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Parents hear Kendall Elementary year-round schooling plan

Norwalk Superintendent of Schools Steven Adamowski, right, speaks with Norwalk parents, Thursday in Kendall Elementary School.

NORWALK, Conn. — Longer school days and shorter vacations may be the future of education at Kendall Elementary School, under an experimental program unveiled to mixed reviews by parents Thursday.

The year-round model, which could debut in 2020-21, also includes an additional 300 hours of teaching per year that research has shown significantly improves student achievement. If successful, the changes could turn a historically low-performing school into the district’s highest performer, Superintendent of Schools Steven Adamowski said.

Students would go to school for 187 days a year instead of 182, and the school day would be one hour longer, Chief of Digital Learning and Development Ralph Valenzisi told parents Thursday.  Instead of the traditional summer-long vacation, there would be multiple breaks throughout the year, each no longer than three weeks.

“We are used to the agrarian calendar,” Adamowski said, adding that nobody designing an education calendar today would propose the current summer break.

Research shows that 300 additional hours of instruction is a “magic number” in terms of student achievement.  The plan provides for 313 extra hours a year, “hitting that sweet spot,” Valenzisi said.

At two information sessions, one in Spanish, Hispanic parents seemed more open to the idea than Caucasians, who raised tough questions for school leaders and expressed skepticism regarding the changes. So have more than 80 percent of Kendall’s teachers, according to Norwalk Federation of Teachers President Mary Yordon.

Talk of a year-round program began in late 2017.  Adamowski in July announced to the Board of Education that major funders were interested in the experimentHe told the board in December that outside funders had 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 comprised of more than 63 percent high-needs students.  Three Norwalk schools had been competing for the experimental program at the time.  As of now, Kendall is the lone finalist, Valenzisi told parents.

Yordon said the other schools withdrew from the competition. Brookside is becoming a Montessori School, Tracey has had the “good fortune” to be chosen as a character magnet school, and she believes the Jefferson School Governance Council voted to drop the year-round school idea.

Parents in the English-speaking forum Thursday at Kendall expressed surprise and dismay at what they called short notice.

NPS needed to know which school was the finalist before it could reach out in earnest to the school community, Valenzisi said.

Kendall Elementary School Principal Zakiyyah Baker speaks to parents Thursday in the school.

Kendall Elementary School Principal Zakiyyah Baker said administrators sought feedback over the past year from the School Governance Council, at a recent PTA meeting, through a newsletter, and via PowerSchool, a technology platform which promotes family engagement.

Feedback obtained at the parents meeting will be used to develop a survey for every parent by the end of May, Valenzisi said.  He anticipates questions and issues which will need to be addressed, and agreed with an audience member that it makes sense to send the survey to families whose children aren’t yet in school, via the kindergarten orientation program.

One parent asked what would happen when the three-year grant funding runs out.

Before the experiment goes forward, the Board of Education has to agree that the means will be found if the results merit it, Valenzisi said.

Adomowski has estimated the three-year experiement will cost $5 million; Valenzisi has said $3.6 million. While he’s mapped out the additional costs in transportation, staffing, food, and programs, Valenzisi said he has not yet accounted for utilities.

“Nobody will invest in this unless you can create a proof point,” Adamowski said. “So as long as it’s theoretical, you can’t make an argument with the Board, the City government, the city taxpayers. You have to have some results.”

If the program achieves positive results, state funding will follow, the superintendent predicted. The additional cost, $2,700 per pupil, is a “relatively reasonable” price for greater student achievement.

He predicted state funding would come if there were results, and said the additional cost at $2,700 per student is a “relatively reasonable” price for increased student achievement.  The incremental cost happens to be the same as what the state pays for interdistrict magnet schools, which have shown higher performance, he said.

Norwalk Superintendent of Schools Steven Adamowski, left, speaks to Hispanic parents, Thursday in Kendall Elementary School. At right is Chief of Digital Learning and Development Ralph Valenzisi.

