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Idea of South Norwalk school scares some

An idea proposed by

An idea proposed by Silver Petrucelli & Associates and Milone and McBroom in the facilities feasibility study recently completed for the Norwalk Board of Education.

 

Updated, 10:25 a.m., clarification about District A meeting.

NORWALK, Conn. — A possible new school in South Norwalk is being looked at skeptically in some quarters.

While Board of Education member Mike Barbis called the idea of building on the Nathaniel Ely site “just dumb,” BoE Chairman Mike Lyons said he still thinks it’s the best option. Meanwhile, some African American community leaders are declaring themselves against the idea.

BoE member Sherelle Harris said she supports it but sources say there was a spirited discussion at a recent meeting of District A Democrats, where, those sources said, Carolyn Fuller, Brenda Penn-Williams, Jalin Sead and former BoE member Rosa Murray said they are against it. District A secretary Elsa Peterson-Obuchowski said Tuesday, though, that neither Penn-Williams nor Sead were present for that meeting.

Sead did respond to an NoN inquiry.

“At first glance it seems like a good idea, it solves a major issues, Norwalk needs more schools,” Sead said in a Thursday email. “But, when I look at the history of it, it scares me. We had a problem when Ben Franklin was a school; it was basically a ‘black school.’ I’ve heard talks of this being behind the Nathaniel Ely site, and being a neighborhood school, that is uneasy for me and a lot of others in South Norwalk, because of the fear of having another ‘black school.’”

Building behind Nathaniel Ely was the No. 1 recommendation made by Silver Petrucelli & Associates and Milone and McBroom in the recently completed facilities feasibility study. The new two-story school would be totally independent of Ely, perched behind it, with its own bus loop.

Barbis, chairman of the School Facilities and Planning Committee, said after a recent committee meeting that he had walked the Nathaniel Ely site, which is in District B.

“It’s a strange piece of property,” he said, describing the trailers being used by Grass Roots Tennis, the tennis courts, and all the ledge in the “narrow” lot. “We are going to need to do some work.”

Barbis, a commercial Realtor, has recently expressed disappointment that the study did not include the options of buying commercial property in South Norwalk, but admitted that, “All the sites I had in mind all had huge environmental liabilities.”

“Personally, I think it remains the best option for a local school in SoNo,” Lyons said in a Sunday email. “People have suggested buying commercial sites instead, but that would add millions to the cost and we already know the city can’t afford the whole Facilities Plan as it is. I would like to see if we could so something to clear the restrictions on use of the existing building and maybe make the site a K-8 school instead of a K-5.”

BoE member Erik Anderson, District B’s representative, said on Sunday that he tends to agree with Lyons.

“The concerns I have heard from community members revolve around it being an all-black school, therefore these community members feel that it will get the worst teachers, the worst principals and the worst resources,” Anderson said. “I have tried to express a different side to that, especially with our student-based budgeting, but there is a real concern around that and I am very sympathetic to it.”

Anderson said he has asked for demographics information because he, like Sead, has heard there were historical issues with an “all-black school.”

“I understand some concerns, but the level that it is going to is a bit extreme,” Anderson said. “It is causing unnecessary panic without anyone giving opportunity to have discussion on this, because we are so far out from this happening. It is shooting a horse before it ever breaks its legs.”

Ernie Dumas of A Better South Norwalk downplayed the level of concern.

“I have not really given it any thought whatsoever right now. There is some conversation going on in South Norwalk about the school, but it has not really gotten off the leg yet,” he said.

“I think it makes sense however there should be sufficient public input as to where in South Norwalk it would be and who it would serve,” Councilwoman Phaedrel “Faye” Bowman (D-District B) wrote in a Saturday email. “Alternatively, we can give South Norwalk residents access to Columbus just as Jefferson still serves neighborhood kids.”

“I am very sympathetic to concerns that can arise,” Anderson said. “I think if it’s not handled properly it could potentially go down a negative path. However, I do have faith that there are a number of people on this Board, including myself, that are committed to having a full stake from the community, having full open and public sessions and pushing the superintendent and his team to do so, and making sure we are holding ourselves accountable as well.”

Superintendent of Schools Steven Adamowski said, when this idea was brought forward, that there is a law that mandates that a school be integrated. Making the new school a magnet school would entice parents in other districts to send their children to South Norwalk, he said.

Ely is next to the Roodner Court housing project, which gets some negative press.

Anderson said a magnet school would get extra money in the schools’ budget, which should help alleviate fears.

A site plan

A site plan drawn up by Silver Petrucelli & Associates and Milone and McBroom in the facilities feasibility study recently completed for the Norwalk Board of Education.

