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Norwalk teachers’ union reps speak out against Kendall ‘experiment’

Norwalk Federation of Teachers Kendall Elementary School building stewards Heike Reichert and Jeff Beckley address the Board of Education on Tuesday in City Hall, as shown in the Norwalk Public Schools video.

NORWALK, Conn. — It’s unfair to target Kendall Elementary School for a Norwalk Public Schools experiment, Jeff Beckley said Tuesday.

“As of this evening, 22 Kendall teachers have confirmed to me over the last two weeks that they have or are ready to notify HR of their intent to transfer,” said Beckley, Norwalk Federation of Teachers co-Kendall building steward, to the Board of Education.

Norwalk Federation of Teachers members stand as NFT leaders speak Tuesday to the Board of Education in City Hall. (Claire Schoen)

More than 25 audience members wore NFT t-shirts as they watched the early part of Tuesday’s BoE meeting, teachers who had come out to support the concern voiced by NFT leaders over Norwalk Superintendent of Schools Steven Adamowski’s proposal to make Kendall a year-round school.

Outside funders are excited about the idea, Adamowski said in December, asserting that half the expected $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 had already been pledged to the district.

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, Chief of Digital Learning and Development Ralph Valenzisi told Kendall parents on May 2. Students would go to school for 187 days a year instead of 182, and the school day would be one hour longer.

Teachers stayed away from that meeting to allow parents to voice their opinions, Norwalk Federation of Teachers President Mary Yordon said then, promising that the union would become vocal.

“It’s not an evil nefarious plan. It’s a plan to do something in an experimental way, with a new and novel therapy,” Yordon said Monday. “… But there doesn’t seem to have been any communication with the district employees saying, you know, who’s interested in this?”

“I reached out to try to set up some kind of collaborative communication district wide, that hasn’t really gone anywhere,” she said. “We are really troubled by the prospect of the building engaging in the work next year to plan for this, and the rate of attrition that will be ahead in the next couple of years as teachers do find their exits, who are not committed to this.”

From left, Norwalk Superintendent of Schools Steven Adamowski, Norwalk Board of Education Chairman Mike Barbis and BoE Finance Committee Chairman Bryan Meek, during the public speaking portion of Tuesday’s BoE meeting in City Hall. (Claire Schoen)

On Tuesday, NFT co-Kendall building steward Heike Reichert and Beckley read a letter he had written to the Board, getting the entire letter out to the public in spite of the 3-minute limitation on public speakers. NFT First Vice President Joe Giandurco spoke to the Board, reiterating previous NFT statements alleging “failed communication” and the administration working around and against teachers as concerns are “largely ignored” as BoE Chairman Mike Barbis looked down at a screen, and Yordon said teachers are committed to their work but “process matters.”

“As an NFT steward, I’ve had to console crying teachers, counsel them, and rationalize to them feelings about how our school faculty and families seem to be unfairly targeted now as the only school in Norwalk that is facing a change to their calendar,” Beckley said. “What is even more confusing is that the original point of the grant was to create the ‘first ever’ School of Distinction from a school that was as economically challenged as ours; we did that, as well as Tracey and Jefferson, without additional instructional time or without the grant.”

Kendall teachers first became concerned after a Dec. 5 NancyOnNorwalk story about Adamowski’s ambitions for the school, and Beckley and Reichert conducted a survey, he said.

  • “We had 34 full-time certified staff members participate, or around 97%, which is statistically significant,” Beckley said, listing these results:
  • 94% of the staff were opposed to restructuring the traditional model of the school calendar
  • 85% of the staff were opposed to adding five additional school days
  • 82% of the staff were opposed to increasing the day by another hour (a total of eight)
  • 71% of staff were opposed to adding 12 additional days of professional development (Beckley commented that less PD is now planned)
  • More than two-thirds of the staff (about 68%) reported that they would request a transfer from Kendall

 

“Please don’t misunderstand that our school couldn’t use the money from a grant like this to be even better, because what school couldn’t,” Beckley said. “… Yes, research does link poor performance on standardized tests to poverty. That should almost create the desire to enhance Kendall school, who perhaps had the highest growth in ELA in the state of Connecticut last year, with enriching experiences for our students. This could be meaningful summer and school break camps emphasizing arts, athletics, technology, and even careers. But drastically changing the schedule of our school as an experiment, when clearly our performance shows we can be a School of Distinction without this grant, and without the extra hours, seems to be an unfair consequence to the school with the third highest School Accountability Score in Norwalk.”

