NORWALK, Conn. — Norwalk’s Board of Education candidates answered questions posed by high school students this week in a youth town hall hosted by Norwalk ACTS.
“We were blown away by the hard work of the Center for Youth Leadership (CYL) students,” Norwalk ACTS said in a statement. “… Students diligently researched, asked nuanced questions, and moderated the evening like professionals.”
Each of the eight candidates were given unique questions rather than one question for everyone, until the last round, when candidates were asked what author, book, journal, article or seminar has most influenced their thinking on educational policy.
You can watch the town hall below. Here is a sampling of what was said:
Colin Hosten, Democrat, Working Families Party (incumbent)
Question: How will you ensure transparency to families on key school benefits such as course offerings, enrichment opportunities, and teacher experience levels, as well as the degree to which students of different races and income levels receive these benefits?
Hosten called the question “extremely timely,” given that was one of the priorities the Board of Education identified for Norwalk Superintendent of Schools Alexandra Estrella when she came onboard in 2020.
Norwalk students can go toe to toe with anybody in the country as NPS has some excellent programs, but not every family can take part due to “disparity in how much families are compensated for those programs,” he said.
Estrella’s hoped for family center is set to open on East Wall Street, he said. “It’s meant to do exactly what you just described, it’s meant to be a one-stop place where families can come to learn about all the programs we have available. They can ask questions about individual structures at different schools,” in addition to getting health checkups.
“I think as long overdue, especially now as we are addressing some of the learning interruption, interruptions that you know, you and your peers have had to deal with this past 18 months,” Hosten said.
And, “We’re making sure to more intentionally reach out to some of our families who don’t speak English as their native language,” Hosten said. “We’re making sure that there are opportunities for them to be involved in particularly in Spanish and Haitian Creole, so that, you know, we’re creating a space where everybody feels welcome.”
Kara Baekey, Democrat, Working Families Party
Question: According to the RAND Corporation, one in four teachers nationwide considered leaving their job by the end of last academic year. Teachers, according to the study, were more likely to report experiencing frequent job-related stress and symptoms of depression than the general public; Black teachers were particularly affected. Here’s your question: what steps should our school district take to keep the teachers it has, especially those who are Black, brown or indigenous?
“I was very impressed with the way that Norwalk Public Schools handled the outbreak of the pandemic,” Baekey said. “I have spoken with people in other communities, including surrounding towns of you know, Darien, Westport, Stamford, that did not handle these situations as well as Norwalk did. That said, yes, there are definite, you know, repercussions that are affecting our teachers and our faculty. There has been a retirement rate that has led to a dearth of teachers and so therefore, we have a hiring crisis.”
She spoke of substitute teachers leading classes, “people who are not versed in on the subjects that they’re teaching,” and said some of the $44 million NPS is getting as COVID-19 relief “should be going towards supporting our teachers and our faculty and our staff. These people have gone above and beyond to accommodate all of these different learning models.. It’s been an incredibly stressful year and a half or so many people, but in particular, our teachers and faculty and I would really support making sure that they have all the supports that they need.”
Sheri McCready Brown, Democrat, Working Families Party
Question: Can you give us your assessment of the district’s equity in schoolwork?
NPS has identified equity as a strategic priority, McCready Brown said.
“That’s near and dear to my heart,” she said. “I think it’s very important to make sure that every child has an opportunity to do well, regardless of their circumstance, or background. And I think it’s particularly important that we pay attention to that as we continue to navigate during the pandemic, given that there may be some kids who are special needs who require some additional supports.”
It’s also important to “continue to embrace social, emotional, and the psychological wellbeing of our students during this time,” she said. “In my estimation, children do not learn well, if they don’t feel safe, if they don’t feel supported.”
It takes funding and “we need to continue to work with our local, federal and state partners to ensure that our schools, our administration, and our staff have the support that they need to make these things happen,” McCready Brown said. “The other thing that I think that’s important to know is for the first time, the district has hired a senior level administrator, a deputy superintendent of excellence, equity and inclusion, which is very unique to Norwalk.”
Janine Randolph, Democrat, Working Families Party
Question: In a recent report about the increase in hospitalizations among school aged children experiencing mental health situations, medical professionals and others call for stronger partnerships between schools and mobile crisis teams. What roles do you believe community organization should play in supporting students and families? And what should a partnership with the schools look like to make this happen?