“I presently support having a neighborhood school in South Norwalk,” Harris said in a Sunday email. “While I was a children’s librarian, prior to being talked into running for the Board of Ed, I was incensed when I learned about what is called ‘District 99’. I studied the desegregation situation.  I studied the Sheff v. O’Neill case. I understood the cause, but I thought it so unfair that young children in South Norwalk have to attend school wherever there is an opening. They have to wake earlier to be bused to seven or eight schools across town, instead of walking to school with their neighbors, getting exercise, and having crossing guards in various places to help them.”

Adamowski’s offer to South Norwalk parents the first crack at a school choice was a “nice gesture,” she said, but she had been hoping that a new school could be built where Columbus Magnet School is now.

“At present I don’t know of any plans for redistricting,” Harris wrote. “No matter where the South Norwalk school is housed, there are quite a few questions floating around.  Will the school be primarily minority? Will the school be properly funded? Will it be a separate, but equal type of deal? Who will be the teachers; will they be representative of the student population? What will be the school model?  What will happen to private preschools of good quality, many of which have School Readiness slots, when preschools are put into the public schools? These are important questions.”

She wrote, “The Board of Education has scheduled five sessions in different parts of Norwalk to discuss the three-year strategic operating plan, starting with the South Norwalk Branch Library on Saturday, April 2, from 9 10:30 a.m., Norwalk High School on Monday, April 4, from 6:30 to 8 p.m., and at Brien McMahon High School, Nathaniel Ely School and the South Norwalk Community Center. It appears that most of the sessions are concentrated in the South Norwalk area, which is great.  I just thought they would be spread out a bit more.  Nevertheless, it is very considerate of the Board of Education to bring the plans to the community. It is important to explain the plans to the community and for the community to ask questions and make suggestions.”

“I definitely want it to be a really robust conversation happening from this,” Anderson said. “I would hope that the rumblings that I have heard as we move forward with this process are brought into a more public discussion, and that emails are sent.”

The Board is very responsive to the public and “I have seen a great deal of communication from the board when it comes to answering questions,” Anderson said.

“I’m not too far removed from Norwalk Public Schools, and I had an amazing experience, because we had a great mix of children from all walks of life,” Sead wrote. “I would be against anything that jeopardizes the wonderful diversity, or the quality of education for all children here in Norwalk.”

22 comments

Mike Barbis March 29, 2016 at 7:06 am

Nancy, you’ve taken my comment completely out of context. I told you to call me yesterday and you never did. What I wanted to explain to you is that I believe the following:
1. We are short close to 1,000 seats in our school system and need to build new capacity
2. We should have a school in South Norwalk — the only part of Norwalk without a neighborhood school
3. Student Based Budgeting will insure the school is equitably funded
4. State law will not allow this to be a single race school
5. We are bussing over 500 students out of South Norwalk — this is unfair to those students as well as a use of NPS resources that could be used more productively
6. I do not believe the current plan for a new K-5 school on the Ely site is the best possible plan — this is the reference to “dumb” that you picked up.
7. I believe we should integrate the existing building at Ely into a K-8 facility on the property
8. The Superintendent would like to make such a school a magnet school to attract students from throughout Norwalk

Bryan Meek March 29, 2016 at 8:34 am

Student Based Budgeting in conjunction with School Governance councils are the safety measures to make sure the neglect that happened in days past does not happen again. Before ground is broken on any site, we should have a few years experience with this and hopefully some questions and concerns will be alleviated.

Tony P March 29, 2016 at 9:22 am

How does the BoE intend to get non-SoNo kids into that school? Namely, non-black/non-Hispanic kids. Would Mr. Meek or Mr. Lyons send their kids there?

Nancy Chapman March 29, 2016 at 9:27 am

Mike, you did ask me to call you Monday and I said I would. Was straight out and did not get to it, but I don’t think your comments were out of context. You were definitive that you thought building there was “dumb.”

Mike Lyons March 29, 2016 at 9:31 am

Also, the thinking is to make this another intra-district magnet (like Columbus), to attract students from around the city to the school. Our draft strategic plan includes two elements that could work together here:

5.B. Begin construction on an elementary school in South Norwalk to increase parental choice and reduce busing for South Norwalk students.
5.C. Conduct a feasibility study to site a public Montessori School and implement the primary level in an existing, an acquired site, or new construction.

A Montessori school at this location could create a real attraction for students from around the city, allowing SoNo to have a neighborhood school while maintaining required racial balance.

