A deep dive into Norwalk Public Schools’ strategic plan update
NORWALK, Conn. — Norwalk school leaders held a “fishbowl” gallery to review how the district was doing in terms of meeting its strategic plan goals.
Superintendent Alexandra Estrella said that the Feb. 7 meeting came at the “midpoint of this academic school year,” which made it a good time to review the district’s progress.
“We take this opportunity to highlight the great work that has happened throughout our district,” she said. “Most importantly, work that is driven by our strategic plan and our goals that have been prioritized for this year by our board.”
Supporting the strategic plan
The Board of Education had adopted a strategic plan that laid out five strategic priorities and six goals to achieve them.
“We look at these five priorities not in isolation, but in connection to one another—they’re hyperlinked and interconnected in everything that we do,” Estrella said.
The priorities include:
- Future Readiness
- High Quality Instruction and Support
‘Deep dive’ into the goals
Estrella said there are six goals based off of the strategic plan so she and other school officials broke them up into three stations for the midyear review and members of the Board of Education and the public in attendance could then go to each station, hear a presentation, and ask questions about the district’s progress toward those goals.
Goal 1: Norwalk Public Schools will strengthen individualized student success plans.
Assistant Superintendent of Schools Rob Pennington said that they are evaluating success in the areas of: curricula and professional development; the development teaching professional capacity in teaching reading; work related to scientific research based interventions (known as SRBIs); social and emotional learning and counseling; and specialized learning.
Stacey Bergin, Education Administrator of Curricula and Professional Development, said that one of their goals was “getting better at getting better,” which she said included providing better professional development to teachers, including “choose your own” options based on the wants and needs of a particular school and rewriting and improving curriculum programs.
“One of the big goals we have this year is the writing of curriculum,” she said.
Some of this work began last year, Bergin said, which included MLL (multi-lingual learners) courses at the high school, which she said “hadn’t been touched” in a while. Other updates are taking place in English language arts, business, and world languages.
Other goals Pennington and his team outlined under this area included:
- Having almost 70 educators complete the LETRS (Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling) training to help expand “teacher capacity” around teaching reading.
- Continuing to decrease the number of students requiring the summer academy program through better implementation of SRBI practices and interventions
- Expanding SEL initiatives for all grade levels, including bringing in an LGBTQ+ counselor and substance abuse counselor at the high school through partnerships
- Transitioning 100% of student individualized education plans to a new system
Pennington said enhancing collaboration, such as between math improvement teachers and reading improvement teachers, has helped them come up with better ideas and support.
He also said, at this halfway point, they’ve seen a 5% decrease in the number of students in grades 4-8 that would require summer academy support.
“We are really excited,” he said. “We still have work to do, but it’s a 5% decrease.”
Pennington said another metric they’re watching are students who are below the 40th percentile.
“Last year, at this time, it was 3,800 students for math, we’re at 3,053,” he said, adding that the decrease was “huge.” “For reading, we went from 3,039 down to 2,000. That means that students are going above the 40th percentile, which means that our interventions have had a positive impact on student learning.”
He also said that they’re using results from the DESSA (Deveraux Student Strengths Assessment) survey to add more SEL interventions where needed, after the fall survey found about 10% of students said they needed more support.
“We use that data to support that work,” he said.
Goal 2: The Business and Operations Department, in consultation with Finance, will develop a three-to-five-year facilities plan, inclusive of annual building-based facilities plans and scoreboards, in conjunction with the city’s capital budget and five-year capital plan.
The Facilities Department aims to have developed plans for: building-specific action items; preventative care and maintenance; and priority Tier 1 projects.
“A lot of the repairs, and the disrepair our buildings were in, we have been trying to just chip away with that,” Assistant Superintendent of Business and Operations Sandra Faioes said.
Faioes said that the efficiency study the district went through with the City helped them have a “better division of labor” between the schools and City.
“It highlighted for us where there were some redundancies in the work we were performing,” she said. “There were just some things that didn’t make sense.”
Faioes said that they sat down with DPW and Recreation and Parks to outline who is doing what regarding landscaping, maintenance, and other areas.
There’s also been “a lot of excitement” around the new reimbursement rate from the state, which will give the district 60% reimbursement for its school construction projects, she said.
“We’ve been working with the Mayor’s Office, alongside Senator Duff’s office to come up with a 25-year plan (for facilities),” Faioes said.
Faioes said using the latest long-range facilities plan, they agreed on the Tier 1 schools, or those that needed the most work.
“Now what is left is for the city to really design the financial plan that goes with it and then the timeline,” she said.
There’s currently three school projects underway—Cranbury, Norwalk High School, and the South Norwalk School, she noted.
