NORWALK, Conn. — Columbus Magnet School has been greenlighted to move to the lower Ponus building in September, in a unanimous vote Tuesday by the Norwalk Board of Education.
The Board, in an ambitious meeting that covered much territory, also approved moves aimed at shifting school construction plans into building a South Norwalk neighborhood school in an undisclosed location. Much conversation was devoted to the future South Norwalk neighborhood school, with Norwalk Superintendent of Schools Alexandra Estrella describing the CMS/Ponus move as part of the “puzzle” in making that happen, eliminating the long-standing practice of busing the South Norwalk kids to other sides of the city.
While some called the CMS/Ponus surprise a “decision made in five days” and it appears the Ponus community was caught off-guard, Estrella said, “This has been an ongoing dialogue that has been taking place for years before I arrived here and for the entirety of my time here.” Demographer Mike Zuba said he’d been analyzing the school district for a year and had developed the Ponus idea while studying “different planning scenarios for providing a school in South Norwalk.”
Estrella and Board of Education Chairman Colin Hosten talked of a “tight timeline” to finish the application for State funding of the hoped-for new school. “Waiting a month on this could imperil a whole domino effect for the larger capital plan for the district,” Hosten said.
Because only 685 of South Norwalk’s 818 elementary students could attend the new school as it’s currently planned, Estrella’s team spoke of enhancing two nearby elementary schools to draw the SoNo kids through the “choice” component. The BoE then greenlighted renaming Wolfpit to Wolfpit Integrated Arts Elementary School and Jefferson to Jefferson Marine Science Elementary School, emphasizing Jefferson’s collaboration with the Maritime Aquarium.
The existing Columbus building may “incubate” the new school, with kindergartners attending school there as construction begins,” Estrella said. By the time the neighborhood school opens, there would be two grades of students ready to move in and start the new school culture.
Or, it might be used as “swing space” during the construction of a new Norwalk High School, she said.
Ten CMS parents spoke in enthusiastic support of the plan; one expressed reservations.
“This is the first plan presented that actually has been well thought out and which benefits all of the key players in some way, shape or form,” Sarah McIntee said. “It gives CMS the chance to have the school that was promised years ago and also provides a brand-new neighborhood school for SoNo community.”
Jenna Garry, whose daughter is in kindergarten at Columbus, said the first news article about the plan had come out five days earlier and “it seems a little fast and quick. And I am not opposed to it. I would just like the opportunity for some time… It doesn’t feel like the parents or the staff have been given an opportunity to actually think about this.”
The brand new Ponus addition “looks great on paper, but it wasn’t built for us,” she said. “…We don’t know that it can succeed in the long term of an integration of two schools coming together.”
Columbus Magnet School Principal Medard Thomas spoke of the failed plan to build a new school for his students. “We’ve been talking about building a building for our school for five years, we’ve been so very close,” he said. “We hired architects, we held meetings, we solicited feedback. We talked to the children … they were in on the conversation.”
Thomas joked that Columbus kids had wanted a “chocolate fountain” in front of their new school and unfortunately that isn’t happening. But, while waiting for school construction, Columbus “added a sixth grade, seventh grade, and then an eighth grade,” he said. “Our children are thriving… However, we really need space. I want to offer my children more access to middle school amenities.”
David McFate, a parent, said that he’d heard about Columbus six years ago, shortly after moving his family to Norwalk. He been told a new school would be built and he and his wife decided to send his baby to Columbus if they could. Now she’s in first grade there.
“Is Ponus perfect for the CMS community? It’s not perfect, it doesn’t have a chocolate fountain, that sucks. I don’t think that we can let the perfect be the enemy of the good,” he said.
No Ponus parents spoke. Hours before the meeting, Ponus Ridge Middle School Principal Damon Lewis sent emails to every family, emphasizing that the plan was a “possibility.”
“I was informed that there has been ‘some’ chatter on social media about the POSSIBILITY of Columbus moving onto the Ponus campus. This is a POSSIBILITY,” he wrote. He then explained that he had attended “a meeting early this week” where “this was discussed,” but hadn’t informed the school community earlier as, “It is a fluid situation as this POSSIBILITY (not definite) has to be approved on a few fronts before it becomes a reality.”
The Board of Education has sole authority in approving the transition of CMS to Ponus. There are no further steps; what faces multiple levels of approval are the capital budget appropriations that would enable a South Norwalk neighborhood school to be built in a location other than the lot adjacent to Roodner Court, as has been planned.
At 8:45 p.m. Tuesday, as the Board of Education worked its way to approving the CMS transition, Lewis emailed his school community to alert them to “two important dates,” one of them a meeting next week to discuss “the potential move of Columbus to the campus.”
Meetings with school communities
“We’ve engaged in an array of dial up conversations, not only with the CMS community, we had conversations with the leadership at Ponus. We have some conversations with their SGC,” Estrella said. “…This is not something that happened within the scope of a few days.”
