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.