Norwalk Federation of Teachers members react Tuesday to a photographer. (Claire Schoen)

The 22 teachers who are on the verge of requesting transfers are about 60% of Kendall’s certified staff, nearly the same percentage as was found in December, Reichert said.

“There are others still hoping that this isn’t going to go through. It seems unlikely that Kendall can repeat as a School of Distinction with so much turbulence in staff attempting to leave, being replaced, or perhaps being forced into staying with no alternative and limited buy-in to the model. That also doesn’t seem to be fair to investors looking to allocate millions of dollars either,” Reichert said.

If this is the direction NPS wants to go in, then it’s time to work with the unhappy Kendall teachers to start finding them a new school community to be involved in, and to recruit teachers who are interested in the new model, they said.

“The NFT restates its desire to work with Central Office and the Board of Education,” Yordon said. “Most of the elements of the Kendall model have great value but planning matters and communication matters. The process matters.”

“Teachers are planners and we are committed to these students continued academic success,” Yordon wrote Tuesday evening. “At the Board’s request, in November 2017, we joined in negotiations to create an agreement signed by the Board that would provide a framework to create a year-round school calendar. It is unclear why less than one year later, in August 2018, this agreement was not used to help to shape the Kendall model.  Similarly, last year, the Board approved the creation of a new music curriculum. Our math and ELA curriculum date from about 2016. But these are being replaced in the model with new ELA, math and music programs, without going through the Curriculum Committee approval process, or vetting by educators.”

Yordon on Monday said the NFT contract and the year-round schooling agreement says the NFT will be consulted on the establishment of a calendar, yet there have been multiple Kendall year-round calendars circulated and she is not in the loop.

“It doesn’t even look like anybody’s attempting to adhere to the collective agreement,” she said, explaining that the NFT can file a grievance and state Labor Board complaints, “and so we have every intention of exercising those options. But in the meantime, this is becoming a distraction.”

NancyOnNorwalk asked NPS Communications Director Brenda Wilcox Williams early Tuesday  for a response to the allegation about the calendars.

“The balanced calendar is still in the formative stage,” Wilcox Williams said in an email. “It wouldn’t go into effect until 2020-21, so drafts are continuing to evolve with input that is being gathered from meetings, info sessions and surveys of the Kendall community. Once there is a concrete proposal to discuss, it will be discussed with the NFT and other unions as needed.”

Setting a calendar is the statutory responsibility of a Board of Education, Adamowski said during the meeting.

He also reiterated the Board’s concern with narrowing the achievement gap.

“Our funders… are very savvy about the research,” Adamowski said. “This is our best attempt, our best thinking, on how to raise the achievement level to for students who have not been able to experience the conditions in the past that would raise their achievement level.”

Kendall has become a School of Distinction because of its growth in English Language Arts, and it was historically Norwalk’s lowest performing school, he added.

“We applaud the growth, and have, and want you to recognize it, but I want you to know that there is still a lot of work here to be done,” Adamowski said. “And I don’t think it will be successful to continue business as usual without some radical change that for the first time can bring very low-income students, very high needs students, to the same standards as other students are meeting.”

Yordon called this “downplaying” Kendall’s School of Distinction achievement.

“We believe the distinction represents extraordinary efforts of the entire extended educational community of Kendall,” she wrote. “There is much work still to be done, but it is discouraging to us to hear this achievement discounted.”

