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Norwalk Board of Education: A look at strategic plan first-year goals, new hires, desire for remote learning

A screengrab from Tuesday’s Norwalk Board of Education meeting, showing Rowayton Elementary School Principal Casey Cummings Ed.D. at upper right and Tracey Magnet School Principal Brenda Brush at bottom.

NORWALK, Conn. — On Tuesday, the Norwalk Board of Education approved its first-year goals for implementing its strategic plan, heard from parents who wanted a remote option for their students this year, and welcomed two new hires.

Requests for remote learning

With back-to-school around the corner, five parents asked for a remote option for their students, particularly students who are too young to be vaccinated. Norwalk Public Schools is planning to be entirely in-person, except for students who could qualify through the state’s homebound program or if there is a need for students to quarantine.

Sharon Baanante, a parent of an 8-year-old with asthma and an individualized education plan, said that they should keep the remote option for our unvaccinated young children.

“Every parent should have the option to keep their child safe until they can get vaccinated, especially with Delta,” she said.

Baanante acknowledged that legislation passed by the state earlier this year doesn’t allow much flexibility to districts when it comes to long-term remote schooling for the year

The state Department of Education issued guidance in July titled, “Regarding the Future of Remote Learning in Connecticut Schools,” based on “An Act Concerning Social Equity and the Health, Safety and Education of Children,” which was signed by the governor.

“While school districts, as outlined in this guidance, are not authorized by legislation to provide a remote learning program except for high school students starting in the 2022-2023 school year, and even then are not required to provide voluntary remote learning options, the evolving COVID-19 pandemic presents the possible need for a continued emergency declaration and future Executive Order or other action addressing narrow access to remote learning as a direct public health necessity,” the guidance reads.

Still, Baanante said that she believed the district had some flexibility in short-term remote options.

“Pediatric delta variant cases are skyrocketing and the state of Connecticut did not consider this when they passed the bill in June prohibiting remote learning this school year,” she said.

Superintendent Alexandra Estrella, later in the meeting, said that they were working to offer a virtual academy for students beginning in September 2022, but couldn’t do that this year.

“We want to provide our families a virtual academy, something that we were hoping to launch this year, but unfortunately due to the new legislation that the parent articulated earlier, we are unable to engage in a virtual academy until September 2022,” she said.

Other parents asked for remote options till the vaccine was available to younger children.

Constantin Adam, a parent of a sixth and a ninth grader, said that they were worried about possible long-term effects.

“Aside from the positive cases, there are risks of long-haul COVID that have not fully been studied or understood and the long-term health impacts could follow Norwalk’s children for the rest of their lives,” Adam wrote in an email to the board, which was read aloud by President Colin Hosten. “Unfortunately, the data shows that there is a significant probability of something bad to happen and I don’t want my children to be part of an experiment that can go wrong.”

Parent Alexis McCarthy wrote that they are “not comfortable with the reduced spacing and increased mingling between students set forth in the Norwalk Public Schools reopening plan.”

 

Ready for back to school

Norwalk Federation of Teachers President Mary Yordon praised the Board of Education and central office for enhanced “communication and collaboration” as the start of the school year draws near.

“We feel very much that when we have been presenting, trying to amplify the voices of our members and leads in the various buildings, that’s being listened to,” she said.

Yordon said that the teachers and staff were excited about the year and looking forward to safe, in-person learning.

“We are grateful for the flexibility the district is offering, for the commitment to testing and vaccinations, ventilation, masking, and all of the layered mitigation strategies, that this year more than last year, are going to help provide more security despite the anxiety, despite the risk,” she said. “We are very committed at the [Norwalk Federation of Teachers] to in-person learning in the safest, most possible environment and we think that we have about all the techniques in place here this year that we could possibly have.”

Yordon said that there are “many new faces” and “familiar faces in new roles,” as well as some challenges ahead, but they are looking forward to a “school year that is better than last year” and one that will serve the students of Norwalk.

Two of those new faces were officially approved on Tuesday Casey Cummings, the new principal of Rowayton Elementary School and Brenda Brush, the new principal at Tracey Magnet School.

Cummings said that she was grateful for the warm welcome she has received so far.

“I am honored to be a part of this community and I am dedicated to continuing the Norwalk Public Schools and Rowayton’s legacy of innovation and excellence, and I look forward to an amazing school year,” she said.

Brush, who lives in the neighborhood around Tracey, said she was excited to be serving her community.

“It is my absolute pride to be joining the Tracey community,” she said. “I’ve lived in Norwalk for over 20 years now and I do live right in the Tracey neighborhood so I’m thrilled to be joining my local team.”

The Board of Education also received an update on indoor air quality in executive session. No public discussion was had and no official public actions were taken.

Strategic Plan first-year goals

Over the last 12-18 months, the Norwalk Board of Education had engaged in a strategic planning process to set goals for the next few years for the district. Superintendent Alexandra Estrella gave, and the Board of Education approved, the first six goals for the upcoming school year. They are:

Goal 1: By June 2022, NPS will strengthen individualized student success plans, including but not limited to:

  • Redesigning the K-12 curricula map to fully integrate all learners, incorporate healthy, social emotional boundary practices, and achieve consistent implementation across schools and grades through a districtwide assessment system
  • Implement updated K-5 reading curricula and develop teacher professional capacity to teach reading; refine SRBI and enhance the Gifted and Talented Program
  • Launch 3-year roadmap that responds to the special education audit
  • Develop/refine diversified programs that motivate students through specialized/theme-based curricula in areas such as arts, language, STEM, IB, coding and web development, health, marine science, and media
  • Develop holistic educational processes that cultivate and develop students’ academic, physical, emotional, moral and psychological attributes

 

Goal 2: By June 2022, the Business and Operations Department in consultation with the Finance Department will: develop a three-to-five-year facilities plan, an annual buildings-based facilities improvement plan, a building-based facilities score board that is completed annually; and make sure to align facilities plan and capital plan.