Goal 3: The Human Resources, Finance, and Business and Operations Departments will have evaluated and streamlined their respective departments.
One of the main goals is reducing staff turnover by 5% and increasing the number of new applicants by 10%. To do this, school officials said they’re conducting staff roundtables, continuing “meet and greet” meetings with employees, and having a “new beginning orientation” for new administrators.
Lunda Asmani, Chief Financial Officer, said that they’ve looked in particular at recruiting heavily to address their needs, such as special education and bilingual teachers and staff.
He also said that they’re stepping up their retention efforts to understand why people are leaving and work to address those issues to keep them here.
“How can we as an organization support and retain our staff? What can we do to keep people here? What are some of the issues and challenges that they’re facing? And how can we work to overcome those challenges so we do keep people here?” he said.
Other goals include: reducing the processing time for HR-related transactions, expanding recruitment efforts, continuing to make the budget book more user friendly, incorporating specialized learning into student-based budgets, increasing security infrastructure, and adding a reporting platform for behavior issues.
Asmani said that the district reorganized the finance team and HR team under one umbrella which has led to a lot of efficiencies in their work.
Faioes said that they’ve also been using PowerSchool to collect and track data on students if there is an incident, such as a student caught vaping.
Goal 4: Norwalk Public Schools will cultivate instructional leadership in all school buildings.
Officials said that incorporating data is essential to seeing how students are doing and where they need more support. That’s why one of the main goals in this area is to have at least four opportunities, such as teacher team meetings and stakeholder feedback sessions, that are based on data-driven instruction and supports for students.
“We, Mary-Anne [Sheppard] and I, our jobs are really to work to support the principals and assistant principals in our district, to help to provide them with the training and support so that they can be the best educational leaders they can be,” NPS Executive Director of Leadership Development Sandra Kase said.
Kase said that this then allows the principals to support the teachers in their school buildings, which in turn provides better environments for students.
Other goals here include having “one cycle of support” to improve teacher practices and student outcomes and providing training and updates to school leaders.
Kase said that they’re working to address subgroup disparities, particularly for students of color and multilingual learners. Sheppard said this relates to their two instructional goals—data-driven instruction and meeting the needs of diverse learners.
Goal 5: Norwalk Public Schools will develop and/or refine our instructional programming options to increase opportunities for students and to ensure all students have access to high quality instruction and support.
One of the biggest goals district officials said they’re working on is implementing a “district-wide data driven culture” in an effort to use data to drive instruction and support. This includes evaluating school performance metrics, district testing and benchmarks, and state testing.
“Knowing that we have a variety of different learners, that information is pivotal to being able to know how to support them accurately,” Deputy Superintendent of Excellence, Equity, and Inclusion Thomas McBryde Jr. said, adding that now teachers and principals have access to this data “at their fingertips” so they can see if students need help in a specific area.
Some of the other goals in this area include incorporating new STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics) units of study into two grade levels in the district; teaching students digital citizenship and research skills; implementing high instructional standards for all students through Future Ready programs and partnerships; finishing developing “excellence, equity, and inclusion” systems to meet the needs of all students, and designing professional development around equity, social justice, and inclusion.
McBryde said that the district’s Grading for Equity committee made six recommendations to the policy committee for grading policy considerations.
He said that they’re working with teachers, as well as principals, to see how they’re planning their lessons to meet the needs of a variety of learners and what supports are needed for populations such as multilingual learners. McBryde said they’ve visited each school at least twice and talked to principals, teachers, as well as student groups—particularly at the high school level—to see what the needs are.
“All of those are pretty critical for us to have an ear to the ground for what we need to do at the district level to ensure that all students have access,” he said.
He also emphasized the work the district is doing to make sure that “there is love, respect, and appreciation for all diverse groups,” including creating affinity groups and having celebrations of Black History month, Women’s History month, and LGBTQIA+ month. He also highlighted professional development opportunities for staff members in addressing implicit bias.
McBryde also highlighted how they’re working to build out career pathways for students through workforce development. He said they were particularly excited about 10 high school students who are doing education internships as a part of the program. There will be a Workforce Development Career Fair on March 21 with a variety of programs and apprenticeship opportunities.
On the technology side, Assistant Superintendent of Digital Learning and Innovation Ralph Valenzisi discussed the district’s work around STEAM.
“The digital learning coaches as well as certified library media specialists have been working with CT Science Center and we’ve been developing at different grade levels, units of study, for our students that integrate and augment the use of technology in the use of science,” he said. “That’s what our focus has been.”
He also gave an update on how students enrolled in the district’s virtual program, such as those who are homebound due to medical issues or are taking care of family members, and its Twilight program, which offers after-hours learning, are doing.
