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Norwalk BoE gives Columbus the go-ahead to move into Ponus

Demographer Mike Zuba, who worked on the 2016 facilities plan that guided new school construction, explains his latest demographics analysis to the Board of Education at Tuesday’s BoE meeting.

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.

 

Public speakers

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.

 

Ponus?

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.

 

Whither STEAM?

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.

11 comments

Eric Niederer November 18, 2021 at 7:44 am

“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.”

I was the Ponus parent co-chair as of a month ago. No one said anything to me. I have the SGC minutes from the Ponus SGC meeting on November 3. I have asked Dr. Lewis when and with whom this was discussed with any parents at Ponus and his response was:

“Good morning. Pleas

e see below. We met on Nov. 3rd for our SGC meeting. I spoke with the Superintendent that weekend (Nov. 5th/6th) – hence the email on the 7th of November to SGC members.
I hope this helps with the timeline.”

The email he attached and referenced above, sent on Sunday, November 7, 2021 at 6:34 pm is as follows:

“Good evening SGC members. I hope you are well, safe, healthy, and enjoying time with family. I want to keep you in the loop as members of the SGC about the POSSIBILITY below:

I have been talking with her this weekend about the future of our building, and she explained there may be a POSSIBILITY that Columbus moves into the Jefferson space next year. Columbus is currently a K-8 building (small student population). I am attending a meeting tomorrow to find out additional details. Again, this is a POSSIBILITY. I want you to be aware of this POSSIBILITY.

As always, I will keep you posted as I find out additional information. That is all I know currently.

Thank you. I just want to keep you posted.

Enjoy!

Damon Lewis, Ed.D.
Principal
Ponus Ridge Middle School
Ponus P.R.I.D.E.
Norwalk, CT
(203) 847-3557
[email protected]

THAT IS IT for communication until another email on November 12th to Ponus parents of that same POSSIBILITY. See below.

“From: Damon Lewis
Date: November 12, 2021 at 11:28:49 AM EST
To: [redacted]
Subject: Ponus/Columbus – 2022-2023
Reply-To: Damon Lewis


Good morning Ponus Ridge Middle School Community! I hope you are well, safe, and healthy. I also hope you have an enjoyable weekend. 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.

I did attend a meeting early this week and this was discussed. It is a fluid situation as this POSSIBILITY (not definite) has to be approved on a few fronts before it becomes a reality. The reason(s) I didn’t email this information to you immediately follows:

a) It is a POSSIBILITY, and not a definite

b) the proposal has to be approved (as noted above)

c) this is a “fluid” situation meaning information (may) change quickly and I don’t want to misinform you regarding this situation and continue to go “back and forth” and add to the confusion

Under the proposal, Ponus will remain the 6-8 STEAM Academy. That will not be altered.

Under the proposal, Columbus will inhabit the new building (which Jefferson currently inhabits). Columbus will be K-8.

As always, if you ever have any questions, please email me directly and I will provide you with as much information as possible. Again, I was notified there was “chatter” on social media regarding this, and wanted to address it. My intent is not to add confusion, but to “clear up” any misinformation.

If you have any questions, please feel free to contact the Superintendent (or me) via email. I will include her on this email so she is aware of the email I sent to you.

Thank you.

Have a great day!

I will send my end of week updates this afternoon, OR this evening.

Enjoy”

Days before the now voted approval, my wife sent Dr. Lewis an inquiry which is still unanswered.

Next communication from anyone was was DURING the BOE vote meeting again of a POSSIBILITY with meeting scheduled for next week AFTER the deciding vote, with nothing on the BOE agenda about the CMS/Ponus vote. Here is that email:

“On Nov 16, 2021, at 8:45 PM, Damon Lewis wrote:


Good evening. I hope you are well, safe, and healthy. Please see below for a few important updates:

a) Ponus Parent/Family Meeting regarding Columbus – Tuesday, Nov. 23rd at 5:30pm at Ponus. Dr. Estrella, the Superintendent, will be at Ponus to update us on the potential move of Columbus to the campus

b) Pie/Cookie Dough Pick – Up – Saturday, Nov. 20th from 2-3pm. If you orderd a pie/cookie dough, please come to Ponus to pick up your delicious treats!

