Lump of coal: No Race to the Top grant for Norwalk schools

NORWALK, Conn. – Norwalk Public Schools got an early lump of coal in its stocking last week with the news that it would not be getting a Race to the Top grant worth potentially millions of dollars.

Norwalk had been named one of 31 grant finalists, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

Five rural southern applicants, four of them rural, won a total of approximately $120 million in what was the second round of the Race to the Top-District (RTT-D) competition.

The winners are:

• Clarendon County School District Two (consortium of four rural districts), South Carolina

• Clarksdale Municipal School District, Mississippi

• Houston Independent School District, Texas

• Kentucky Valley Educational Cooperative (consortium of 18 rural districts)

• Springdale School District, Arkansas

According to a Department of Education press release, “These winners particularly shine a light on the innovative work going on in rural school districts across the country to tailor education for all students and provide school leaders and teachers with key tools that support them in meeting students’ needs.”

Scores for winning proposals ranged from 205.33 to 188.33. Norwalk scored 171.33, the third lowest of the 31 finalists. To see Norwwalk’s score sheet with judging comments, click here: Norwalk scores, comments

Norwalk Public Schools Superintendent Manny Rivera did not return a request for comment.

In November, Rivera said the grant proposal Norwalk submitted centered on its school libraries.

“We’ve been thinking about the future of our libraries, and as we think about technology and access to information, we wanted to use this grant potentially as an opportunity to create a different type of environment within our libraries,” he said, “to take and create what we call a learning commons. So basically, what this proposal, if it is funded — again, it’s highly competitive, but if it’s funded — it would give us an opportunity to create learning commons, which would be an information center. We would be redesigning, reorganizing that space to create opportunities for four to six students in small areas of that library, within that configuration, to work together on projects.”

Board of Education Chairman Mike Lyons said he was impressed with the plan.

“I think this is really state of the art thinking, not just from the technology point of view but from the whole process, engaging the whole community, Norwalk ACTS, and organizations that want to reach out, in the birth to 4-year-old range, to help kids get ready. … This is not just technology. This really puts together curriculum, technology, community involvement.”

While Rivera has indicated his intention to go ahead with the plan regardless of the grant, the project may have to wait, Lyons said.

“None of this was built into the budget” Rivera submitted to the Board of Education Finance Committee, Lyons said Sunday night in an email. “It would have all been add-ons (or acceleration of year two and three plans to earlier time frames). We’ll try again next year.”

The grants go to support locally developed plans to personalize and improve student learning, directly increase student achievement and educator effectiveness, close achievement gaps, and prepare every student for success in college and careers, according to the Department of Education website.

Norwalk and New Haven were among only four New England school districts to make the list of finalists. Lawrence, Mass., and Nashua, N.H., were the others. Newark, N.J.’s TEAM Academy Charter School was the only other school in the Northeast to make the list.

The 31 finalists, representing 80 school districts across 21 states, were selected from over 200 applications the department received in October to demonstrate how districts could personalize education for students and provide school leaders and teachers with key tools that support them in meeting students’ needs, the DOE website said.


33 responses to “Lump of coal: No Race to the Top grant for Norwalk schools”

  1. Bill

    It’s all obama’s fault right?

  2. No, I don’t think you can blame this one on Obama. 🙂
    It is interesting that most of the grants went to rural school districts; the cities were almost shut out.
    Anyway, it was good that we made it into the finalist group for the first time, with an application that Dr. Rivera only had a couple of weeks to put together after he had just started working here. We’ll try again next year, with a lot more time to prepare.
    Its important to note that our three-year Strategic Plan and Budget did not count on getting any of these funds; we budgeted on the conservative assumption that we wouldn’t get any. So this will have no effect on our current budget proposal. It just would have been a nice way of accelerating improvements planned to come in over the course of the three-year plan.

  3. Joanne Romano

    One more time our kids get shut out…we need to step it up and put our kids in the shining light…We made it to the finals and next time we will make it to the top because we are Norwalk and we aim to win! Our kids are worth the effort!