20 comments

jo bennett May 22, 2019 at 6:37 am

“Kendall has become a School of Distinction because of its growth in English Language Arts.” Does this mean Kendall’s ESL student population has grown? That the ESL population has demonstrated a benchmark of academic success? Or a combination of the two?
On the year-round school schedule, I sympathize with the distressed teachers on many levels. Teachers enter the profession for many reasons, including a schedule that allows them to raise their own kids. Eliminating that flexibility seems like a breach of contract. Singling out a school that, in a challenged district, sounds like it’s started to find its way, seems like a poor management decision.

M Murray May 22, 2019 at 8:45 am

What part of the story is missing?? “would go to school for 187 days a year instead of 182, and the school day would be one hour longer.” “Also includes an additional 300 hours of teaching”. A year round school that only adds an additional 5 days? School days that are one hour longer? Of the current year is 182 days, that would equal 182 extra hours. My math skills may be a little weak but does that mean that they will get an additional 118 hours of teaching in those 5 days? Is their plan to tag on an extra 5 days at the end of the school year and make the days longer and call it year round??? More extended breaks throughout the year with an extra 5 days of school??

RosieH May 22, 2019 at 10:50 am

Growing up in a “disadvantaged’ background can breed discontent through a lack of “ fairness” and equality…how does making children from that background undergo additional hours of schooling possibly feel like a plus? Extra optional free activities can feel like a real bonus…as opposed to more “ punishment and stigma” for essentially being born poor.

Kathleen May 22, 2019 at 11:43 am

This is what happens when there is no communication with stakeholders on the front lines. But, as Adamowski has said many times, parents and teachers often don’t know what they need. So no need to speak with then? SMH

William Shields May 22, 2019 at 12:09 pm

It’s time for our teachers to take back education from legislators! We do our utmost to hire the very best educators, but we then ignore those teachers when some legislator has an idea on how to build a better mousetrap! If Norwalk truly wants to improve education, then leave it up to the teachers to address the issues; interference from the BOE is unacceptable when it’s sole responsibility is to set policy that supports the district. Leave the kids and their teachers alone.

Mike Lyons May 22, 2019 at 1:54 pm

William, this IS ‘setting policy’; this IS the BoE’s job. And this plan is still very much in development; we don’t even have a formal proposal yet to submit to the NFT per contract. Once we do, it will be submitted to the union for a mandatory 60-day consultation period, following which the union can initiate binding negotiations over any impact on teachers. The plan as it has begun development has been discussed at meetings with the NFT leadership, the school principal and the SGC. Those consultations will continue, both as good practice and by contractual mandate. And its worth noting that the NFT, in signing the relevant memorandum of understanding with the BoE, AGREED that “an effective way to address the achievement gaps among certain groups of students in the school district is to provide increased or restructured instructional time” for such students, and that “instructional time may be increased or restructured by extending the length of the student school day, the length of the student school year, or by both, or by restructuring the school day” – exactly what we’re looking at doing for Kendall (with, I note, the enthusiastic support of the top educator in the building, its principal).

George May 22, 2019 at 9:17 pm

Kendell School…the same school my nephew to my NHS graduated sibling and not a transplant from another country was praised at the end of 5 grade by the principal. He was the 4th highest in math for the year. He passed with a 42! Yes, 42 and the school would not provide extra help. To many non english speaking kids needed the help.

There is no need to change anything at Kendell. All is well move on.

Tysen Canevari May 22, 2019 at 11:31 pm

Of course the pricipal is going to agree with everything. She has to be there all year anyway. Did you expect she would back the teachers or back the leaders at our Board of Ed? Instead of addressing the real problems we make it look like the teachers fault. We hold meetings in Spanish, feed them breakfast and lunch, slow down the class because the kids dont understand English. Its a shame. Maybe we should take the grant and hold English classes for the parents. If the teachers didnt lose seniority when they transfer they would run from Kendall as fast as they could. If you cant speak English then go to Silvermine School. Let the Kendall teachers teach and the students learn!

