Bruce Kimmel is a Board of Education member.
During last year’s budget debate, I argued the city had been in denial when it comes to the cumulative impact of the state’s Education Cost Sharing (ECS) formula, which severely shortchanges Norwalk. Year after year, our elected and appointed officials, even former members of the BOE, had touted the progress made by our schools, when all the while we were barely treading water; in fact, we were beginning to sink.
Finally recognizing the need to play catch-up, the Board’s most recent budget requests were rather substantial. The Board believed the city could no longer afford to lag further and further behind as the world of education changed drastically. Fortunately, after long and sometimes difficult discussions, the city provided the funds necessary to implement what might be called “catch-up initiatives.”
Those funds have been put to good use. According to the state’s Accountability Index, we are currently the number one urban district in Connecticut. And we’ve substantially reduced the achievement gap. But perhaps the greatest change in the school system is happening in our high schools. These changes are not only long overdue, they also symbolize our long-term collective denial regarding the most important responsibility of any municipal government: the education of its youngest residents.
In 2006, former members of the BOE were forced to recognize a serious problem in our high schools: Because of grossly insufficient staffing levels, many students had multiple study halls on most days. We discussed this issue for several years, but nothing happened; solving the problem was deemed too costly; Board members believed we couldn’t afford to rectify the situation until the ECS formula was changed.
I was a member of the Board at the time and knew that school districts around the country were in the process of doing away with study halls altogether – while we couldn’t even do away with multiple study halls. The funding problems caused by ECS notwithstanding, I saw this as a moral responsibility that wasn’t being fulfilled.
In frustration, in 2008 I sent an email to officials at the State Department of Education. The email provided data: At the time, 685 of our high school students out of roughly 3,200 had multiple study halls on most days. The Board was aware the state would soon be increasing high school graduation requirements, but I didn’t believe we could conform to those requirements without solving the study hall problem.
I received a response from the state that said there were no guidelines regarding study halls but that could change as the curriculum and instruction staff developed their secondary school reform proposal. Unfortunately, they never did develop those study hall guidelines.
Exacerbating an already horrible situation was the fact that the SAT exams had also changed. They were now based primarily on course content, which meant the more courses taken by students, the greater their chances of doing well. No way many of our students could compete, get into the colleges of their choice, until we figured out how to radically change our high school graduation requirement.
I served on the Board from 2005 until 2009. I was re-elected to the Board in 2017 and promptly learned the state had indeed increased its high school graduation requirement to 26 credits but was allowing districts additional time to make necessary changes. All the quality districts in the state had already adopted the new requirement, but Norwalk’s official graduation requirement was still 20 credits, which meant many of our students were still spending too much time in study halls.
But all that was about to change, finally: An expansion of our high school curriculum was completed last winter and is being fully implemented this year. Our new graduation requirement, 26 credits, now conforms to current standards. And this year, for the first time, there will be no study halls. Twenty new teachers have been hired to implement the new curriculum. We are also modernizing our guidance system to ensure our students are prepared to handle a 21st Century workload.
When it comes to education, we need to continue working together as a city. We have a moral responsibility to ensure our students have the kind of education they deserve. We need to keep moving in the right direction.