Mike Lyons March 29, 2016 at 9:42 am

Tony P., my kids have all graduated. But I note that many parents from outside SoNo send their kids to Columbus magnet, and if we approach the new school the same way (see my note above), there’s no reason to believe the same wouldn’t happen here.

srb March 29, 2016 at 11:37 am

In the words of Brown v. Board of Ed., separate is inherently unequal. I sympathize with every parent who has to travel by car or bus to get to their child’s school. Local schools enhance community enfranchisement. But a school that is overwhelmingly minority and/or socio-economically deprived is going to be stuck in a vicious circle where weak test scores will likely prevail and the possibility of being labeled a “failing” school exacerbates flight. I’m skeptical that even a magnet school model would suffice if the school is deemed the “local” elementary. Columbus Magnet was designed specifically to ward against the “local” term. Columbus’ enrollment is divided up across the city with each elementary school zone getting a proportion of the seats. Recently changes have been made to that proportionate representation that may undermine the school. Sadly, study after study has shown that areas that reach a certain threshold of minority population often find that things go quickly from a mixed race area to a overwhelming minority area in a very short time where housing values decline and a host of other problems associated with a weaker economic environment predominate. Labels like Magnet and Montessori alone will not do the trick (note: the term Montessori does not have any fixed meaning or definition and anyone can use it).

Tony P March 29, 2016 at 11:38 am

@Mike, I think you’ve got a great point – and the Montessori angle is a good conversation starter. Where I grew up (Yonkers), there are a number of Montessori’s and they work.

Tony P March 29, 2016 at 11:43 am

@srb – no disagreement, but there are a number of things in the works in South Norwalk that could/should/will help – from a few recent redevelopment meetings, there is going to be a lot of resources that go into South Norwalk (Wash Village, Ely/Lex Ave studies ongoing, South Norwalk TOD plans). While this school is undoubtedly a few years off, these parallel efforts should undoubtedly help with housing values and residential makeup – just having a school there, I think, helps.

srb March 29, 2016 at 12:42 pm

Just to clarify, Mr. Lyons cites Columbus as an example of a successful school that Ely can be modeled upon but Columbus is NOT a local school to the population nearby. In fact children who literally leave next door to the school are not assigned to Columbus and historically only go to Columbus based on a lottery that includes limited seats for the local population.

Mike Lyons March 29, 2016 at 4:12 pm

srb — correct, but my point was that a school in the inner city can attract parents from the suburban areas of town if it has a strong enough educational program. Currently the Norwalk schools are (overall) about 37% white, 37% Hispanic, 20% African-American, and the balance of other backgrounds — a pretty close match to the population of South Norwalk (as cited by Mr. Meek). The whole Norwalk school system is “overwhelmingly minority and/or socio-economically deprived” right NOW (50% of our students are on free/reduced lunch). If you believe that those facts would leave a SoNo school “stuck in a vicious circle” of failure, then the whole school system is already there and we may as well give up. Only I’m not giving up. And if we can make a success out of a school SYSTEM that is majority-minority (63% now and rising) – which I believe we can – then we should be able to make a success out of a majority-minority school in SoNo.

Norwalkparent March 29, 2016 at 5:50 pm

One item that needs to be part of this entire conversation is redistricting. While it is a politically unpopular topic it is in the best interest of our entire community. To discuss adding a new school, of any variety, without adding redistricting to the equation is irresponsible at best.

MarjorieM March 29, 2016 at 8:08 pm

If you are going to bus enough white kids into South Norwalk, how does that save money on busing? Good luck getting parents to agree busing their children out of their own neighborhood schools to go to South Norwalk’s mostly neighborhood school. I don’t care what you call the school, you will wind up with all minorities. Perhaps some good old fashioned groundwork should be done to see if there are actually parents who would agree to send their kids to this school. Let them sign off on the agreement. Start with those parents formally known as the RedApples.

Mike Lyons March 29, 2016 at 8:19 pm

Norwalkparent, redistricting is of course on the agenda. We expect to build three new schools, two or three of them K-8’s, in the next 8 to 10 years, as well as enhancing choice options throughout the school system with at least four intra-district magnets and multiple themed schools. This will be a complex mix of neighborhood schools with enhanced school choice (see Goal 3 in the draft Strategic Plan:http://www.nancyonnorwalk.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/03/BoE-strategic-plan-16-0308.pdf), all of which will go into the mix of proper districting of schools. A good first example is Silvermine, which will begin converting to a total Mano y Mano program next fall, with preference provided to Silvermine district residents but with the program open to all in the City.