First and foremost, the goal is to take what was Norwalk’s lowest performing school for a decade and make it one of the city’s highest performers.   “Secondarily we think there’s a lot we can learn from this,” Adamowski said. “…Nobody has ever put together the set of practices yet that can excel the achievement of high-needs students to the top level. … I think if successful would have a lot of meaning in terms of the rest of our state.”

That’s why the “investors” are interested, Valenzisi said.

“I haven’t heard what the teachers say,” a mother said. “What does the union say?”

NPS is looking for research-based practices to achieve a significant bump in student achievement, Adamowski replied.

“This is an unusual situation for our school system because normally when we do something we involve everybody, we ask their opinion, right?” Adamowski said. “We have people come up with something that is very close to their comfort zone. Because they know what they know and they are used to doing what they are doing. This is a more significant change and it is not about adult involvement or adult convenience; it’s really about raising student achievement to a much higher level than would ever occur if we don’t do these things.”

“I would expect, like any change issue, that there are going to be adults who are not going to like this… but I think we have a responsibility to do this for our students,” he said.

The Norwalk Federation of Teachers has been aware of the desire to create a year-round pilot school since the July retreat, but wanted to step back and let the parents have their opportunity to hear the presentation, so teachers did not attend the parents’ forum, she said after the meeting.

“We have had opportunities and we have made it known to Central Office people and the Board of Ed that this whole conceptual model was very stressful for each school because of the upheavals and the changes that were necessary, and it is very stressful right now for the Kendall school staff,” she said.

NFT surveyed every Kendall teacher.  “Eighty-two percent had reservations about the model and their role in it,” and would consider leaving the school if the model were enacted, Yordon said.

“We have not been presented with data or research to show this was a research-based model,” she said. “We are really eager to serve the students. We are committed to doing what it takes for their success but this model requires a lot of change.”

Teachers must worry about daycare for children or dealing with other dependents; they’re used to the current calendar, and don’t have enough information, she said.  “This has not been a collaborative effort, this has been a very top down model and roll out. So we just really don’t know the facts. When we have sought the facts, we have been told that it’s a concept.”

There’s been no Board of Education workshop session on the topic, the typical approach to weighty education proposals.  There was an advisory committee to which she was initially named to but then disinvited, Yordon said.

“Dr. Adamowski suggested he was looking for people who were very enthusiastic and I was questioning,” she said.

Kendall was named a School of Distinction for 2017-18 because of growth in ELA (English Language Arts) among high-needs students. Adamowski said the goal is to make it a School of Distinction based on achievement not connected to growth.

“This opportunity is wonderful,” Principal Baker said. “I think it’s going to open up doors for our children that we can’t currently open up through the resources that we have. But I am looking for us to move into that distinction status, regardless. So we need a dream plan for our children, and it represents all of the ideas parents have given to me over the years, and staff.”

A parent expressed skepticism that young children are ready for longer school days.

Parents who want to opt out will have first preference to enter the new elementary program at Ponus when it opens, Adamowski said.

A father pressed with concerns about teachers.

No one loses a job, and teachers could transfer to a school on a traditional schedule, Adamowski said. “We have more than enough vacancies each year in order to accommodate anyone who might want to do that.”

“There are not many vacancies,” Yordon said. “I don’t know where the teachers who do not believe in the model will go. What I would hope alternatively is that enough information is presented, and the way it is presented will allow teachers to really develop confidence in the mission.”

Teachers are fully capable of rearranging childcare, elder care and professional development efforts, if there is a collborative effort that includes time to adjust, she added.

Audience members included Tory Ferrara, mom to a Kendall Elementary School kindergarten student, center, and her daughter Emily.

After the meeting, the English-speaking parents who had spoken up continued to express concerns.

“I am against it,” Scott McCoy said.  He complained that parents hadn’t been informed and expressed dissatisfaction with the response to his question about teachers.

“I got a runaround, he didn’t give me a straight answer,” he said. “…They’re going to bring all-new teachers in that don’t know our children? It seems like it’s something they’re doing, they’re having these meetings just to try to make this happen, but it’s going through.”

