Updated, 8:43 a.m.: Copy edits
NORWALK, Conn. – School officials laid out plans at Tuesday’s Board of Education Meeting for a pilot school offering a fundamental change in instruction.
Outside funders have already pledged to cover half the $3.6 million cost of a three-year attempt to create a School of Distinction with a student body of more than 63 percent high-needs students, Norwalk Superintendent of Schools Steven Adamowski said. Brookside, Kendall and Jefferson Elementary Schools are interested in becoming the model school, which would add five days to the school year, lengthen the school day by an hour, and implement different teaching models.
“This may not be what people want. But quite often the customer doesn’t know what they want, they know what they have. They are not able to appreciate the effect of something until you actually try it and do it and they see the results. We have to deal with that issue,” Adamowski said. “Because if we simply had people do what they want, we would just do more of the status quo.”
Adamowski, Chief of Technology, Innovations and Partnerships Ralph Valenzisi and Michael Chambers of the Greenwich-based Heidenreich Family Foundation first laid out the School of Distinction idea in July at the BoE retreat. Charitable foundations are excited about Norwalk’s test results and looking to invest in groundbreaking programs here, Valenzisi said.
Rowayton Elementary School was named Norwalk’s first School of Distinction in February, in spite of 45 percent of its students having high needs. Other Connecticut Schools of Distinction have had at most 20 percent high-needs students, and this had inspired foundation interest in creating a School of Distinction in Norwalk with more than 50 percent high-needs students, Adamowski said in July.
A “School of Distinction,” is a state designation signifying “a school performance index of 85 or better with no gap outlier.” Creating one with a majority of high-needs students has never been done in Connecticut and, “That is one of the reasons why there is philanthropic interest in this project,” Adamowski said.
The Grossman Foundation and the Heidenreich Family Foundation have pledged to cover half the cost, which will serve as challenge to other foundations to match the funds, he said.
The district has an average of 63 percent high-needs students, Adamowski said Tuesday.
The prospectus presented Tuesday was developed from research in achievement gap-closing schools from around the country and from successful local practices, NPS Chief Academic Officer Brenda Myers said:
- “Tenets” include ambitious leadership, a rigorous and relevant curricular model and a culture of professional learning.
- Teachers would be required to attend 16 days of professional development each year, up from the current four days.
- A literacy model would be founded on integrating reading, writing, listening, speaking and viewing
- There would be problem-based mathematics using Singapore Math
- “Coherent” blocks of instruction would include 120 minutes of literacy, 90 minutes of numeracy and 60 minutes of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics)
- A Commitment to an Arts Program would include Kodály music program
- Student Health and Wellness would include social emotional learning based on CASEL framework
Data would need to be measured over 12 years, as children move to college- and career-readiness, she said.
BoE Chairman Mike Barbis objected to Singapore math. The district looked at it a decade ago and decided NPS wasn’t in the position to teach it, he said. Myers replied that it wouldn’t be taught district-wide, so the required professional development would be much less onerous.
NPS is now on Common Core State Standards, which require conceptual development, she said.
Barbis also questioned the English Language Arts approach. He noted that Rowayton is using Core Knowledge ELA and that this isn’t mentioned in the prospectus.
Data shows a slight increase that can be attributed to CKLA but the big deficit in ELA is writing, Adamowski said.
“We can look at Core Knowledge but our sense is that’s not going to move the needle enough. What will is 30 minutes a day on writing,” he said.
Barbis agreed that writing deficiency is a serious problem and BoE member Bruce Kimmel commented that writing needs to be integrated into everything the children do because “to be a good writer you have to write and write some more.”
Adamowski agreed that “there has to be some explicit instruction but then integrated.”
Continual progress monitoring is needed as part of the pilot school program because quarterly assessments aren’t enough, Chief of Specialized Learning and Student Services Yvette Goorevitch explained. Adamowski noted the connection between music and math achievement and said note reading is essentially spatial intelligence, and children in this school will be playing a flute before moving on to band or string instruments in third grade.
Kodály is a form of general music education, he said.
All of this dovetails with another NPS objective: to create a year-round school, Adamowski said. Valenzisi explained that there would be two-week breaks throughout the school year for a year-round school, and this would help prevent summer slide.
Funders would expect results within three years, and would fund a full five-year process if there are signs of incremental progress, Adamowski said. BoE member Julie Corbett called that a relief and explained that it takes five years to turn students around, and there are concerns about sustainability.
The schools that are interested have at least a 71 percent high-needs population so “we are really talking about aggressive growth here,” Corbett said, asking if the staff had been consulted in the request to be considered as a pilot program.
The buy-in will require approval of the School Governance Council involved and, “this is not for everybody,” Adamowski said. He explained that there will have to be “fairly detailed design specs later this spring” so teachers can evaluate the proposal and go through an opt-in or opt-out process, in which principals would have to agree that they remain in the school and commit to the training. There would be no consequence for the teachers who decline to stay, as there will likely be vacancies in other schools.
Barbara Meyer-Mitchell asked if families had been consulted, and suggested a survey.
A school will probably be chosen this spring and the Board will have to decide what the roll-out will be over the course of the first year because all of the goals cannot be met within one year, Adamowski said. He said that the phase-in will be designed before he retires.
NPS will proceed full steam ahead, he said.
“This is fundamental change. It will have fallout and implications all around,” he said. “… Perhaps with a tiny bit of enhancement but we wouldn’t be able to move the needle fundamentally, and this is about moving the needle fundamentally for students who in the current system, predictably would have the results that they are having now.”
“The Schools of Distinction is a really interesting way to promote improvements,” Norwalk Federation of Teachers President Mary Yordon said at the close of the meeting. “…There are wonderful improvements underway in all of our schools and it’s incredible to consider that there are institutions and individuals out there who believe in the work that we are doing and are willing to fund the changes that are necessary to close the achievement gap, which has been stubborn for the last few years in all of Connecticut.”
“I am very disappointed to hear that there are plans underway, today, for the first time, that will involve impact bargaining,” Yordon said. She noted that “ambitious leaders” will require courageous followers and the Federation of Teachers is looking for “careful communication” as, “we have not had communication about these issues.”