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Norwalk BoE reflects on its practices in drive for ‘turnaround’

Norwalk Board of Education member Julie Corbett on July 26 leads a BoE self assessment during the retreat in the Cranbury Park bunkhouse.

Updated, 7:10 a.m.: Copy edits

NORWALK, Conn. — Norwalk Board of Education members on Tuesday looked to New Haven and Wichita as an inspiration for possible improvements.

“It is interesting to see (New Haven) as a microcosm of Connecticut, in terms of haves and have-nots, and also what that does to the school district. Because you have a lot of parents who are involved with Yale in some way who wring their hands about the school system and don’t participate,” Board member Sarah LeMieux said.

The discussion about turnaround efforts in similar districts was a follow-up to the Board’s self-assessment in July at its annual retreat, in which an anonymous written survey of Board members asked questions regarding Board effectiveness, functionality, and cohesiveness.  The survey showed, among other things, that four of nine members disagreed that there’s a high level of trust among its members.

Five of nine disagreed with the statement, “School Board members air their differences in a constructive, problem-solving manner.”

Board member Julie Corbett led the self-assessment both in July and on Tuesday, as part of a training program agreed to by Board members and Norwalk Superintendent of Schools Steven Adamowski. The assessment is a six to 12-month course that the Norwalk BoE will do in two or three months, she said.

The survey showed that all Board members feel they have sufficient access to Adamowski and are comfortable communicating with him. Board members are not happy with the training they receive; only two agreed that their training is adequate and only two said there is training on school turnaround issues. Five felt they understand the difference between improvement and turnaround but one disagreed with the notion that school turnaround processes and supports are in the strategic operating plan.

Four disagreed with the statement, “has established policies and procedures for differentiating supports for schools based on each school’s performance and progress.”

Survey results indicate a need for training, Corbett said in July.  She noted that “action plans for Board functionality are separate from the strategic operating plan for the district.”

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New Haven model leads to talk of elected Board members versus appointed

Corbett, who works as a consultant focused on district reform and turnaround strategies, co-authored both the case studies on New Haven and Wichita for the Center on School Turnaround. The idea is to examine best practices in general, she said.

New Haven has benefited from an unprecedented level of cooperation with its teachers’ union, Mike Lyons said Tuesday.  Lyons led the Board meeting in the absence of Chairman Mike Barbis. Barbara Meyer-Mitchell called the cooperation a possible inspiration.

A major difference: New Haven’s BoE members have historically been appointed by the Mayor, who also serves on the Board.

In Norwalk, “Even if we are in the same party, we are competing with each other if we are running at-large in the next election,” Bruce Kimmel said.  At-large candidates run city-wide; each party nominates multiple candidates.

Elected board members can work with members from the opposing party once in office, but they know that they’ll have to support his or her opponent when there’s an election, and “it kind of tears at Board relationships,” Kimmel said.

“With an elected board you’re not going to get the thoughtful balance of skillsets unless the parties and everybody involved is sort of doing that together,” Meyer-Mitchell said.

“I would argue that you’re better not filling the ticket than putting someone on the ticket that would be completely dysfunctional. Give up the seat because you can get dragged in on coattails and you never know what could happen,” Kimmel said.

“You have to depend on two town committees to be responsible on how you do this,” Lyons observed, musing that town committees need to be recruiting, not waiting until the last minute.

Board members have a responsibility to recruit, Corbett said.  Well-functioning boards make recruiting easier, she said.  “The more functional a board is as a whole, the more likely you are to get quality candidates because no one wants to join ‘crazy.’”

New Haven switched to an elected/appointed hybrid in 2015, with two outgoing BoE members elected by voters instead of being appointed, the report states. They, like Norwalk, are volunteers, Lyons said.

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Wichita

Wichita turned around its school district when it was in dire need of money, Kimmel observed, which he views as “kind of miraculous.”

“Innovation often happens in places when you have to change the way you are doing things,” Corbett said.  She noted that that “luckily” the leadership was in place.

Meyer-Mitchell seized upon a report that Wichita’s superintendent sent out a weekly memo that created a structure for improvements.

“We have a superintendent who just barrels through with accomplishments and I wouldn’t want to take away from that,” she said. “At the same time, I think the Board needs a more cohesive structure.”

Adamowski later commented that he was in the habit for years of writing a weekly memo, but in Norwalk, “There are so many questions and issues raised between meetings, I find myself spending the same amount of time answering those as I would doing a Friday memo.”

Wichita was known for contentious BoE meetings.  “I had to laugh,” Lyons said.

“Their overall approach, it’s very similar to what we have done here,” Lyons observed. “Both political parties took an active role for the first time in anyone’s memory and tried to select good candidates who could work together, and that helped to establish healthy Board culture, the strategic plan, hiring a strong superintendent, you know, multi-tiered systems of supports – a lot of this is what we have done. So I am sort of encouraged by the fact that this successful transition they are making parallels in many respects our own.”

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A ‘strong superintendent’

During a discussion regarding the role of board members, Kimmel observed that it’s important to stay focused and not waste time micromanaging in response to parent complaints.  Corbett said Board members have to trust that the job will get done.

Lyons said that when he was chairman, he’d have lunch with Adamowski monthly to check in on responses to complaints.  Kimmel said former Norwalk Boards of Education before then took the hands-off approach too literally, with no monitoring of the superintendent.

Heidi Keyes said hiring a superintendent is the most important thing Board members do, and Meyer-Mitchell said the Board could have community discussions about the role of Board members.

Both New Haven and Wichita have strong superintendents in their turnaround efforts, Lyons said.

It’s important not to back down when constituents call to complain, he added.  Good Norwalk superintendents have left because the Board of Education pulled the rug out from under them, and it’s irrational to expect that there will be no counter attacks when a strong super is leading reform, he said.

“I think there’s a degree to which Board members have to just have courage but you’re going to be attacked, you’re going to be sued, you’re going to have complaints against you if you are trying to push through change,” Lyons said. “You have to have a certain amount of courage to withstand that and stick with it.”

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