Tory Ferrara, a mom who had contacted NancyOnNorwalk before the meeting, said the conversation left her feeling “worse” than an earlier, more positive PTO meeting.

Frank Billowitz, a grandfather, sees “holes” in the plan but he’s trying to be open-minded, he said.

“(The program) is a long day,” he said. “… Half of me says I don’t like it, half of me says we have to see.”

Baker noted the “drastic” difference between the two parent sessions.

At the end of the Spanish session there were rounds of applause and even a little hooting, after an administrator said they could email to ask questions.

About 60 people attended the Spanish session and 25-30 people were at the English session. Baker said the student population is 65% Hispanic, 18% Caucasian and 18% African American. One African American woman attended the English session.

The Spanish session featured some of the same questions, Baker said.

“It ended with one parent saying ‘I want to thank you for all of the things you have done here at Kendall to change the school,’ and parents giving a round of applause for the opportunity of the Above the Bar grant,” Baker reported.

As for the English session, she said, “There were a lot of parents who didn’t speak so it doesn’t mean that they didn’t share that perspective.”

Norwalk parents attend a parents forum for Spanish speakers, Thursday at Kendall Elementary School.

14 comments

Non Partisan May 3, 2019 at 9:21 am

I’m skeptical that this isn’t more about aligning our school schedule around the school schedules in Central America.

Too many of our student are on holiday during the winter session which leads to lower test performance.

Is this about education- or pandering to our sanctuary city illegal immigrant population?

Piberman May 3, 2019 at 10:53 am

Year round schooling was “discovered” decades ago throughout Asia with impressive results. Along with 6 day a week schooling and 10 hour class days. Ah but the Unions will protest. So we know the future.

Lisa Brinton May 3, 2019 at 11:21 am

I don’t disagree with adopting a different scheduling model. Our historically, long American summers and school calendar start, after the harvest, is rooted in a 19th Century agricultural society. The result today is the academic ‘summer slide.’ The challenge will be how to pay for it once the grants run out because grand list revenues are not keeping pace with current school system hour expenses.

Kathleen May 3, 2019 at 11:26 am

“Research shows that 300 extra hours of instruction is a “magic number” in terms of student achievement”. This “research” should be presented to everyone by Adamowski BEFORE making any decision.

On the fence May 3, 2019 at 12:18 pm

Kendall students do need something more as many students sit at home during breaks. On the other hand many students who received summer intervention for free will not be getting that extra instruction that other students are getting. It has been said by staff that they are on board with the grant but the year round is not what they need. They would like to see a traditional year with a summer program. That seems more like what the kids need. It just seemed concerning that they wouldn’t answer about staff. Maybe if they were more of a part of this there would be more buy in. Many teachers have been there longer than the principal and probably know the needs of their population. Why not let them speak? Seems sad that they were sitting in a corner and seemed like they weren’t allowed to talk. The whole thing seems sketchy.

Adam Blank May 3, 2019 at 1:24 pm

I applaud all of the efforts by the BOE to create choices for our students – Although I am assuming that parents will be able to opt out of Kendall if it were year-round (I would have an issue with it being mandatory to go there if you were districted for it and it were year round)

Our more affluent (and much smaller) neighbors don’t have the student population to offer a STEAM school, a Bank Street Model, a dual language school, a science magnet, and a year-round option, etc. These choices will keep more of our residents from fleeing to suburbs, they will also allow students to find the best fit for them which will hopefully have the added benefit of translating to doing better in school. They also allow the district to measure performance and experiment a little on a smaller scale before making changes district-wide.

