NORWALK, Conn. – It’s a new day at Briggs High School, according to one Norwalk senior.
“I think that every student loves and appreciates what (Principal Marie Allen) has done to our school,” Nathalia Ramirez said. “It has been three years. The bad reputation that we had at our school is no longer there. Like I said, it’s a new beginning. These past three years has been not one fight and nothing that has caused the chaos in the school. For us that’s an accomplishment.”
Ramirez was one of three Briggs High students who spoke at last week’s Board of Education meeting to highlight the progress being made under the turnaround program developed under the state’s Commissioner’s Network program. The presentation was in response to the routine and repetitive complaints from South Norwalk activist John Mosby, who persistently says nothing is being done and that Briggs does not get the money it deserves, not as much money as other schools.
By money, Mosby said last week that he meant the school has not been renovated as planned. Norwalk High got the $5 million upgrade it was promised in 2008, but Briggs is still untouched, he said.
Norwalk Superintendent Manny Rivera agrees that “the Briggs facility isn’t great,” BOE Chairman Mike Lyons said.
“He would like to either significantly renovate it or replace it,” Lyons wrote in an email. “But keep this in context. There are 67 students at Briggs. Mr. Mosby complains about $5 million being spent at NHS and says $3 million should have been spent at Briggs, but the $5 million at NHS was for 1,544 students (315 of them African-American). Assuming Mosby’s numbers are correct, the NHS project came in at $3,238 per student. Spending $3 million on Briggs would have amounted to $44,776 per student – almost 14 times as much money per student as at NHS. I can’t fault an earlier BoE for deciding that spending that kind of money on that small number of students simply wasn’t justifiable, particularly when you acknowledge (as Mosby himself repeatedly did) that Briggs a couple of years ago was a failing school. Our priority right now (and we’re making good progress on it) is to the restore the quality of the educational program at Briggs first, then worry about doing a major renovation there. If Briggs had remained as it was, graduating kids who couldn’t read, what good would it have done them to have gone to a shiny new building where they weren’t learning?”
The turnaround plan was formed last spring. In August, the BOE signed a contract with Our Piece of the Pie (OPP), an education organization that works with urban youth that was approved by the state to be the BOE’s partner in the Briggs turnaround plan.
“It’s a new day for Briggs,” said Allen, who became principal in 2011. “Students come to Briggs because they have lost credits. We are offering an innovative academic program that focuses on internships, a push to college. We have improved our attendance rate, graduation rate — so far this year, 12 students are looking at graduating this June. Last year we had 10. We also have wrap-around services through our health and wellness team. We also have a parent liaison that reaches out along with OPP to our families.”
Bradford Williams, a Briggs special education teacher, said the plan is to use a holistic performance index with the goal, in part, of getting attendance at Briggs to within 20 percent of the state average.
“Obviously, if the children are not there there is not going to be a lot of growth. So attendance is key,” he said.
There are various programs to help students recoup the credits they have lost at their school of origin and programs to deal with behavioral problems, he said. There are assessments and a goal of increasing the number of students who attend college or technical schools or who graduate career ready.
“When I became a new parent, my goal was to make sure that my children had a better life than the one I had growing up, and I think that, with some of these goals in place we have at Briggs, we are going to see to it that they get a good education, that they get a good job, that they have an internship or some sort of skill that will allow their children to have it better than they did,” he said.
“We are looking at next year holding the core classes Monday through Thursday,” Allen said, “and Fridays we could look at students going to NCC (Norwalk Community College). We are building that partnership. They are looking at going out into the community to do internships or they’re staying on campus to do projects. We have a great credit recovering program. We are looking at blended learning and enhancing that program.”
Ramirez said that every week the students can participate in a town hall. Last week Rivera attended.
“We have the opportunity to voice our opinion and talk about what we feel that we need in school or something that could be bothering us or just anything that we want to share,” she said. “… I think that Briggs is defined as a family. It’s such a small environment and we are a big family. We love each other. There’s little disagreements here and there but we love each other. I want to thank Dr. Allen because I can actually say that … every decision that Briggs makes has gone through every student. You don’t get to do that at every school.”
BOE member Mike Barbis said Briggs is not alone in having construction plans delayed.
“Note that our capital plans change all of the time. … Look at Cranbury School — they are bursting at the seams, yet their addition/renovation has been pushed back over time; … probably over five years since it was first proposed. Look at Rowayton School — that also was postponed and took years to get off the drawing boards. Ground will be broken this summer,” he wrote in an email. “So, something that was proposed for Briggs seven years ago was obviously going to change.”
The capital budgets available on the city’s website, which date back to 2008, do not mention plans for Briggs.
“I’m looking into this, but clearly there hasn’t been anything in the capital budget for Briggs for years before I even got on the Board,” Lyons said. “It has become clear that there was neglect under previous building management. George Gianniti, our new building coordinator, has spent a lot of hours addressing heating issues, electrical issues, plumbing issues and roof repairs at a number of our schools, including Briggs. He is also working with Alan Lo in the City to put together a preventative maintenance and capital plan to address these issues district wide so that we can eliminate some of these facilities issues rather than constantly having to fix and repair issues that arise due to years of neglect out of our operating budget.
The hope is to have a detailed capital facilities investment plan for the FY 15/16 capital budget to address many of the issues that are constantly coming up for repairs.
“While we would have liked this to be included in the FY 14/15 plan, given school security, common core and Rowayton, it wasn’t feasible to get that approved and a comprehensive analysis done this year (nor, I suspect, could the City have funded it even if we had the plan done),” Lyons said.