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Opinion: The educational status quo was not acceptable

Norwalk is experiencing a demographic transformation. Its population is increasing and becoming more diversified. These changes have transformed our schools. The current student population is roughly fifty percent Hispanic. And sixty-three percent of our students are considered high needs.

Rapid change often produces conflict. Typically, long-entrenched officials and well-connected community leaders are slow to adjust to the new reality. This conflict between the past and future generally leads to acrimonious debate, screaming headlines, and unsubstantiated allegations.

The most bitter battles often revolve around urban schools, as local boards of education implement policies and curriculum that conform to modern standards. The Norwalk school system is a prime example. It has moved from what had been widely considered a dysfunctional system, geared more to the needs of adults than to students, toward a student-centered system that aims to provide every student the skills and knowledge to succeed. Predictably, entrenched proponents of the status quo have opposed most of these changes.

Some recent history illustrates this development.

For years, local politicians and school board members routinely announced that our public schools were in excellent shape. But in 2008, the Cambridge report was issued, and it was made embarrassingly clear that our students were not receiving an adequate education.

The report noted that the problems with special education were so severe a consultant was needed to investigate and make recommendations. The Capital Region Education Council, known as CREC, was hired and issued three reports, each one reprimanding the city for not providing special education students the education they legally and morally deserved.

But nothing changed. Two superintendents, Susan Marks and Manny Rivera, after making strenuous efforts to reform our schools, resigned because of opposition among administrators and local officials to their initiatives. Then, in 2015, a new superintendent, Steven Adamowski, was hired to implement long-overdue changes. Working with Mayor Rilling and the BOE, Adamowski proposed, and the city funded, a host of initiatives, some of which are still in progress, that finally got the school system moving forward.

To put things in perspective: When Adamowski was hired, Norwalk’s special education services were in disarray; there were virtually no remedial programs; we had the shortest school day in the state; high school students were forced to take multiple study halls because of the paucity of course offerings and the bare minimum high school graduation requirements; middle schools were disorganized and needed to be redesigned; school facilities were in desperate need of major renovations; and our schools were overcrowded.

The first order of business was devising a plan to provide quality services for special needs students. For years, the city had been forced to pay expensive out-of-district tuition fees for special education students because we could not provide the services they were entitled to. The BOE and superintendent, working with Mayor Rilling and the Common Council, financed a three-year turn-around program that has made tremendous progress.

The second order of business was the adoption of a multi-year strategic operating plan that would bring Norwalk schools up to current academic standards. Again working with the Mayor, we’ve been able to fund and implement almost all its major components.

The third order of business was the adoption of a $151 million, five-year facilities plan designed to upgrade and renovate school facilities and alleviate overcrowding. The plan included construction of a new school in South Norwalk, renovation and expansion of Ponus middle school, the renovation of Jefferson and Columbus schools, and upgrades across the system.

There has been intense but futile opposition by a small group of elected officials and community activists to these much-needed reforms. Opposition has included attempts to derail initiatives, distract attention from our focus on students, personal attacks on the board and its leadership, and inappropriate interventions into highly sensitive personnel matters. Between 2015 and 2017, four members of the BOE, some of whom were on the board when the Cambridge report was issued, tried to stifle virtually every major program introduced by the superintendent, even the construction of a new school in South Norwalk.

Despite the small but vocal group of opponents, Norwalk has closed the achievement gap by one-third; our students experience more academic growth on a yearly basis than any other district in the state; the test scores of our English Language Learners exceed state averages; Norwalk is the number one urban district in the state, according to the state’s accountability index; and we are in the midst of a major overhaul of our school facilities.

A final point: The last municipal election resulted in a BOE with only white members. We are a diverse city and we need a diverse BOE ready to continue transforming our schools. We urge the Norwalk Democratic and Republican parties to do a better job of finding diverse and competent candidates for the BOE to carry on this work.

