Updated, 12:31 p.m.: Copy edit.
NORWALK, Conn. – From unwelcoming senior citizens to unsanitary car safety seats, Norwalk moms made problems at the Norwalk Early Childhood Center known Thursday.
In return, Norwalk Special Education chief Yvette Goorevitch, in a warmly upbeat Ad Hoc Sped Committee meeting, emphasized progress being made at the nearly 2-year-old center while agreeing with parents that there are issues.
Rumblings of problems at NECC reached NancyOnNorwalk in December, with four mothers speaking under the condition of anonymity early this year.
“When you tear it apart, when you really look deep, there are a lot of issues, a lot of problems,” one mom said.
“The (NECC) classrooms are beautiful. It is attached to the senior center which presents some very interesting opportunities and has also presented some challenges, particularly around the parking lot,” Goorevitch said last week, opening a Committee meeting held in the absence of Chairman Erik Anderson.
Anderson was said to be ill and new Board member Sarah LeMieux ran the meeting. Also in attendance was Board member Barbara Meyer-Mitchell, who is not on the Committee, along with parent members and five mothers who are part of the recently formed NECC Parent Teacher Organization.
NECC was conceived in 2014 under then-Superintendent of Schools Manny Rivera. The old Roosevelt School, at 11 Allen Road, was renovated at a cost of $2.9 million into a centralized location for pre-K schooling and opened in September 2016.
The preschoolers, many of whom have special needs, share a property with the Norwalk Senior Center.
“I have stood in the parking lot, and between parents and seniors it is a sight to behold. The city is working on widening the parking,” Goorevitch said, after explaining that the city is looking to move a retaining wall.
Building and Facilities Manager Alan Lo has promised “to put a barrier around the school as well, just because right now there is no barrier and there’s a lot of seniors,” PTO member Kim Burke said.
Goorevitch sympathized with parents, saying that she understood that a three-year plan to improve the facility’s safety “doesn’t make anybody feel great when you are talking about young kids.”
There are 160 students in the school now, according to Goorevitch. Administrators didn’t realize that some of them are also enrolled in School Readiness, a full-day program, and were being bused to the center, she said, opining, “3-year-olds and 4-year-olds just shouldn’t be commuting.”
That’s being addressed, with the school district seeking to provide the children services at their School Readiness facility, she said.
The transportation issues involve car seats, she said, explaining that the bus drivers and monitors went through a safety retraining in February.
Burke explained why: she had noticed last year that the aides didn’t know how to use the safety seats, concluding that if there was an emergency they wouldn’t have been able to get her children off the bus, she said.
Not only that, but there were sanitary issues with the “disgusting” seats, and “from September until just recently,” her daughters’ bus was arriving at school 30 to 45 minutes late, she said.
“Those families at the outer rims of district, those runs were coming in late,” Goorevitch agreed.
The buses going to NECC, some of them carrying 10 preschoolers, are on their third run of the morning, PTO mom Gillian Hedges noted, and Goorevitch said the recent safety retraining included instructions to clean the children’s safety seats, which are provided by the bus company.
NECC will be going to full day sessions next year, Goorevitch said, eventually prompting speculation about how the kids will be fed lunch.
The food will either be delivered or meal preparation done by sharing the space in the senior center, Goorevitch said, inspiring laughter among the NECC moms, who had said the seniors don’t want the kids there.
“They were there first, I think that’s the problem,” a mom said, with Goorevitch laughing and offering assurance that the seniors could learn to enjoy the children.
While federal law mandates that the student body at a Special Education facility such as NECC be least 50 percent “typical,” Goorevitch acknowledged that it’s currently at about 56 percent. The percentage will improve on March 27 when a new half-day Special Education intensive class opens, she said, with a Special Education lawyer silently watching in the audience.
Two School Readiness classes will be coming to NECC from Brookside Elementary School next year, Goorevitch explained, and while parents suggested this might lead to overcrowding, Goorevitch said it would improve the ratio of Special Needs to typicals.
Referrals look like they’ll up from last year and there have been 435 PPT (Planning and Placement Team) meeting so far this year, Goorevitch said.
Teachers attend the PPT meetings, taking them out of the classrooms.
“With so many PPT meetings it is staggering to see how the teachers are out of the room so much of the time. My question always is, who is teaching the class? What’s happening?” Burke said, commenting that “We have all seen TVs on constantly. That’s not why we are sending our kids there.”
“There should be no videos on ever, unless it’s a teachable moment,” Goorevitch said.
She suggested that “building trust and communication” would cut down the PPTs because parents are demanding them and, “We don’t need to open up an IEP (Individualized Education Program) every time we want to tweak an issue for a kid.”
Good news at NECC included a functional website, completed training for assessments, collaborations planned with the Norwalk Public Library and the Maritime Aquarium, as well as the senior center, and the initial implementation of ReThink, a data collection system.
ReThink serves multiple functions, as it provides training to staff members with “a library of exemplars of curriculum,” facilitating the educators to gain the certifications they need, while also being a storehouse for data on the children, Goorevitch said.
“I can pull up data,” Goorevitch said, explaining that an elementary school child had recently had “an enormous spike in externalizing behaviors” and when staff members looked at two months of data with the child’s parent, they discovered that, “Lo and behold, the kid had a virus.”
Meyer-Mitchell pressed for ReThink to be used as “a communications log” between parents and staff, so parents “can calm down a little bit” on federal compliance issues.
“I think that there are alternative ways on the compliance issue,” Goorevitch replied.
ReThink is “meant for child data collection, to look at phase changes, trendlines, gap closing,” Goorevitch said.
“I hear what you are saying and it’s a very useful tool, especially for the staff to do a data assessment,” Meyer-Mitchell replied. “But what I am suggesting is from the ‘Board of Ed’ perspective, of course we want to avoid complaints and lawsuits and due process and all of that.”
Burke said she asked for service logs last year, and after weeks of waiting she was “given all this paperwork.”
“I didn’t understand any of it,” Burke said. “I went into a PPT with so many acronyms, and honestly, the therapist couldn’t explain what was going on. It just made me walk away saying, ‘Are my kids really getting these services?’”
Right, Goorevitch said, expressing a desire to provide parents with meaningful reports but that there are issues with having data online.
Goorevitch went on to talk about evaluations.
“We create a simulated classroom so that we can assess young children in an environment that we are welcoming them into,” Goorevitch said. “… It was great to get phone calls from other districts saying, ‘Can we see what you are doing?’ We want to encourage the growth of our staff and have people saying, ‘Gee they are doing a great job.’”
The PTO parents have been “exceptional,” she said, with Meyer-Mitchell calling them “founders.”
Other lingering issues include needs for a playground, window replacements and a permanent administrator, as interim administrator Maureen Sullivan has been on the job longer than expected.
A “very, very strong” administrator candidate was interviewed last week and another resume came in, Goorevitch said, expressing faith that someone will be hired by July 1.
As for the playground, “We wanted a design that was really designed for young kids,” Goorevich said, explaining that she and others insisted that it had to be 20-25 percent accessible, so that every child could go up the slide.
At least one window in every room has been replaced so “at least they can open and get some fresh air,” Goorevitch said, predicting that the rest of the project will be done soon.
Again, she was upbeat.
“The full day co-teaching program provides a new model at NECC,” Goorevitch said. “I am really excited about that. It’s going to have really excellent outcomes.”