  4. More of the Same

    We need to stop this nonsense of equating quality educations with funding. It is disgusting. Millions and millions of children on this planet achieve educational excellence for fractions of what we spend. It is high time we start embracing our children and their talents and stop this outright fraud of tying pension funding levels to educational outcomes.

  5. TG

    Umm…NoN, why would you say five rural districts? Houston ISD??? It’s the largest employer in one of the largest cities in the country. Also, the root from which many charter schools grew, including KIPP.

    1. Mark Chapman


      Nice catch. The US Dept. of Education website made a reference to the rural winners, but only four of the five fit that description.

  6. TG


    Glad to assist. It jumped out because I worked there. So I’m happy for them. But it’s making me wonder, I if grant monies are distributed equally, when you break it down to a per student basis, the grant would go farther in a district with fewer kids. I’m wondering how much of an impact RTTT funds have in a district that already has an enormous figure for a budget, serving over 200,000 kids.

  7. jlightfield

    Competitive grants are tough to win, and there’s great stuff to build on from this application process. The technical review comments were pretty consistent in where Norwalk didn’t score well, and hopefully they will spur a change in community engagement. Norwalk did not score well in areas where demonstration of community engagement and stakeholder support were described. A key finding was that there was no evidence of student participation and little evidence of parent participation. Specifically a lack of documentation of focus groups, town halls, workshops and forums were cited by one reviewer. Another reviewer cited support letters from key adminstrative entities but no identification of comments or inputs by those entities or any other entities in the application specifically mentioning the lack of parent involvement in the application.
    I think this is an important point for Norwalk’s administrative leaders to review. The lack of direct community engagement including students and young people is something that most federal and state completive grants will ding you for. It is something that Norwalk as a city needs to improve upon. Too much reliance on top down thinking and a “heavy administrative layer” are signs that community needs will not be met. “Customer facing” strategies and engagement are things that show that feedback loop. Something to keep in mind as Norwalk moves ahead with new initiatives, regardless of subject matter.

  8. Don’t Panic

    I think it would be smart for Norwalk to study the winning applications and think about something new for the next round. If we scored 3rd lowest of of the qualifying 31, then submitting a more polished version next year is unlikely to nudge us into the top five. Also, I am willing to bet acceleration of existing plans is part of the reason we were passed up. Why find something that the schools planned on doing anyway?

  9. More of the Same

    So, we work and pay federal taxes so that agencies in Washington D.C. can figure out how to dole them out after getting their cut in salaries, benefits, bonuses, and pensions. Then at the state and local level we pay more bureaucrats millions to figure out how to get more money than the next town. And why did Norwalk fail? Because we don’t have enough paper pushers documenting minutia that has nothing to do with educating children. Does anyone else see what a scam this is?

  10. Mom

    Where is the new communications directors statement on this?

  11. marjoriem

    The positive spin on NOT getting this grant makes me nauscious. WE DID NOT WIN THE GRANT. The nationally recognized superintendent failed badly. Let’s be honest about this. Are we going to reward him with a bonus for this? Mike Lyons turns lemons to lemonade suddenly? Is this the new Norwalk Way? I doubt teachers would be off the hook if test scores were ranked this low. I doubt taxpayers would say, “There’s always next year? “

  12. marjoriem

    “Nauseous” was a careless spelling error I made above. Sorry!

  13. David

    Kudos to all involved in the submission. Yes, it’s hurts not winning one of the awards, but realistically, to go from nowhere to a winner in one year (or, a couple of months to be more exact) would have been surprising. Time to learn from the process and move forward with a stronger entry next year.

  14. marjoriem

    To go from nowhere? This is not the first time this grant was submitted! We lost last year too.

  15. David

    marjoriem: Did we make final consideration last year, or were we just another application on the pile? Because anyone can throw in an application – I could have done that myself!