“It is a very sad statement and occurrence that we’ve been through this past two years, and we’re seeing this increase in hospitalizations,” Randolph said. “It speaks highly to me, because I’ve had situations almost recently which something like this occurred.”
She’d like to see medical professionals in the schools as much as possible, but recognizes there are budgetary challenges, she said. With the social and emotional problems and the learning loss to deal with as well as isolation, “I think that this is highly needed.”
“As far as community organizations, I think we all need to get together and talk about what that looks like. I think we need to make sure that this happens. This is extremely important to me, and I think, to my fellow slate members as well,” Randolph said.
Shirley Mosby, Independents for Norwalk
Question: According to the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education, school districts with high student achievement are characterized by excellent working relationships among the superintendent, the Board of Education, and school governance teams. To what degree does this describe Norwalk?
“Norwalk is considered a school where basically we’re functioning very highly with our children,” Mosby said. “But there’s needs there, because we have such a diverse set of students in our schools, that each individual’s needs are different. And to have it on the same level as the state that that’s fine. And we’ve been reaching those goals, but we have a lot more to go.”
There needs to be more inclusivity, with people coming in groups to weigh in, she said, mentioning learning loss due to the pandemic.
“But on the other hand, we have some good programs, but then these programs need to be enhanced so that we could move further with kids that are students that were struggling in the beginning, before you know this pandemic,” Mosby said. “And we have policies in place, but we could make it a little bit stronger with more community input and from the surrounding community.”
Alex Kemeny, Independents for Norwalk
Question: Oftentimes when people talk about equity, they focus on students’ academic success. However, in light of the recently released data about Norwalk students’ mental health, what role do you think schools should play in eliminating barriers to equity for students and emotional success?
Kemeny said that to her, equity in education “means that students are provided with what they need to succeed.”
“I believe that a lot of these problems are created by the stress sometimes the school administrators put on teachers,” Kemeny said. “They push students ahead through the curriculum. Because they’re pushed ahead before they really totally grasp the concepts, many students feel anxiety and frustration.”
Children then fall further behind and the situation snowballs, she said.
“Children have no control over the adult-driven academic strides expected of them,” Kemeny said. “So these expectations are continually set higher, creating more anxiety in the student’s academic life. There’s no more joy. There’s no more fun in school anymore. So children are taking control in the only way they can, calling attention to their anxiety by hurting themselves or others. So I believe the root of the problem is a need for more balance of academics with the social and emotional wellness in the classroom.”
Jody Sattler, Independents for Norwalk
Question: According to the Center for School change in Minnesota, many board members start off by seeing themselves as community Representatives over time, though, they come under pressure to be spokespeople and advocates for the school district. Here’s your question. Do you see yourself primarily as a representative of the community or as a representative of the school system?
“I haven’t been on the Board yet but I think any of us that send our children to a public school should be an advocate for it,” Sattler said. “If you’re not an advocate for the schools that you’re sending your children to, then I’m not sure why you’re doing that.”
She’s running because she thinks there are things that should be done differently but, “you are put in a very interesting situation where you have to take information from the students and the parents and the teachers, and help advocate for them,” she said. “But you don’t want to be part of a board or school district that you can’t be proud of. So it would be very important to advocate for your school district in a positive way, in terms of here’s where we’ve been, and here’s where we’re going, here’s the improvements that we’ve made. It’s OK to talk about issues that you have, as long as you have a plan in place, and what are the steps you’re going to take to fix it.”
Sattler said, “I do see myself I would see myself as a representative of the community and of the school system. Both.”
Katherine (Price) Snedaker, Independents for Norwalk
Question: In a report published by the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning, schools and school districts in a rush to meet the mental health needs of students may be tempted to unintentionally implement half measures that are low quality measures that are masquerading as high quality ones. Can you give us your assessment of the district’s social emotional learning plans?
Snedaker said she understands that there’s a social emotional teacher at each school but feels full-time certified social workers and guidance counselors are needed.
But the COVID-relief funds are temporary and, “I don’t know … how much longer, whether we will have the same amount of money next year,” she said. “So if you put half measures in, it’s better than nothing, but I’d rather have those developed into fulltime trained teachers that can stay with the school and that we don’t have to pull everything out.”
Because her father was Norwalk school superintendent from 1983 to 1998, she knows that “every program he put in, he also had to pull out,” she said. “So there is a cycle of ebb and flow. And hopefully the plans can incorporate that flow as the funding changes.”