Thank you.

Have a great evening! “

These are the facts as I have them and post here for actual transparency. I will also be canvassing the current Ponus SGC members but based upon a preliminary response from Dr. Lewis the communication with the, from anyone is limited to the three email included herein.

It seems like an SGC and some parents were told of the actual move and vote, but that was intentionally restricted to CMS, not Ponus. Dr. Estrella’s statement of speaking with some select people in confidence says it all. See recorded BOE meeting of Nov. 16 starting at timed 3:05..

Any District claims of long-term discussions as that may relate to Ponus parents and SGC is nonsense. No discussion with Ponus parents and no transparency to Ponus; I was the parent co-chair and my wife is the VP of the PTO. Some are trying to gaslight this situation. Let’s deal in reality, shall we (especially as you are educators and should be teaching appropriate behavior and communication).

Alex Kemeny November 18, 2021 at 9:14 am

Some good ideas. But one concern. Notice that the Superintendent mentioned lightly that Columbus “might be used as “swing space” during the construction of a Norwalk High School”. Let’s not jump ahead of our South Norwalk students again. Again, I say, a center needs to be put in place for students from other countries who don’t speak English and who have never attended school. Put them at Columbus if there is no other place! And put the Welcome Center there instead of spending Covid money on renovating and leasing 1 Park Street. This will benefit every child in Norwalk by helping those new students acclimate to their new situation and not bogging down the classrooms with confused and mostly illiterate students. Then move them to their home schools.

Columbus Student Parent November 18, 2021 at 9:56 am

Thank god someone actually had the courage to speak up to the Board. What Jenna said was 100% correct. This came completely out of left field and was shoved down the throats of not only Columbus parents, but Ponus parents as well.

This is not a solution to the problems with South Norwalk needing its own school. This was the easiest and cheapest way for the BOE to appease the community leaders of South Norwalk. This plan was presented and rushed through specifically because it only required the BOE to vote on it. Not 1 individual with any skin in the game is a member of the board.

These people will continue to spend money like it literally grows on trees while at the same time knowingly neglecting the maintenance needs of every single school in Norwalk.

I would like to ask everyone who reads NON to think about something. If it was your child at Columbus, whom you sent there for a specific K-8 program, would you be ok with 9 members of a board uprooting your child and shoving them into an addition of a middle school where they will now have to share not only a gym, but a cafeteria as well? Oh, by the way, as a parent you got just over a week to think about it.

This BOE is nothing more than politicians masking themselves as people who care about children in NPS.

John O'Neill November 18, 2021 at 12:36 pm

Is it POSSIBLE that Damon Lewis wasn’t aware this train had left the station??
Is it POSSIBLE that the Board and it’s leader Estrella didn’t tell Lewis that the train was leaving the station?
Is it POSSIBLE Lewis misinterpreted what he was being told (My friend Lou Holtz used to say “It’s not what you’re saying, it’s what they’re hearing” – Does that apply here?)

Is it POSSIBLE that anyone involved in NPS can complete a sentence without using the word “equity”?
Is it POSSIBLE that our kids academics will be diluted as these people make a MOCKERY of the STEAM concept?
As Damon Lewis has found out everything is POSSIBLE. Whether he was in the loop or not. If he hasn’t demanded an apology already I am requesting one for him.
Is it POSSIBLE that Norwalk will flex it’s muscle and take property thru eminent domain if they can’t acquire property the way they’d like.
Lastly, is it POSSIBLE that Jason Milligan owns property in South Norwalk?
That would make for a fun couple of years for us readers..

Seriously? November 18, 2021 at 1:43 pm

Dr. Estrella says that the CMS-to-Ponus move has been discussed for years, and that may be true.