24 comments

Sherelle Harris February 12, 2019 at 12:00 pm

I usually try to stay out of nonsense, but to this letter I say grow up and get rid of the ego-grabbing, gang mentality. Thumbs down https://www.thehour.com/opinion/article/See-who-gets-a-Thumbs-Down-this-week-13608210.php and please see https://www.nancyonnorwalk.com/2015/07/opinion-board-of-ed-work-should-not-be-about-adults-but-children/ No amount of verbiage can cover up for the arrogance and power hungry nonsense that is displayed, not to mention the lies that came forward with the FOI request. Barbara Meyer Mitchell–whose name is not signed to this letter–spoke candidly and is probably being cut off as were board members who had their own minds, but tried to stay above the fray. Where are the peacemakers to make the peace before things escalate?

I can give a pat on the back, whether or not I like someone, if a job is well done; however, these types of actions give me pause to wonder what is really going on. Numbers can lie too depending on whose behind them. Folk get caught in a lie, Nancy publishes an article about apologizing, and here we are.

So your point is….? What’s your real message?

Bryan Meek February 12, 2019 at 12:56 pm

https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=scjFd0Fn-bI&t=457s&fbclid=IwAR2fMQaQaIJFgd9dbAxdIS8zfnf7Q4jP4k4biH6h2ffrTTv5oUbuCgpmjPU

Starts at the 5 minute mark and deteriorates after the 8 minute mark. Like the false allegations from High Roads School in 2016, which were later corroborated as false by law enforcement and DCF. Here was a brand new set of allegations that proved false, once again. These were brought about less than two weeks into the school year after having to be ordered out of the school building for disrupting classrooms and attempting to inspect legally protected private documents of students.

Who owes who an apology? Who should resign from their leadership position?

Mike Lyons February 12, 2019 at 1:21 pm

The real message is that this Board has made great things happen for our children – most of them minority children – after decades of stasis. And the people attacking this Board were part of that stasis. We are proud of our record, and will not be deterred from doing the right thing for our children by the personal attacks directed against us in an effort to get us to reverse course.

Norwalk native February 12, 2019 at 2:09 pm

To the writers of this article:

You say that the Norwalk school system is roughly 50% Hispanic. Does that reflect the Demographic make-up of the City? Is it even close? If not, are you questioning why the school system so disproportionately reflects one Demgraphic that presumably costs more to educate? Why not? All your efforts have done is to make Norwalk the school system of choice for illegals at the expense of legal immigrants and longtime native residents. The beneficiaries are the illegals, the Teachers Unions and the Democratic party machine. Instead of patting yourselves on the back, put the perennial BOE budget increases into seeking out illegals apartments.

Norwalk native February 12, 2019 at 2:29 pm

To the writers of this article:

Stop portraying your actions as beneficial to the residents of Norwalk. You are throwing the taxpayers under the bus for your own benefit and for the benefit of a small constitiency.

Patrick Cooper February 12, 2019 at 2:39 pm

@Norwalk Native. He shoots! He misses……Right issue, wrong group to blame. An improved school system is all we have going for us. Get educated. Go to this – and watch. These 10 minutes (start at 47:00) will provide you with the facts.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EMOLpyEeQYY

It was the BOE who – after years of trying to find these details out, could finally present them in stark relief. This is what they must deal with. By CT law. That’s right – they are served this s-sandwich, they don’t create it. Your finger pointing is misdirected.

Why not directly ask the mayor (who did you vote for?) – who proclaimed sanctuary city status – who appoints the most junior member of the CC to oversee the ordinance committee – that chooses to deal with plastic bags, and noise, but surprise surprise – never discuss enforcement of current ordinances – especially when it comes to illegal apartments. Look back at the below NoN-article – and see my comment then – I’ll recite a key point again for your perusal:

https://www.nancyonnorwalk.com/2019/01/nps-demographic-study-shows-big-hike-in-hispanic-students/

As Mr. Costanzo points out (52:14) – the NPS has 153 NEW ELL (English Language Learner’s) JUST THIS YEAR (so far – there are 30 more on a “waiting list”). He describes the difficulty (“challenging”) in confirming that residency, because of unique lifestyle patterns of this community. But a major takeaway was this: of the 153 new ELL students – “less than 5” are homeowners. Meaning – 148/153 (96.7%) live in apartments or – predominantly – multi-family homes. The most astonishing statement (but not surprising) is – and I quote exactly – “many families are not in a legal lease with a landlord”. Bingo.