“We’ve been really, really excited about this,” he said.
About 65 students are enrolled in the programs, which are growing. Valenzisi said that students can be enrolled in both virtual or Twilight, although some are enrolled in both. He gave the example of a student taking a virtual science class during the day, but then coming in for an in-person Twilight course that evening.
He also emphasized that the district is implementing an initiative called “Portrait of a Graduate,” where students are equipped with skills that will help them in the workforce, like communication, creativity, critical thinking, and collaboration.
“Are we seeing students being creative and so forth? It’s a work in progress,” he said. “It’s something that we want to move forward that makes sure that we educate the whole child, not just looking at academics.”
Valenzisi said that the district’s Verizon Innovation Labs at West Rocks, Nathan Hale, and Ponus are complete with a ribbon cutting on Monday, Feb. 13, and that teachers are starting training. The curriculum for the labs will be ready when students return in September.
“It really is exciting to see these spaces,” he said.
Goal 6: We will ensure families are provided with equitable opportunities to access district resources and programs.
District officials said they are launching new communications content strategies to reach more members of the school community, have “standardized marketing materials that include videos,” and the biggest one—increasing the role of the Family Center.
The school district is planning to increase “parent traffic” to the center by 30% through expanding its hours and rotating in community partners. It also plans to establish a Health Center connected to the Family Center to provide healthcare access to students.
“The Family Center is the center of it all,” said Frances Saez, Family Center supervisor and education administrator for Multilingual Learners. “The families, the children, our scholars are the ones we are here to service and the Family Center has been a hub for all those resources and all those services.”
Saez said they want to make it a place where families feel comfortable, nurtured, and welcome. She said they noticed a need for nutrition help, food, and clothing from families coming in which is why they opened a pantry in November to address some of those issues. So far, she said about 115 families are using it.
“One of the most important things I think the community needs to realize is that the interactions that we have at the Family Center is not just registration,” she said. “We’ve had since July to January a total of 2,119 families visit. That’s not the only thing we do—that’s basically registration. We have partnerships, workshops happening at the Family Center.”
Saez said that this work is “rewarding,” as they’re able to see the help they’re providing reaching families directly.
Kelly Prinz, formerly Kelly Kultys, is the founder of Coastal Connecticut Times.
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John O'Neill February 10, 2023 at 10:49 am
Let’s be realistic — Most of the above is a bunch of BS. 90% of the Teachers in Norwalk would agree with me on that. Maybe more. The Family Center — I would now argue that this “Family” Center should no longer be under the purview of the Norwalk School System. After reading above it’s a Social Service entitlement that should be run by City Hall. Has anyone asked why every manager in Estrella’s posse is banking a pension from NYC? This is beyond ridiculous
These Administrators can “spin” all they want — At the end of the day, they are failing our teachers and most importantly our students. Mary Yordon, where are you? It doesn’t take a freaking survey to know what the heck is happening here..
This is a disgrace and if the Board of Education had any backbone this would not be happening. The incestuous relationship between this Board and Estrella makes me sick. Everyone involved, including Rilling, is failing our kids. Pathetic.
Nora King February 12, 2023 at 1:57 pm
Could this be anymore fluffy. Where are the concrete measurement tools. If the test scores are no improving the district is not doing their jobs.
Sarah LeMieux February 12, 2023 at 6:01 pm
I had a completely different takeaway from the above article — NPS is an organization of 2,000 adults working on behalf of 12,000 students in an extremely difficult line of work at the best of times. It is not the best of times, nevertheless metrics show modest academic improvement and increased efficiency. If you think you could do a better job than Dr. Estrella, or Rob Pennington, or Sandra Faoies, or Lunda Asmani, and you haven’t ever actually worked in a school, or directly supervised more than 10 people, I would invite you to google the Dunning-Kruger Effect.
John O'Neill February 13, 2023 at 3:36 pm
Sarah: It’s funny. So the idea is anyone who disagrees with current direction of the NPS is an idiot? You do realize within that group are approximately 90% of current teachers. I don’t think 90% of teachers are idiots…Do you?
Sarah LeMieux February 14, 2023 at 9:31 am
John, saying “90% of the teachers in Norwalk would agree with me” doesn’t actually make it a data point. As a teacher, I can say that with 100% certainty.
Sarah LeMieux February 14, 2023 at 9:39 am
Also, just as a reading comprehension check — my statement was, “if you think you could do better…and you haven’t ever actually worked in a school,” so I’m clearly not addressing teachers with different opinions about what is and isn’t working. I’m people with strong opinions that aren’t based on experience working in the education system.