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Norwalk BoE: Columbus renamed; possible changes to attendance zones detailed

Columbus Magnet Schoool Principal Medard Thomas, right, during a 2017 Board of Education meeting.

NORWALK, Conn. — From renaming schools to welcoming a new Chief Financial Officer, the Norwalk Board of Education has been busy, even in the first meeting for some. Here’s a roundup:

  • ‘Columbus’ slated to be renamed ‘Concord Magnet School’
  • District changes hinted at; Wolfpit, Silvermine, Jefferson and Cranbury mentioned
  • Hamilton praises his replacement
  • NFT VP: Ponus is already out of space
  • Concern about teachers; another holiday?

Concord Magnet School

The name “Columbus” has fallen out of favor and it became obvious that, given everything that’s happening in the country, it was probably time to rename Columbus Magnet School, Principal Medard Thomas said. Coming up with new name was a challenge as “CMS” is a thing, the “C” is important because it’s used to represent “care” in school songs and slogans, but brainstormers came up with a solution.

“Before Columbus school was built, there was a school called Concord School. And it was called Concord School because we’re on Concord Street,” Thomas said.

Concord School was torn down so Columbus could be built in 1938, he said. So the “concord” is relevant because of Concord Street being right there but also, “we looked at the definition of the word ‘concord:’ ‘in accordance, harmony, togetherness.’ And so those are definitions that definitely describe who we are, and what we stand for.”

Through “lots of conversations,” the school community decided Concord Magnet School would be appropriate and even now, when the school is expected to move into the new Ponus Middle School building, the sentiment is, “harmony does not live just on Concord Street, harmony can go anywhere you want,” Thomas said.  “So, CMS can follow anywhere.”

The Board unanimously approved the name change, effective the beginning of the next school year.

Thomas and Board of Education Chairman Colin Hosten said the name evolution does not represent any change to the curriculum at the magnet school.

“There may be questions about from parts of the community, who may be concerned that this represents a different way that we teach about, for example, Columbus, or Italian Americans. And we want to confirm that that’s not the case,” Hosten said.

 

Redistricting

With a new neighborhood school for South Norwalk in the works, Norwalk Superintendent of Schools Alexandra Estrella showcased a demographics deep dive by Mike Zuba, Director of Planning at Milone & MacBroom, who’s been studying Norwalk’s population for at least six years.

Zuba outlined “broad assumptions” that would “generate a really well-balanced utilization” of elementary schools to make it a “healthy” 90 to 91% across the district, given a need to “better balance enrollment” as the hoped-for new school wouldn’t have enough seats for all South Norwalk children.

The draft redistricting would send “an area of Wolfpit” to Cranbury Elementary School instead, Zuba said.

Wolfpit was also greenlighted for a name change, a switch to Wolfpit Integrated Arts Academy. This signifies the success of a transition that began in 2017 and the school being ready to offer its arts focus to all Norwalk students, Principal Jackie Aarons said.

Changing the lines so some kids would go to Cranbury instead both frees up space for the arts programming and makes room for students outside of Wolfpit’s attendance zone, Zuba said. It also “achieves the enrollment necessary to support the Cranbury school construction.”

He said, “We’re also looking at having a movement of students that reside in Silvermine, but also traditionally opt out of the program there. They would go directly to Cranbury to help kind of support the enrollment there.”

A Jefferson neighborhood might be moved to Kendall, he said.

About 90 South Norwalk kids could go to Wolfpit under this scenario, according to Zuba.

Zuba said 80 South Norwalk kids go to Wolfpit now under the District 99 arrangement, which has students bused out of their home area because there’s no South Norwalk neighborhood school. About 90 go to Silvermine and 60 go to Tracey.

The redistricting concepts are “written more in sand than stone at this point,” he said.

Board of Education member Sheri McCready Brown said eliminating District 99 might make schools in the predominantly Caucasian areas of Norwalk, like Cranbury, “all white.”

“Based on the preliminary numbers that we saw, of the 2019 numbers, we met the racial balancing criteria. And we will continue to monitor that,” Estrella said.

Board of Education member Erica DePalma asked about the 70/30 ratio at Columbus now, with 30% of the students coming from the surrounding neighborhood.

Estrella said the 30% designation would “slated for Jefferson to address some of the overcrowding that is there.”

Jefferson was renamed Jefferson Marine Science Elementary School, highlighting its collaboration with the Maritime Aquarium.