  16. David

    marjoriem: On your point “is this the new Norwalk way?” – I hope it is. I hope we aren’t expecting short cuts to sudden miracles. I hope no one *really* expects for school performance to increase when budgets drop or that teachers will perform “better” when they are all of a sudden scored in an evaluation. I mean, I hope all reasonable persons, going into 2014, cannot REALLY expect that to happen. I know some people do make those arguments, but I hold out hope that they are just looking to decrease their tax bills and would always see education as an expense line, even if the total cost was $1.
    I would hope that in the 21st century we’ve gotten past the MBA/Paternalistic style of thinking that says complex problems can be solved with simple solutions and low effort thinking.
    I don’t know Mike Lyons, but I’ve heard him speak and I have high expectations that he gets it. So is this this new Norwalk way? I hope so. Let’s follow a process of continuous improvement and learn lessons along the way, and let’s do that at all levels.

  17. Mike Lyons

    Thanks for the comments, David. Unlike Marjoriem (who always manages to find the cloud behind the silver lining [“the nationally-recognized superintendent failed badly”]), you are correct that making the finalist group this year was a big step up from last time. Reforming the schools is a long-term process, and we were careful not to put all our eggs in this RTT grant application basket. Dr. Rivera’s strategic plan and our first three-year budget are poised to move forward with or without RTT.
    I particularly appreciate Jackie Lightfield’s thoughtful comments. In reading through the evaluation of our application by the Feds, I was struck by how many of the categories we got high marks in — in the overwhelming majority, we got scores like 14 of 15 or 9 of 10 or 4 of 5 (this is not “spin”, Marjoriem – for once try reading something before you comment on it).
    There were some areas where we fell short, but in many cases it seems to reflect lack of detail in the application rather than an underlying weakness with the school system. Jackie pointed out perhaps the biggest problem – “Norwalk did not score well in areas where demonstration of community engagement and stakeholder support were described. A key finding was that there was no evidence of student participation and little evidence of parent participation. Specifically a lack of documentation of focus groups, town halls, workshops and forums were cited by one reviewer.” Of course, Dr. Rivera, new on the job, didn’t have time to put something like that together given only a few weeks to get the application written and submitted. But a month or so later, he did precisely that – conducted budget / strategic plan forums and focus groups, whose input went into creating the three-year budget plan. These included parents, and also included two student focus groups, one at each of our high schools. So our timing was off, but we are doing just the kind of outreach now that the reviewers wanted to see.
    Overall this has been a good experience, and we’ve learned how to improve future applications to address what some grant reviewers want to see.
    It is also important to note that Dr. Rivera is working on all sorts of public and private grants, some of which look very promising. We will keep working on all of these opportunities going forward.

  18. marjoriem

    Mike, I did read ALL of the areas of the evaluation of the grant. It appears that you wear rose color glasses and I choose to live in the real world. It seems to me that we have a long way to go if that request for funding ever gets to the top. Time will tell if you are right or if I am right. I don’t need to be right. I would like the money to flow into Norwalk. I would have liked the cost sharing in Connecticut to come our way too, but that never happened either. Keep being a cheerleader, Mike. Maybe miracles can happen.

  19. More of the Same

    Sounds a lot like NEON. Hire more people, who spend excessive sums of money asking for more money. Repeat over and over again in the name of the kids, but in reality…screw the kids.

  20. marjoriem

    Mike, were you unaware that last year, when Norwalk lost the very same grant, we also received comments on how to improve this grant. This year’s grant should have addressed those comments. What you really need is a professional grant writer if you want to win a federal grant that is highly competitive. A. Professional grant writer works under contract and doesn’t cost the taxpayers any benefits. So far we have two years of nonprofessional grant writers who have cost us salary and benefits. I realize that you and the Board think they are better than everyone else when it comes to choosing curriculum programs. I imagine that you think you are making the right decision by going forward next year with the same writers. You always think you are doing the “right thing.” Perhaps it is time to listen to reason. You are not right on the K-5 LA curriculum and you are not right on this. You have a very large ego and are costing taxpayers a fortune.