In initial conversations with SGCs, NPS asked for confidentiality “because everything was still preliminary,” she said. “We had essential conversations, because we wanted to get a sense in terms of how, given their experience and their engagement in the community, how they would feel about any potential shift.”
Her administration had conversations with leadership, about how the two principals would collaborate, “So the leadership, as well as the SGC constituents, either in conversation with the principals or direct conversations with myself, have engaged in dialogue prior to the five day mark that people are circulating on social media right now,” Estrella said.
CMS staff visited Ponus on Monday evening, she said. “My overall observation, and the observation of the team that was supporting in the tour, was that the staff felt very positive about the space and the potential transition to the space.”
The Nov. 23 meeting with Ponus community and staff will be focused on “their thinking around this shift,” how the two schools will cohabitate, she said.
The Ponus addition was originally planned to convert the middle school to a K-8 STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) magnet school; this was switched to STEAM (all that plus Art) more than two years ago.
Ponus is the middle school with the highest number of high needs students and the STEAM academy would raise achievement scores, then- Norwalk Superintendent of Schools Steven Adamowski said in May 2019, explaining that “when you are in a themed school like STEAM it matters how many years you are in the school. The research tells us that the consistency of introducing and reinforcing these concepts year after year over a nine-year period of time to a school does bring students to a much higher level of student achievement.”
The expected STEAM academy for elementary students won’t happen with Columbus moving into the new space.
“We’ve been working to integrate STEAM practices across the district and also continued to engage in conversation with our school leaders that have interest in looking at STEAM pathways,” Estrella said Tuesday.
Assistant Superintendent of Digital Learning and Innovation Ralph Valenzisi and Director of K-12 STEM Education Tina Henckel also offered assurances that STEAM pathways are available.
“All of our schools have actually had some components and principles of this,” Valenzisi said.
“In addition to our core curriculum for science, these are areas of which students have additional opportunities to engage in STEAM experiences,” Henckel said. “And we want to be able to use some of these opportunities to expand throughout some of the other schools that are also looking to incorporate ideas such as maker spaces in the library learning commons, STEAM labs, and as you heard today, at Jefferson they have a STEAM teacher who actually uses and integrates some of her STEAM experiences through her specials. And then we also have project-based learning experiences that are rooted in some of the Kendall and the Columbus magnet schools.”
She said, “All four of our middle schools have robotics and engineering courses that are offered to students even beginning in sixth grade.”
Board members vote, denying it’s ‘rushed’
“I was going to abstain initially, but the presentations have been very thoughtful,” BoE member Sheri McCready Brown said, in her first meeting as a Board member. “… My only concern would be to make sure that if we do this, that the resources are in place for the South Norwalk schools because of what happened historically.”
Estrella replied, “Resources have to be at the forefront of our conversation in terms of equity, and adequacy around what we’re doing to effectively serve the children of South Norwalk. It’s long overdue, and they deserve it. They have the right to have an equitable and just education.”
Board of Education member Sherelle Harris, attending the meeting virtually, thanked Estrella because she’s always found the “District 99” practice of busing the kids to be “horrendous.”
Estrella replied, “If you recall the question you asked me when you first interviewed me, it was around District 99. So it’s interesting, we’re having this conversation.”
BoE member Diana Carpio said she’s been Facilities Committee Chairwoman for more than a year and “it’s been a back-and-forth battle, conversations, meetings, hours after hours. So this is not a decision we took very lightly. As some you know, misinformation is out there. It wasn’t ‘we just got up, we went into a room and decided this is what we’re going to do.’ There was a lot of thought here.”
“A lot of these conversations have been happening for months, some of them not in public meetings,” Hosten said. “But we have engaged the entire family of learning communities at each of these buildings in conversation about this possibility way more than five days ago.”
While “we’ve had a lot of emails that this may appear to some as a rushed approach,” it’s developed that “for us to get traction on the South Norwalk School. There’s a lot of things that have to happen before June 30,” he said.
“We have to prepare a number of elements … first and foremost, we need to acquire land. We don’t know yet how that process is going to be, through an amicable sale or eminent domain,” Estrella said. “We have to also plan forward in terms of thinking about ‘if we’re going to incubate if not,’ and that has an impact in terms of how enrollment numbers will shift in the kindergarten grade, in particular. So there’s a number of essential steps that need to take that can only take pending this approval.”
After greenlighting the shift, Board members unanimously approved the requests to the close the approved capital budget appropriations designed to fund construction of a new school behind the Nathaniel Ely preschool, next to Roodner Court, and renovate the existing Columbus School. They also approved the request to use the allocated money to buy an unidentified property (likely an 11.74-acre parcel at 1 Meadow St. Extension) and build a school there.
Hosten said, “This is something that, as somebody said earlier, the taxpayers have already been in favor of. We’re not asking any additional burden on the city of Norwalk, and so, it’s a win-win.”
Sarah McIntee is a Chapman Hyperlocal Media Inc. Board member.