The mayor sat in that presentation – but has yet to utter a single word about the implications – nor defend his policies – which are the primary drivers of this change WHEN will Norwalk hold this man accountable?

Enough February 12, 2019 at 5:42 pm

Middle schools were disorganized!!! Ha,that is comical. I would say thanks for making more headaches than pushing initiatives.

Nps teacher February 12, 2019 at 6:08 pm

Middle schools were disorganized!!! WOW. You guys need to get off your high horse and see the CHAOS you created by RUSHING the MS redesign. We WISH we could go back to the way it was, (NOT because we resist change like you think) but because it actually worked and students enjoyed coming to school. “Data” can be skewed in anyway a presenter likes, and it’s disparaging to read about the growth when you know it’s not authentic (out of 100, going from a 2 to a 4 can be considered growth)

I think I speak for a few people when I say we are tired of the authors within this post patting themselves on the back for their “accomplishments” when WE are the ones implementing it. WE ALSO volunteer hours (THOUSANDS) and have lives outside of school as well.

I’ll sit back and wait to get talked down to, made fun of, or told how great the BOE is now…

MarjorieM February 12, 2019 at 6:39 pm

According to what I am reading, Norwalk’s new test scores should be commensurate with the dollars spent on programs, etc. The new test scores should go through the roof! Otherwise, who will this board blame? Oh…..I’m sure they will find a scapegoat. They always do.

‘We urge the Norwalk Democratic and Republican parties to do a better job of finding diverse and competent candidates for the BOE to carry on this work.’ -QUOTE

How does one evaluate the competency of a board member? Do “competent” minority members need to pass the Lyons/Barbis litmus test? Past minority candidates were left out of correspondences and were not treated equally, according to what I have heard and read. Do the minority candidates have to agree unequivocally with the Lyons/Barbis agenda to be acceptable? Is this the measure by which minority candidates are welcome to run for a seat on the board? I have surmised that this is the exact and only definition of BoE competency.

Lisa H February 12, 2019 at 8:47 pm

How can we expect test scores through the roof with the demographic and economic changes we’ve experienced in the last 10 years? The dramatic increase of ELL and high needs students are not exempt from testing. The poverty rate, as measured by free and reduced lunches in our schools, has grown substantially over the past 5 years and a shocking 35% since the mid-2000’s.

I’d say it’s close to a miracle that we’ve been able to continue to close the achievement gap, continue academic growth and raise the test scores of ELL students.

Criticize all you want but this is a direct reflection of the hard word and uncountable hours of the BOE and the administrative direction under Dr. Adamowski.

No matter what political party you belong to or the color of your skin, the facts are still the facts. Our school system is by far much better than it was five years ago. The Strategic Operating Plan put together by then majority of the Board has been a successful roadmap for Norwalk Public Schools. My question going forward is always, “Who will we elect to manage the school (and city) budgets and what are their qualifications to manage this amount of money?”

MarjorieM February 12, 2019 at 9:09 pm

Aha! The excuse is already in for the possibility of lower test scores…..the demographic and economic changes in the city! There have been demographic and economic changes since at least twenty years ago. There was major white flight to the suburbs for many many years. Sorry, that excuse has been used already!

Lisa Brinton February 12, 2019 at 10:19 pm

Marj – Just to keep it real, our racial breakdown was a pretty evenly distributed – 1/3 African American, Hispanic and White student population back when my my kids were in elementary school, with the free and reduced school lunch population ~ 23% in 2004/5. More drastic is not the racial breakdown changes, but the economics, where the poverty rate is now 57% free and reduced lunch. How can that not have an impact on test scores?

Interested Observer February 12, 2019 at 10:31 pm

I find disconcerting that members of the Board continue to repeat an obvious and blatant “alternatve fact” among their accomplishments. Parents of NPS high school students – please ask your students whether there are or are not study halls, or whether they have merely been relabeled as something else. True, there has been a slight reduction, but calling them something while saying they don’t exist is at best intentionally misleading. What other “accomplishments” are equally illusory?

