Updated, 10:33 p.m.: More information.
NORWALK, Conn. — Norwalk’s shifting demographics might soon negate the need for a magnet school in South Norwalk.
So observed Board of Education Chairman Mike Barbis recently as Norwalk Public Schools Chief Financial Officer Thomas Hamilton unveiled 10-year enrollment projections and the need to shift puzzle pieces to avoid lopsided enrollments at the middle schools. It’s also a problem that enrollment is dipping below 300 children at Wolfpit and Naramake Elementary Schools, he said, leading Board member Bryan Meek to suggest that Wolfpit be closed and its community merged into a new Cranbury School.
Hamilton said, citing the Milone and MacBroom study, that assuming that the Ponus expansion and the new Columbus school open on schedule and that these magnet programs are at 95% capacity, the current feeder program would result in these enrollments in 2028-29:
- Roton Middle School would grow from the current 549 students to 750 students
- Nathan Hale Middle School would decline from the current 650 students to 440 students
- Ponus Upper School would peak at 708 students in 2024-25
There’s an issue at the high schools as well:
- Enrollment grows at a robust 10.5% to approximately 4,000 students
- Brien McMahon High School would increase to 2,132 students, plus 305 at the Center for Global Studies
- Norwalk High School would decline to 1,116, plus 391 at P-TECH
The declining elementary school enrollment led to a recommendation to make Wolfpit an integrated arts program and continue the program at Nathan Hale and Norwalk High School, with the aim to draw students to that side of town.
The possibility of an addition on Roton was also mentioned.
‘Better to be growing than shrinking’
“Norwalk… continues to be a growing community, which puts us in a, I think it’s an enviable position. Ultimately, it’s better to be growing than shrinking. And unfortunately, a number of communities are, are in fact losing population in this state,” Hamilton said at the July 25 Board of Education retreat.
Milone and MacBroom has used the highest growth pattern available, as it has shown itself to be accurate for Norwalk. Hamilton’s PowerPoint said:
- Norwalk population grew 4.6% from 2010 to 2017
- School enrollment has rebounded from lows in mid-2000’s and has continued to grow
- Pre-k to 12 enrollment up 6.2% from a decade ago
- Projected enrollment over next 10 years: 4.7% overall growth based on High Growth Scenario:
- Pre-K-5: +2.8%
- 9-12 +10.5%
“There is a pretty wide variance in terms of enrollment projections by individual schools, some schools are projected to grow substantially and other schools are projected to shrink,” Hamilton said. “…And it has implications in terms of choice programming and what choice program in this district want to potentially bring forward in the future to help rebalance some of those numbers.”
He listed options:
- “Does the district want to do anything different in terms of what choices we allow parents to make in terms of what school to send their students to, particularly at the high school level?”
- “What additional building may be required in order to meet the enrollment, projections and capacity of some of the schools?”
- “It also has implications potentially for the feeder patterns and neighborhood boundaries and whether or not the board wants to consider any adjustments to those areas.”
The new Columbus building, on Ely Avenue, and the expected IB (International Baccalaureate) Academy in the existing Columbus building are planned to give preference to neighborhood children, who live within .25 mile and can walk to school, Hamilton reminded the Board. Both are planned to send students to Brien McMahon.
‘We’ve surged each year, higher’
“One thing we haven’t touched on, and this is confirmed by data you sent us this week, is you know, we’re now a 73% minority district,” Barbis said.
State laws on racial balancing no longer apply to a school district when it hits 75% minority, Barbis pointed out, commenting that Milone and MacBroom doesn’t want to forecast it but Norwalk is on the verge of crossing that threshold.
“We’ve surged each year, higher… we’re bound and bound to cross 75% in the next year or two. So, some of this could be moot,” Barbis said.
Norwalk Superintendent of Schools Steven Adamowski said the prediction is for Norwalk to cross that threshold in five to six years.
It might be “moot” in terms of relieving the district of the requirement to racially balance schools, “but that doesn’t make moot the issue of where the students are, which schools are going to and how that’s going to impact enrollments in the various schools,” Hamilton said.
South Norwalk children are bussed across town, some to Marvin, some to Naramake, Hamilton had explained.
“Theoretically though we would be able to have a neighborhood schools in South Norwalk. We’ve been operating under the assumption that we couldn’t,” Barbis said.