 

Asmani grilled about restaurant choices

Lunda Asmani was unanimously confirmed to be Norwalk Public Schools Chief Financial Officer as of Dec. 7, filling the role held by Tom Hamilton since 2015.

“It’s like I’m stalking him,” Asmani said, explaining that he became Norwalk director of management and budgets in 2016 after Hamilton created an opening by leaving his role as Norwalk Finance Director to become NPS CFO.

Asmani went to work for New Canaan in 2018 after two years in Norwalk City Hall. Now Hamilton is retiring.

“I feel like I’m chasing him,” Asmani said. “Definitely big shoes to fill.”

Hamilton said he worked with Asmani and he’s confident he’ll do an outstanding job.

“I’ve been working in local government for over 20 years, I’ve learned to adapt to changing environments. I began my career in the Midwest and moved to the northeast,” Asmani said.

His son went to Columbus Magnet School and then P-Tech, and Asmani was on the P-Tech School Governance Council, he said, commenting that he’s an Estrella fan and is looking forward to being on the team doing “exceptional work.”
Board of Education member Godfrey Azima asked Asmani what his favorite restaurant is.

You’ve got to go to Famous Pizza but when it comes to celebrations, his family prefers Banc House, Asmani said.

“It reminds me of my time in the Midwest so that’s our go to spot when we have friends in town.  SoNo Seafood is also nice,” he said.

Board of Education member Sherelle Harris said she enjoyed working with Asmani when he was Norwalk director of management and budgets, and, “He’s very streamlined. He truly knows budgets and he’s very patient with those of us who are learning; true professional and just a genuinely nice person.”

It’s not the best time for a personnel search, Hosten said, calling it a “stroke of good luck” that someone with Asmani’s resume and municipal budgeting experience was found “right in our backyard,” a candidate who is also deeply invested in Norwalk.

Ponus

Before the Board voted to send Columbus into the new building at Ponus, Norwalk Federation of Teachers (NFT) First Vice President Joe Giandurco said Ponus Middle School is stretched a little thin, even with the renovated quarters.

“As it is currently constructed, Ponus has already run out of space,” Giandurco said. “We have teachers who teach from carts and are forced to move from room to room to offer instruction. We have multiple special education teachers sharing office space, we have teachers teaching multiple grades and multiple subjects. Some teachers provide instruction on the stage during lunch in an auditorium. These issues are directly related to the limited space.”

Giandurco said this in the context of Columbus/Concord and Ponus needing to work with each other next fall “for the best possible outcomes for our students and within teachers.” They’ll share a cafeteria, an auditorium and playground space, so “careful planning” is needed.

A survey and other thoughts

Some other comments from Tuesday’s BoE meeting:

  • Recently, 75% of the teachers in a survey indicated that they are overwhelmed by the amount of work, and fewer than 25% agree that the district cares about retaining capable employees,” Giandurco said. “We believe that the current administration and members of the BOE need to partner with the building level employees of Norwalk to help move our district to an even greater height and increase the two-way communication by allowing building voice into many of our discussions.”
  • I think I would like to propose to the Board the consideration for next year, having Indigenous Peoples Day, as a day that we celebrate as a district,” Estrella said, calling it an action item for December.
  • Norwalk has a custom science curriculum, you cannot go to any publisher and purchase the curriculum off the shelf,” Director of K-12 STEM Education Tina Henckel said. “We design it directly from the (Next Generation Science Standards), and we build from it. That requires us to also create custom materials kits for our teachers and for our schools. And this is the first year that we finalized our custom materials kits so that principals and teachers have access to just say, ‘I need my grade three materials, supplies,’ and we can purchase them very easily.”

11 comments

John O'Neill November 22, 2021 at 8:49 am

Many nuggets in today’s article but let’s just focus on three:
1) Giandurco pointing out the space problem at Ponus — One would assume the Board was in close consultation with Teacher’s Union and Principal while making these decision — However, that doesn’t seem to be the case. BUT then you would also have to assume the Central Office comes down from the mountain to see how the most effected are doing..
2) Giandurco’s comments on Teacher’s survey were enlightening. Especially at a time when other districts are clamoring for teachers. If there’s a teacher out there who’s not afraid of commenting with a pseudonym we’re all ears. Also, it would be informative to evaluate the whole survey.
3) Indigenous People’s Day — I’m all for it ONCE we actually get to a point when the majority of students can spell the word and count the letters. Fluff is a distraction that seems to be used quite often these days.