Fake News May 3, 2019 at 10:07 pm

Kendall parents were told they will get first priority to the new STEAM school yet the new STEAM school is going to be housing the Jefferson’ community during their renovations. Then it has been rumored that Barbis told the PTA at Columbus that all schools won’t be community schools but parents will have a choice. That being said how can the principal, superintendent, and that guy Ralph talk about how the year round is focused on the Kendall population only to find out it may not be the Kendall population?!!! At this point let this guy leave our district alone and let who ever is the new person make the decisions. Kendall seems like it needs more help with their bullying that’s going on. Fix that and other things before we give them more money. Also, why would a leader want to lose their regime who gave them their “status”? Something is up. Seems like she was placed at that school to be a puppet in this game.

On the fence May 4, 2019 at 9:33 am

Kendall parents were told they will get first priority to the new STEAM school yet the new STEAM school is going to be housing the Jefferson’ community during their renovations. Then it has been rumored that Barbis told the PTA at Columbus that all schools won’t be community schools but parents will have a choice. That being said how can the principal, superintendent, and that guy Ralph talk about how the year round is focused on the Kendall population only to find out it may not be the Kendall population?!!! At this point let this guy leave our district alone and let who ever is the new person make the decisions. Kendall seems like it needs more help with their bullying that’s going on. Fix that and other things before we give them more money. Also, why would a leader want to lose their regime who gave them their “status”? Something is up. Seems like she was placed at that school to be a puppet in this game.

Piberman May 4, 2019 at 11:03 am

With 2/3rds of our City Budget (mostly homeowner property taxes) devoted towards education its positive there’s some “experimentation”. But we don’t hear much about our grads college entrance/participation rates. Arguably that ought be the goal of our public school system – securing college entrance/degrees. Especially in the new age where college is widely viewed as the “new high school” and requirement for good jobs.

Our surrounding towns have built in advantages where almost all adults have college degrees and the same is expected of their school graduates. In contrast only 40% of Norwalk adults have college degrees.
So we have to work harder to secure high rates of college acceptance/graduation. Publishing our grad college entrance/graduation rates would be helpful. Recent CT Education Dept data showed roughly 40% of our City grads secured college degrees. We ought encourage the BOE to raise that figure. Rather than focus on “test score improvement”. Of course not everyone is destined or suitable for college. But it ought be the “ultimate goal” of our public school outlays for most of our students.

DT May 4, 2019 at 5:44 pm

Ask the vast majority of teachers at Kendall if they are happy teaching there. It’s a nightmare. Look at the # of teachers looking to uproot their lives and leave that school. The bullying by these new administrators needs to stop. Kendall is in chaos, as there are zero repercussions for student misbehavior.

Michelle May 4, 2019 at 8:51 pm

First let me say a few things. I am a Kendall Parent. There is not bullying by our leadership. They are trying to work with everyone. And there is some staff trying to ‘sway’ parents also. NOBODY is blameless. I may not believe in all the planned items for this grant, but I believe if staff,administration and parents work as a TEAM they can figure things out. There have been those that have been fueling the fires for their own reasons spreading false information. this is wrong. Everyone should take a step back, breathe and let things take their course. None of this would come to fruition until the 20/21 school year. What are we teaching our children acting this way? That you just stomp your feet and cause an issue to get your way?

Ample information has been sent out about informational meetings. And maybe all the questions aren’t answered, but maybe that is because they are still trying to work things out.

Please everyone for the sake of the kids, take a step back, take a good hard look at how we are all acting and just relax.

Tysen Canevari May 5, 2019 at 7:26 am

Perhaps we should focus on how the 6 hour day they currently have can be more productive. A spanish meeting and an english meeting? Are we for real? I know teachers at Kendall who say it is hard to do what they do best; teach! They spend wasted time bridging the language gap. We put too much effort into accomadating this segment of the community at the sacrifice of others. I will bet a majority of those in favor welcome the increased hours of free daycare! Spend the extra hours teaching English to the parents and kids. I work with some wonderful latino families. Those that achieve the dream have taken it upon theirselves to learn the language.

Diane Lauricella May 5, 2019 at 11:42 am

@Kathleen Thank you for the links.

An informed decision and electorate is the bedrock of a successful society.

Please make sure the communication is clear, inclusive, and transparent!

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