Educator February 13, 2019 at 9:50 am

“Diverse and competent candidates” like Dr. Crevecouer? The most qualified BOE member to ever sit at the table? Who you intentionally ostracized because he dared to question some of your (Lyons/Barbis) decisions. Or is it because you were threatened by an intelligent man of color? What you really mean is someone who will line up and do as they are told.

REALLY February 13, 2019 at 9:56 am

Just like the ‘powers that be’, BOE, to balantly lie about the school system to hide the fact that it is not interested in closing the achievement gap for minorities but only interested in ransoming minority students for more money from the state. Hence, the reason they have to pat themselves on the back because it makes it seem like they are not racist when clearly they all are which is why they keep the BOE white but not right!

Darlene Young February 13, 2019 at 11:53 am

Let’s all say it together:

“Attaboy/girl to the BOE for their unwavering and steadfast bi-partisan handiwork to improve Norwalk Public Schools (NPS). I just can’t imagine where “our” children would be. How dare folks question ANYONE on the BOE about ANYTHING.”

Now let’s be real:

It is because there seems to be no meaningful and sincere interest in hearing and understanding anything that doesn’t rubber stamp ideas. Challenges the prevailing groupthink mentality and you’re out. https://www.mindtools.com/pages/article/newLDR_82.htm.

Let’s say it all together:

“The audacity of certain South Norwalk folks. I mean, really, what reason would anyone have to question the motives/intentions of the highly-educated(?). After all it is just South Norwalk.

Now let’s be real:

South Norwalk is the core area were the majority of the City’s poor population live. It is the place that has the highest concentration of absentee landlords that profit from illegal rentals; the place where most of the City’s public housing developments are located; the place that once had a neighborhood school, but is now the district 99 that gets to bus their children to schools across the City to ensure racial balance within the system; the community that has been neglected for decades until the advent of the new gentry! So yes, given the history of interaction between the City, NPS/BOE and the South Norwalk community and leaders that those of you who signed this letter saw fit to call out while extolling self-righteousness, we should have questions and concerns. More importantly, we have the absolute right to voice our concerns and opinions and will continue to do so. Whether we speak or don’t speak you have a problem with us, but we won’t kowtow to your judgement, your pressure, or your attempt to ignore us.

MarjorieM February 13, 2019 at 2:14 pm

Lisa Britton, where are you getting your free and reduced figures from? Are you looking at individual schools? Seems to me, in 2004-2005, Jefferson School was at least 50% free and reduced lunches. High school students never turned in the forms and middle schoolers rarely did, so their numbers skewed the averages. Also, families were afraid to turn in the forms in those times. More of an effort has been made in the last several years to increase the percentages of free and reduced totals,

Ernest Dumas February 13, 2019 at 2:29 pm

The word demographic seems to be a recurring theme. So is the message that Norwalk Public School are being lead to be in the business of only catering to large numbers and majorities, or are we in the business of calling our own anyone who lives here. Everyone deserves to be educated, but I hear a lot of excuses and patronizing. We need real educators, not number crunchers, politricks, and fluff press releases to make themselves feal good. I was very appalled by the lie that was told and the arrogance that followed when caught. Is this letter supposed to be a smokescreen for God only knows what other lies have posed as truths. There is something very disturbing and wrong about the action of these adults. Our children are watching and you as a board are sending a very wrong message. Be careful lest you reap what you sow. Hopefully what you reap will be played out publicly so that children learn the consequences of such actions and especially when bad things are done on purpose.

Non Partisan February 13, 2019 at 10:48 pm

As a not so casual observer I have too comments

To the BOE- congrats on turning the ship, building new schools and creating accountability in both students, and staff.

To City Hall- your limited zoning enforcement, botched reval , and sanctuary city policies are expediting the decline in property values and will ultimately drive The Norwalk Mill Rate thru the roof. But- you will get re elected because of one time financial gimmick in this years budget that the average voter won’t see thru.

Ernest Dumas February 19, 2019 at 6:36 pm

@Mike Lyons: Mute point.
@Non Partisan: A divided ship will not stand. The the majority of the ship’s bulkhead has been steered down the wrong canal. The chickens will come home to roost in time.

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