Estrella said that the new facilities study gave the district a “robust look” at what their facilities needs are and helped identify essential priorities, which include a new school in Cranbury and looking at different ideas for building new schools in South Norwalk.

 

Goal 3:  By June 2022, the HR, Finance, and Business/Operations Departments will have evaluated and streamlined their departments for best practices, cross-functional efficiencies, alignment, and coherence, particularly for these departments: HR, Finance, Safety and Security, Business and Operations, Research and Analytics, Communications.

Estrella said that they are “develop a data and analytics team that will inform the district” and using that information to help support the teachers.

 

Goal 4: By June 2022, NPS will cultivate instructional leadership in all school buildings including but not limited to:

  • Professional Learning for school leaders and teacher leaders
  • Frequent progress monitoring
  • Cycles of support
  • School improvement planning
  • Instructor led training
  • Teacher teams
  • Equity teams
  • Data dashboards

 

“We really focused this summer on really resetting the path forward, moving our principals from seeing themselves as managers to seeing themselves as instructional leaders,” Estrella said.

 

Goal 5: By June 2022, NPS will develop and/or refine our instructional programming options to increase opportunities for students and to ensure all students have access to high quality instruction and support, including but not limited to:

  • Implement virtual academy to open in September of 2022
  • Bilingual Programs/Dual Language increase diversity of programs for English Language acquisition; develop a dual language pathway from elementary to middle school
  • Refine Twilight Academy and develop it into a permanent option
  • Ponus STEAM Academy Develop K-8 STEAM plan and path to high school
  • Refine and continue to build an arts pathway for students from elementary to high school

 

Goal 6:  By June 2022, we will ensure families are provided with equitable opportunities to access district resources and programs, such as:

  • Establish the NPS family center as a central hub for parents and guardians
  • Launch the central registration process
  • Plan and execute a series of family workshops
  • Create marketing communications materials to promote choice options and highlight key features of all schools

 

The Board of Education unanimously approved the goals for this year.

Hosten said that they “represent what the community wants to see,” since they were developed through multiple stakeholder meetings and sessions.

3 comments

Thomas Belmont September 1, 2021 at 2:08 pm

I have a question on Goal 4. What is ‘Equity Team’? I do understand that the word ‘equity’ in terms of government use in the current culture, supercedes ‘Equility’ as described by our national founding and all the legislation that followed.

Bryan Meek September 7, 2021 at 10:42 am

Respectfully, this BOE and NPS are trying to drink from a fire hose. If we didn’t learn anything from last week’s traffic fiascos that it is time to slow down and consolidate some gains then we are doomed to make even more mistakes in the future.

Excuses for first week jitters aside and a reluctance to send children to school on buses due to risk of covid exposure (Yes, this seems to be a prevailing excuse ignoring the fact the children are spending 6 hours a day inside buildings at similar risk), the primary fact of 200,000 people driving through Norwalk every morning was completely ignored. This is a structural issue you will never be able to change at the local level and with Waze technologies and increased traffic volumes on 95 and the Merritt and massive East Norwalk corridor construction to last another 4 years+.

Good luck figuring this out, but take warning from your own admission that you didn’t bother to work out the details before implementation. You made the decision to go over the cliff without all the facts.

Sound familiar?

New NHS? $5 million is a lot of money to figure it out. Why isn’t the new NHS a bigger subtext in this list of priorities given its massive price tag? Does this foreshadow the same type of ambivalence that the Late Start times initiative received?

Get it together. This isn’t a game.

How Many? How Much? September 7, 2021 at 5:22 pm

How many complete revisions of the curriculum has the district had over the past 20 years? Does each one imply that the previous revisions are of no value, that they weren’t developed with state and national standards in mind? Each new superintendent would do better — and would demonstrate respect for taxpayer dollars — by first reviewing and then improving upon the work that has already been done, using it as a foundation for continuous improvement. Instead, they start over each time. Wasteful.

How many times will the reading and math programs be revised — with new textbooks and other materials purchased each time? Are the new programs someone’s pet programs, or were they determined by an open decision-making process by well-informed people, including parents?

How many of the new central office curriculum and instruction administrators are new to Norwalk Public Schools, and will first have to learn the schools and the staff before developing and implementing the changes?

How many new administrative positions have been created since Dr. Estrella’s arrival? What is the total cost? Please don’t tell me that grant funds are supporting some of the positions because grant funding doesn’t last forever.

How many of the taxpayers’ dollars will have been wasted when NHS, after tens of millions of dollars already spent on renovations and other improvements, is demolished, in order to open a new building that is not needed?

Given all of the construction that is already taking place on a national level, plus the gazillion federal tax dollars being given to states and local communities for all kinds of construction projects, how much more that the original estimate will the new NHS cost? When there is a lot of construction, there is a premium on the cost of construction materials, and contractors are more likely to submit higher bids because there is plenty of work out there. The price tag may well be a shocker.

With regard to equity, the goal ought to be to raise achievement levels for all students, including Norwalk’s high achievers. I don’t know the intentions of this administration, but in some places, the focus is on helping lower achievers to improve and paying far less attention to the higher achievers. Do that in Norwalk, and the higher achievers will leave the system, leaving the district in a downward spiral that will have no bottom for years. That story won’t end well.

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