When a school has less than 300 students, it is given a budgetary supplement as the student-based budget won’t cover its expenses, Adamowski said. “The problem with getting a supplement is you have to take that money away from one of the schools, which need it because they’re growing, or they’re there, they’re fully enrolled.”
“The Wolfpit area is a small enrollment area to begin with. And you know, we believe that the Wolfpit area for whatever reason is getting older, there aren’t as many children coming out of a Wolfpit area,” Hamilton said.
“Wolfpit as a neighborhood school cannot be a viable in the future,” Adamowski said.
“I’m not saying the next five years or so but Wolfpit just feels more like ‘let’s build up Cranbury’ and Wolfpit goes the way of Fitch school to support an aging demographic in that neighborhood,” Meek said.
The Fitch school on Strawberry Hill Avenue was converted into Maplewood at Strawberry Hill, an assisted living facility.
Board member Barbara Meyer-Mitchel protested, “We can’t sell anymore schools off, we need them for the future.”
Meek said it would be a swap for land.
Theoretically, you could sell Wolfpit or any school but “whether that that would be acceptable if the community is, is another story,” Adamowski said. “We like this plan, because it’s also consistent with your choices. And it’s also consistent with our efforts to align our arts programs from some very good programs that are disjointed and unrelated to something that would be cohesive, and really help students to meet the standards in other areas in the ELA, math and science.”
Board member Julie Corbett asked if the arts program could migrate to an expanded Cranbury.
“That’s it’s a very good question. And, you know, I think that, you know, the answer is probably yes,” Adamowski said. “Except for the fact that there is a remaining component to all of these programs.”
Different schools have different teachers, leadership, parents and interests, he said. “When you see a program that is developed organically from the interest of teachers and parents and the leadership of the school, you know, it’s fairly unique to that school… but probably not as effective, as you know, where it was developed, and where it’s part of the of the culture, and it’s the only culture.”
High school open enrollment
“When you look at are two high schools, and you look at their capacities, right? I think what you want to see is a range between 1,500 and no more than 2,000 on each campus,” Adamowski said. “….Open enrollment at the high school level looks like a very viable strategy. And in part because that’s where busing costs are the lowest because of the two mile guideline.”
“We also think that the key to rebalancing an open enrollment system would be further development of the arts at Norwalk High School as a strength,” Adamowski said, speculating that NHS could have an arts academy, similar to the P-Tech academy and this would help keep the school at 2,000 students.
Milone and MacBroom list these key findings from the demographics and housing analysis:
- “Norwalk’s population grew by 4.6% between 2010 and 2017, a faster growth rate to Connecticut as a whole, but equal to the rate of Fairfield County .
- “Norwalk experienced a large out-migration of young adults (age 30 to 39) between 2010 and 2017.
- “Women of childbearing age (ages 15 to 44) decreased 1.7% overall; the younger cohorts (ages 15 to 29) decreased by 3.1% while the older cohorts (age 30 to 44) declined by 5.3%.
- “Births in Norwalk have declined by 11% since 2008. Over the last 10 years, there has been an average of 1,181 births per year. Births are projected to remain stable up to 2023, staying between approximately 1,000 and 1,200 per year.
- “Housing permit activity has rebounded from its recent low of 40 units permitted in 2011. In the last three years, nearly 1,000 new housing units are permitted, including several large multifamily developments.
- “Over the last decade, enrollment increased across all grade cohorts. Elementary school enrollments increased by 2.0% while middle school and high school enrollments each increased by 10.7% and 7.2%, respectively.”
“Milone & MacBroom, Inc. generated a modified cohort -survival model to project future enrollment scenarios through 2028-29. These scenarios project fairly stable K- 12 enrollments over the next decade with total enrollment change ranging from 4.7% growth to a 4.1% loss depending on the various growth models and underlying assumptions. The high growth scenario, which aligns with the recent growth trends in housing and employment, is likely to most accurately reflect future conditions in Norwalk Public Schools,” the analysis states. “Total enrollments are projected to increase over the next 10 years, with a projected 4.7% increase by the 2028-29 school year. Over the next 10 years, elementary school (PK- 5) enrollments are projected to increase by 2.8%, middle school (6-8) enrollments are projected to increase by 0.7%, and high school (9-12) enrollments to increase by 10.5%.”