of a longitudinal study of the previous administration?

Kevin Kane July 31, 2018 at 10:06 am

Anne Sulivan, backwardation and Mike Barbis – EXACTLY, well stated. It is no longer core instruction and is evolving into Mom and Dad Mopup who turn the duty of raising a child including preparing for school to the teachers and education system to handle.
You left out that Norwalk public schools handle dental care: my hygienist volunteers with I believe some type of Norwalk charity who goes to Norwalk schools to clean students teeth. Someone i.e the taxpayer is paying for that because resources outside of her simply volunteering are being used to coordinate the program and the child is pulled from the classroom to have their teeth cleaned. The hygienist tells me of having to see a virtual rainbow of colors in the morning’s patients (Gatorade? juices? last nights soda?) as the first child gets in the chair, even picking chocolate chip cookies out of teeth. Something tells me NPS will take on another role – that of Hygiene and Nutrition Curriculum Development. Crazy.

Sherelle Harris July 31, 2018 at 10:37 am

Oh my!

That was my initial reaction on many levels. At some point I will write my view of some self-centered politics, cliques and the ambivalence of some numbers.

Then came Anne Sullivan’s comment and I had to sigh. I speak with many retired African-American teachers within my family’s circle. The ones from the south share Ms. Sullivan’s view in the most honest of ways. It is not that they mind taking care. They know what discrimination feels like. They know what it is like to love and have to take care of the less fortunate and they actually enjoy doing it. I think it is the disciplinary issues these days that gives them pause and whether some of the needs should be met at the community level or the educational level.

So, me being me with never-ending questions, I had to ask (after putting together thoughts and views of many friends and acquaintances I’ve spoken to from cultures across the country): what is the bottomline and the root of the issues. Is it systemic racism, or is it babies having babies and not being mature enough yet to “raise” them? There are so many other variables and other questions I have asked them. Unfortunately, I cannnot ask them in this venue without some others taking total offense (not understaning the love and true curiosity from which the questions stem) because it seems easier to be offended than to think, and to think assiduously about real solutions, rather than the one-two-three step textbook solutions. Then we are back to the drawing board of it being about everything, but the real solutions needed for our DIVERSE population of children. My dream is that we educate all Norwalk children equally academically with proper reasoning skills–without patronizingly low or high expectations stemming from their zip codes or their parents’socioeconomic status–so that no matter where our children land in life people know that we, Norwalk, educated all of our children well!

My mom told me that when she graduated high school and college that she was prepared, that she was ready for the world. That is the goal I wish we’d set forth for all of our children!

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