Steve Mann November 22, 2021 at 9:04 am

“The name “Columbus” has fallen out of favor and it became obvious that, given everything that’s happening in the country, it was probably time to rename Columbus Magnet School”, Principal Medard Thomas said.

What’s going on in the country is kowtowing to false narratives and virtue signaling memes. This is absolutely hysterical. Glad I wasn’t born with the name Columbus. Everyone who feels better now, please raise their hand.

piberman November 22, 2021 at 12:07 pm

Discussions and news of Norwalk’s BOE and public schools never seem to discuss how our schools are doing meeting CT Education Dept standards. Last time I looked the majority of City school grads fail to meet CT Edu Dept standards for maths and the sciences as well as not securing 4 yr college degrees (see their website). In contrast virtually all the kids in our surrounding town public schools meet CT Edu standards. And we pay comparable salaries according to available per student education cost data.So we pay the monies but fail to secure the results desired.

Our surrounding towns are immensely proud of their student achievements.Norwalk’s BOE, City leaders and parents apparently have other concerns. For those who love their kids and understand the crucial importance of public schools in helping secure the American Dream the lack of expressed concern about City school outcomes remains puzzling.As is the apparent lack of interest in making public the names of top colleges that have accepted City school grads.

piberman November 22, 2021 at 12:16 pm

Celebrating an Indigenous Peoples day aka Native Americans raises all sorts of issues about what our kids are learning under BOE supervision. Those familiar with early American history see only cursory study of events in our local schools. For example do our students learn about the utter destruction of CTs Native Peoples in the infamous King Phillips war ? Or that 2 decades after the “Pilgrims” arrived they sent a boatload of Native Americans as slaves to work on their plantations in Jamaica where they soon perished. And then focused their attention towards importing African slaves. A visitor to Norwalk would be hard pressed to see any pubic mention of the previous existence of our Native Peoples. So if a Native Peoples Day is on the calendar why not give our kids some serious attention to how they received the Europeans and how they were “repaid for their kindness”. Part of our history that merits attention.

MyTwoCents November 22, 2021 at 7:56 pm

Piberman, you keep making the same comment on every article, I’m going to respond again.

The results for Norwalk Public Schools are exactly what you’d expect given our demographics, basically in line with Stamford which has a similar demographic. On standardized tests, when broken down by demographic, our students actually score above state averages for their demographic – over overall averages are lower because we have a very large high needs population, with larger classes sizes and lower spending per student (by about 10%) than Darien, New Canaan, Westport, etc.

I’m not sure how you can expect a district that spends 10% less a student, with a much higher number of high needs students, to produce results competitive with a town like Darien. That’s utterly unrealistic.

It also seems like you’re suggesting that the solution is to cut teacher pay – how would that help?

David Muccigrosso November 23, 2021 at 7:57 am

@Steve – You’re hilarious. The legend of Columbus was the ORIGINAL false narrative.

Columbus was a replacement-level historical figure. He was wrong about the radius of the Earth when practically everyone else had known what it was for millennia – and no, NO ONE thought it was FLAT, that was a lie that Victorians told to make themselves feel superior to the past.

Columbus was no better than a 9/11 truther. He was wrong, managed to scrounge together enough backers to fund his (to anyone’s knowledge) doomed voyage, and got lucky that it didn’t turn into a 1-way suicide mission, merely because he was ALSO wrong about something else.

Oh yeah, and when he got there, he enslaved people and raped children. The Spanish reneged on their promises to make him Viceroy of the Americas because he was such a pain in their backsides, was so unnecessarily cruel to the natives, and got delusions of grandeur.

The best thing that can be said about him was that he was persistent.

Italians like myself have far better heroes than THAT. Marconi, Fermi, Galileo, and my personal favorite, Philip Mazzei, from whom Thomas Jefferson cribbed the most famous words in the English language: “All men are created equal..”. He also founded the first Italian vineyard in America, and did it using NON-SLAVE labor.

Take your pick. I prefer the man who inspired equality and fine wine over the child rapist.

David Muccigrosso November 24, 2021 at 7:46 am

@Yan, you already voted for them when you elected your BOE. That’s how representative republican democracy works.

Actual American November 24, 2021 at 10:10 am

Renaming Columbus? Stop with the identity politics. This all ends when we want it to end. Stop stoking the flames of racism.

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