Audra Good March 30, 2016 at 8:41 am

Columbus was created to balance and integrate the south Norwalk community – I don’t understand why we wouldn’t just expand or rebuild Columbus to allow district 99 to have the neighborhood option. It also seems contradictory however to stay concerned about busing when we clearly seem to be heading toward school choice and children will end up busing all over town. We feel sorry for the district 99 student who goes across town to cranbury but we celebrate the silver mine student who attends Columbus by choice? With Columbus going k-8 why not rebuild and expand and open it up to district 99 students? We could not have a non magnet additional south Norwalk school because racially we would be out of balance with state standards, that is why a magnet was placed there in the first place 30 years ago.

Sara Sikes March 30, 2016 at 9:28 am

This is such an important topic, and great to have two BOE members contributing to the discussion. I recall that in 1980, opening the Columbus Magnet School was a tremendous gamble that white parents would send their children voluntarily to a school in SONO. The school succeeded right from the start with a lottery resulting in a waiting list of white student applications. It is important for everyone to understand that a neighborhood school has not been the norm for most minority Norwalk students, who have born the brunt of bussing to reach the racial balance required by the State of Connecticut.

srb March 30, 2016 at 10:02 am

Firstly, thanks Mike for your hard work. Of all political positions, Board of Ed is amongst the most demanding, most criticized and underpaid (I know it’s uncompensated–but for the sense of purpose and mission). I am a property owner in Norwalk and a parent of two children at Columbus. My biggest gripe with our educational system is the poor job it does marketing and publicizing its successes. I’ve met students from other elementary schools, middle and high schools in Norwalk as well as alumni of all those schools and overwhelmingly they have positive things to say. I like the idea of having a local school for students in District 99 and am aware that the Board realizes the difficulty presented w/gaining a cross section of enrollees. People who move to Norwalk do so in large part because they believe that separate is inherently unequal. I empathize with your conundrum; ensuring broad and enthusiastic participation while also dealing with an area that has far more than its share of socio-economic problems and de facto segregation. Please don’t take my earlier comments as criticism. Clearly the Board is addressing the problems and will have to be innovative.

Tristan Fields March 30, 2016 at 1:32 pm

I believe the pros outweigh the cons of a neighborhood school. Effective education is aligned to the needs of unique student population. One size does not fit all. When the curriculum and pedagogy of a school do not reflect the students, it creates cognitive dissonance. In that setting, kids do not see themselves as successful students. Students should feel welcome in their school. Sometimes this means having teachers who look and sound like them. Sometimes this means having classmates who look and sound like them. I understand the concerns of the creation of a segregated school which receives fewer resources but we are the only ones in control of that. As Norwalk citizens, we have the ability to shape the social services of our town. If we really want a new school with equitable resources, we can make it happen.

Mike Lyons March 30, 2016 at 4:21 pm

srb – thanks.

Sara – that’s why I’m hopeful for a new school at Ely.

Audra — our analysis shows that we need three new schools in Norwalk in the next 4-8 years to absorb growth. Because of site limitations, Columbus has very limited growth potential. The Ely site, by contrast, is large and a better location for a new school. We are starting the conversion of Columbus to a K-8 this fall, but that is a programmatic change not related to the need to build capacity in the school system overall. To do that, we need new schools.

On busing, there is a significant difference from having the CHOICE to be bused to a school and being COMPELLED to do so, as ALL South Norwalk children are now. We’d like to give those kids the same option kids in the rest of Norwalk have – to go to a neighborhood school, or to hop a bus to a school of their choice in a system with many offerings and options.

We will, of course, manage the school in order to stay within racial balance guidelines, but you have to take into account the changing demographics of Norwalk. You state “We could not have a non magnet additional south Norwalk school because racially we would be out of balance with state standards, that is why a magnet was placed there in the first place 30 years ago.” Norwalk was a MUCH different place 30 years ago; our school system was solidly majority white then, with African-Americans as the primary minority group. The school system is now 63% minority, and African-American students are outnumbered almost 2-1 by Hispanics. Maintaining racial balance in a majority-minority school system is a much less problematic issue than in the white-dominated system you reference from 30 years ago. This is one of the reasons we believe it is feasible now (as it was not in the 1980’s) to return a neighborhood school option to South Norwalk.

Non partisan April 2, 2016 at 8:58 am

at the risk of being politically incorrect the problem starts with our zoning and uber liberal policies, and our inability to discuss matters rationally

Sono does not have a neighboorhood school today because the neighboorhood is racially imbalanced. So balance the neighboorhood.

Sono is an incrdible opportunity to gentrify. It has potentially the most desirable area to attract families- waterfront neighborhoods, walking distance to public transportation to commute to much higher paying jobs, local restaurants, and so on.

The problem is Norwalk is stuck in some 1960 ish race war.

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