M Murray May 23, 2019 at 7:06 am

“Once we do, it will be submitted to the union for a mandatory 60-day consultation period, following which the union can initiate binding negotiations over any impact on teachers.” Would binding arbitration be completed in 60 days before the plan were to go into effect . Would any changes wait until arbitration was completed? Otherwise both staff and students would be impacted by this plan while waiting for arbitration, because arbitration can take many months to get to a decision point. I certainly hope the teachers would be involved in the planning and design long before it got to the stage of implementation. Otherwise it would seem like a plan was designed by the board and administration with an attitude of give them 60 days, let it go to arbitration, and by the time it goes to decision it will already be in place and the arbitrator is left with little choice but to have slight modifications with compensation.

Mike Lyons May 23, 2019 at 8:44 am

M Murray, the procedure I described above was voluntarily agreed-to by the union, not imposed by us. And since by state law the Board has exclusive authority to set the school year, there would be no delay in implementation if we decide to go forward; impact negotiations would not hold that up. My hope is that teachers in NPS more open to change would be assigned to Kendall while we would approve the transfers to other schools of the Kendall teachers who prefer to keep to traditional schedules.

Elsa Peterson Obuchowski May 23, 2019 at 9:54 am

I’m still waiting for someone to answer M Murray’s question and explain how 182 days at 1 extra hour + 5 more days = 300 hours and year-round.

Brenda Wilcox Williams May 23, 2019 at 11:09 am

The approximately 300 additional hours on the enhanced schedule comes from extending the day to 8 hours of student learning. The elementary school day is currently only 6.5 hours, so it’s an additional 90 minutes per day on the current 182 day calendar, plus 40 extra hours from 5 additional days.

Bob Welsh May 23, 2019 at 11:45 am

Thanks, Brenda.

For those who are unaware, Brenda Wilcox Williams is the Chief Communications Officer for Norwalk Public Schools.

Piberman May 23, 2019 at 1:53 pm

Asian nations hold school year round often 10 hrs daily 6 days a week with not much vacation time and with relatively low pay to teachers. What are they doing wrong ? Their students routinely do much much better than coddled US students overseen by our public Union teachers.

Our teachers are paid better and have better benefits than most City residents. And mostly live outside the City. And have the summers off. Who wouldn’t want such a loverly schedule working for the public where no one complains that most of our high school grads never make it to college ? Imagine if teachers were paid on the basis of student performance ? Parents paying for private school expect performance.
Public education has a different orientation.

DT May 23, 2019 at 10:20 pm

I find it highly inappropriate that Brenda Wilcox Williams is posting on message boards during BUSINESS hours. Her six-figure salary gets paid by us taxpayers.
Is she posting on Facebook and social media as well?!

Nps teacher May 23, 2019 at 11:31 pm

@piberman…
I invite you to ANY nps classroom. Ask to be a mentor, tutor, Para, anything. You can witness our “loverly” (not a word) schedule, and you can the see what we deal with on a daily basis.
Since our students are performing at record levels on standardized testing and “closing the achievement gap” according to the BOE, how would you like to compensate me?

I’ll wait.

Parent May 24, 2019 at 9:59 am

When achievement is discussed in Norwalk, it is almost always referring to test scores. Instead of putting pressure on our elementary school students to score well on standardized tests, I’d love to see more of a focus on educating the whole child. To me, this includes enriching experiences that students may have over a summer break with their families, as well as at camps and other special programs. If the purpose of extending Kendall’s school year is to raise their standardized test scores, what are we really achieving? I’d love to see more of a discussion between teachers and our elected city officials regarding making school an enjoyable experience where students see social emotional growth, develop a love for learning, and gain inter- and intra-personal skills. I don’t remember one score that I got on a standardized test, but have so many other positive memories during my own education here in Norwalk. I hope that the pendulum swings away from numbers on a piece of paper before my own young children reach school age.

Bob Welsh May 24, 2019 at 12:28 pm

@DT

I emailed Brenda Wilcox Williams and shared the question that several readers asked. Answering press enquiries is part of her job description.

John Levin May 29, 2019 at 12:10 pm

Thank you Bob Welsh for following up with the NPS Communications Officer, and thank you Ms. Williams for doing your job promptly and effectively by responding to Mr. Welsh’s inquiry in the way that you did. I don’t know who “DT” is, but I find her or his comment to be profoundly ignorant and disappointing.

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