  21. anonymous

    Outsourcing the grant writing for something like the RTT grant is not a bad idea Marjoriem.

    For parent and student engagement, the Old Norwalk way won out on that one. The gatekeepers don’t want to hear from them, too much work too much accountability. What do students and their parents know about schools anyways?

  22. marjoriem

    Mike Lyons?

  23. marjoriem

    Interesting that the Board Chair doesn’t want to reply to my suggestion. Why not, Mike?

  24. Mike Lyons

    Marj, you are so unrelentingly negative and inconsistent that I didn’t feel there’d be much value in responding. Here’s what you said back in November when we made the finalist group (31 out of over 200 applicants): “Thank you, Mike Lyons for providing the history behind this grant. I believe we applied for this grant before, perhaps under Mary Peniston, but did not even get close to getting it. Tali Negroni should get credit for even getting this far. Anyway, congratulations from me, Talia, for taking the lead and writing this grant. Great job!” Now you want Talia removed and her job outsourced because we didn’t win the final grant. And if we outsource and don’t win grants, you’ll say ‘Mike Lyons, you were wrong.’ There’s no pleasing you, ever. So there’s a limit to how much time I’m willing to use responding to you. And this is it on this topic.

  25. marjoriem

    Spin, spin, spin! Yes, it was wonderful that Talia tried for this grant, but I NEVER said that she should be removed. As I understand it, she has a full plate without this grant. As for negativity, if there is something to be positive about, I say so. You just proved that. I was very positive about Talia. Now that she did not win the grant, let her do what she does best. Time for a professional grant writer. Mike, you sure know how to spin the truth.

  26. More of the Same

    The only full plates at the central office happen during the normal two hour a day lunches they take.

  27. marjoriem

    More of the Same, don’t be so negative! Mike doesn’t like negative people. 🙂

  28. Joanne Romano

    Negativity breeds negativity folks, perhaps instead of finding fault on a subject you might want to attend BOE meetings to share constructive ways to assure funding in the next round. Not quite sure why people need to consistently post negative when obviously there has been hard work put into this application. Everyone is admitting that improvements need to be made in order to secure this grant and with the help of those who know/seem to know how this should be achieved should spend some time either attending the meetings or perhaps send BOE members and e-mail outlining your ideas with concrete data which will be helpful in the next process. Constant negative comments only serve to divide and separate those really concerned about the grant and its counterproductive. Jackie has some great input here, maybe if everyone puts their heads together a positive outcome will be what finally gets Norwalk much needed monies for our kids. And bottom line, its about the kids folks, not individual personalities and back biting. Play nice on the playground and you may find the rewards are numerous.

  29. marjoriem

    Before you accuse anyone of negativity and not putting students first, look to our Board chair. He did not allow experts in Language Arts to arrogate to themselves judgements which were his to make. I am referring to the K-5LA curriculum choices. In this thread, he did not choose to comment on my suggestion to hire a (contractual) professional grant writer. Instead, he chose to spin his side of the story, which was that I was inconsistent and negative. I NEVER suggested to replace Talia with a professional grant writer. His behavior reminds me of an imperious, self-centered child. Let’s do what is best for Norwalk’s children. We need to drop the huge egos and stop playing politics. Yes, Mike, the politics you play, your cheerleader attitude to make YOUR decisions look good, make me nauseous.

  30. Piberman

    Is Nancy’s adding value to the community posting “Marjoriem’s” negative and personal attack comments on our public school system ? Throwing darts while hiding behind ones identity has never been held in high regard in America. Maybe Nancy should offer Marjoriem a weekly column. Or impose some comment limits to say two or three short ones. Some 31 comments does seem “over the top”.

  31. marjoriem

    Let He who has not sinned cast the first stone…….

    All your opinion letters and comments????? Come on, Peter Berman!

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