Questions:
1. In what forums was it discussed, or was that only by central office people? Clearly, the principal of Ponus Ridge didn’t know about it, and he should have been at the table.
2. When was it discussed with the people most affected by the move, i.e., the Ponus and CMS communities?
3. Does anyone else wonder why the vote was taken so close to a deadline for the South Norwalk school and that that deadline was used to pressure an affirmative vote?
4. Did Ponus have any meaningful role in the claimed conversation that had “been taking place for years”? If so, what was that meaningful role?
5. Isn’t it odd that Dr. Estrella spoke with the PRMS SGC, but directed them to keep the conversation in confidence from other parents and staff? It is well known that she doesn’t want SGCs to have any meaningful role(s) in Norwalk, but she is willing to use them to her advantage.

This sounds too much like the deal that goes off-sale at midnight. That isn’t a way to make carefully informed decisions. I was hoping for a difference in the board of education, one that would actually ask challenging questions, but when I saw that the chair was re-elected to that position, I knew that only a few of the faces had changed. The practice of rubber-stamping the superintendent’s wishes continues.

Lisa Brinton November 18, 2021 at 2:20 pm

When 75% of eligible voters in Norwalk don’t vote, it suggests they don’t care what happens to their city or schools. And of those who did vote for the BOE – they’re governing with 10% of eligible voters. Hardly a mandate. Either way you look at it local accountability & transparency is dead. Parents & taxpayers, you’ll get whatever Bob, Harry or Hartford want you to get.

CMS Parent Response November 18, 2021 at 11:08 pm

To the “CMS Parent” who asked “If it was your child at Columbus, whom you sent there for a specific K-8 program, would you be ok with 9 members of a board uprooting your child and shoving them into an addition of a middle school where they will now have to share not only a gym, but a cafeteria as well?” The answer is A RESOUNDING YES from this CMS parent.

Even a shared space will be an enormous leg up from what we currently have — the physical state of the current CMS school and the surrounding neighborhood is deplorable and quite frankly, our kids and the CMS staff/leadership deserve far better. From broken glass and rust on the playground, to people sitting in the surrounding lots drinking alcohol and publicly urinating during the day, and the consistent smell of marijuana streaming into open car windows in the drop off/pick up line, we’ll take a shared space at Ponus any day. You can’t possibly think we’re better off with the current space/facilities we have.

Steve November 19, 2021 at 7:05 am

Agree with the Cms parent response. Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Based on a small sampling teachers at CMS are incredibly enthusiastic about the move. At least five years ago plans were made to build a mew CMS, a vast number of obstacles came in its way. There will be enormous benefits to having the space and even being with another school; in terms of after school activities etc..
it’s sad to move, but my fond memories of my kids experiences at the current location should not stop moving forward to a new one. I understand the frustration that Ponis parents have with the process and don’t want to demean that but the CMS parent community has always been engaged and caring.
Hopefully the two parent groups will work will on common issues

Mimi Chang November 19, 2021 at 9:31 am

“… the physical state of the current CMS school and the surrounding neighborhood is deplorable and quite frankly, our kids and the CMS staff/leadership deserve far better. From broken glass and rust on the playground, to people sitting in the surrounding lots drinking alcohol and publicly urinating during the day, and the consistent smell of marijuana streaming into open car windows in the drop off/pick up line, we’ll take a shared space at Ponus any day. You can’t possibly think we’re better off with the current space/facilities we have.“

Why is the above description of school grounds acceptable today, or on any given day? What message does it send children who have to be dropped off there daily? Does it boost morale for the staff who teach there? Is it a source of pride? Broken glass and rust on the playground? Parents being subjected to marijuana contact highs on the pick up line? Derelicts and public urination? This all is highly disturbing. @CMS Parent Response… Thank you for sharing. I assume you and others have reached out to the Principal, who in turn has reached out to the Superintendent about the conditions. Have the Principal and SGC proactively sought solutions on how to improve the conditions, some of which sound like health and safety violations? Maybe the Norwalk Department of Health can be contacted. I’m sorry that you and other families have had to tolerate deplorable conditions which should be addressed immediately. Maybe routine enforcement around the building is in order, and a community playground clean up event could be planned. You should not have to be subjected to all you have described for one more day while awaiting the move to Ponus. Every deplorable issue you have described has a solution. NPS… In the name of equity, you MUST do better.

Sarah LeMieux November 19, 2021 at 1:44 pm

This will improve the lives of thousands of children all over Norwalk over the lifetimes of both schools. Good job new board!!

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