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Norwalk BoE looks to shift Columbus to new Ponus building

The recently built addition aimed at transforming Ponus Middle School into a K-8 STEAM Academy. Norwalk Superintendent of Schools Alexandra Estrella has proposed moving Columbus Magnet School into the addition instead.

NORWALK, Conn. — The Norwalk Board of Education is looking at a sudden new option – moving Columbus Magnet School into the recently constructed Ponus STEAM Academy “lower” building, instead of continuing to search for property on which to build a new Columbus given that the plan to use the Nathaniel Ely site has fallen through.

The BoE would also ask the City to cancel the appropriations for new Columbus construction and for remodeling the existing Chestnut Street building. It would ask that the money instead be used to buy an unnamed parcel of South Norwalk property and build a K-8 neighborhood school there.

“It seems like this, you know, if anything, is a win-win-win,” Norwalk Board of Education Chairman Colin Hosten said at Wednesday’s BoE Finance Committee meeting, where the new plan was unveiled.

Ponus parents reached Thursday by NancyOnNorwalk seemed caught off guard at the proposed reversal from the plan for a K-8 STEAM Academy to a STEAM middle school instead.

Michelle Simoneau Robinson, a Ponus PTO member, told NancyOnNorwalk, “I am indifferent because I don’t know the reasons behind it.”

Ripples spread across Facebook after the plan became public.

“This proposal is so disappointing and so far from the little blue, yellow and green post it notes on poster boards proposed by hundreds of excited and enthusiastic K-5th graders who truly thought they were building their own school…” one parent wrote.

“I just found out about this about 40 minutes ago, and I’m wondering why Ponus families didn’t know about this sooner. All I have is a ton of questions,” a Ponus PTO member wrote.

Attempts to reach Columbus parents were unsuccessful.

Hosten called the idea a “very creative solution for a couple school projects in South Norwalk that have felt a little stuck in recent times,” and thanked Estrella and Norwalk Public Schools Chief Financial Officer Thomas Hamilton for coming up with it.

The Ponus Ridge STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics) Academy was created with an addition expected to turn Ponus Ridge Middle School into a K-8 facility, at about a $45.5 million cost. The City and the Norwalk Board of Education hoped to simultaneously build Columbus a new facility in land adjacent to Roodner Court on Ely Avenue, but some South Norwalk leaders objected to the 2015 plan to use a small section of Springwood Ely Park as part of the plan. The project sat in limbo for years as the City sought state and federal approval for the needed land swap, a creation of park land to replace what was being eliminated, and it recently became obvious the approval would never come.

“As we know, that original plan just couldn’t happen,” Hamilton said Wednesday.

Without a new home for Columbus, the City couldn’t move ahead with renovating the Chestnut Street building and cries for a new South Norwalk school have escalated. It was an issue in the last election, with Mayor Harry Rilling promising to get one built in his coming 2-year term.

The BoE can move Columbus to the new Ponus building without City approval. Common Council members would vote on reallocating the money so a new neighborhood school could be built.

“We have been committed to a South Norwalk school for quite some time,” Rilling said Friday. “It is a critical need. We will work with the Board of Education to ensure we move a plan forward whatever that plan may end up being.”

If BoE members approve, Columbus could move into Ponus next fall. Jefferson Elementary School students are in the space now, as their school is being renovated and that project is expected to be complete next summer.

Feedback at Wednesday’s BoE Committee meeting was overwhelmingly positive.

“It’s amazingly wonderful to see movement potentially happening” outgoing BoE member Sarah LeMiuex said.

“I am excited to hear that everything is moving forward for all the families in South Norwalk,” BoE member Diana Carpio said.

Estrella did not respond to a Thursday email asking if she planned to create a STEAM elementary school elsewhere in Norwalk or to beef up the elementary science curriculum at all the schools.

Specifically, the BoE would ask the City to close out two existing capital projects:

  • New Columbus School at Ely, with an unspent project balance of $41,605,985
  • Norwalk Global Academy, with an unspent project balance of $34,392,500

 

The City would then authorize $76 million “to acquire a new parcel of land in South Norwalk and to construct a new 682 student South Norwalk pre-K to 5 neighborhood school on such parcel.”

In May, Estrella said the City was going through a land acquisition process for a 12-acre plot in South Norwalk. The only parcel of that size shown on the City’s GIS system is an 11.74-acre parcel at 1 Meadow St. Extension, owned by Hatch & Bailey. It’s appraised at $8.1 million and is adjacent to two city-owned lots.

South Norwalk is home to 118 students that “have a significant impact in terms of the enrollment numbers across the district,” Estrella said Wednesday.

Most South Norwalk kids are bused to other areas, as there is no neighborhood school. Building one would “drastically impact” the school district’s “zoning,” Estrella said. Without a new school and given the current budget, “CMS could have run the risk of losing their middle school program by moving them to the to the Ponus campus.”

A demographer will explain the ramifications of moving Columbus to Ponus at next week’s BoE meeting, Estrella said.

“We had a really productive meeting with the CMS community this week, and the feedback overall was very positive. They’re very excited about this possibility,” Estrella said, commenting that the Ponus space is “well suited” for the Columbus educational approach.

“I know that (Ponus Ridge Middle School Principal Damon Lewis) spoke to the Ponus community about the fact that they will remain as a 6-to-8 school, and there was no issue raised about that possibility. So we’re really excited about the fact that so far, the community has well received this plan.”

But Norwalk Parents for Education Facebook group administrator Jessica Garnett wrote, “In the end this is all about money. How was NPS going to afford to staff this new STEAM school? The city would barely pass the operating budget this year and that was dependent on using Federal Cares funds. This saves the city money so instead of building a new Columbus and a new SoNo School they only have to build the new SoNo school.”

Garnett told NancyOnNorwalk, “I’m sure I speak for many parents who sat through endless meetings about the strategic plan, got excited about this STEAM option and are now left with more questions than answers. I think there is frustration that the Columbus Community was advised off this change before the Ponus Community. I assumed that a change this big would require BoE debate and a vote.”

Updated, 10:48 p.m.: More information.

15 comments

David Osler November 12, 2021 at 8:50 am

Well I’m totally okay with them redoing the school plans which I thought were stupid at best there are plenty of other options to look at for land the warehouses on Woodward and Martin Luther King adjacent to an already existing sports fields might be worth consideration additionally the old NCC building could be used on a temporary basis very easily not to mention we have that power plant if hatch and Bailey wants to get out of the business I understand but there are other options often disputed grasso property would be sufficient personally I think the warehouse that has been up for rent since the dawn of time on Woodward and the neighboring commercial yard would be a really good option yes it’s close to my house but that’s not my logic it would allow an expanding campus over decades as necessary and if we ever wanted to utilize trade schools again it would be an amazing location being so close to the industry in town

Sarah LeMieux November 12, 2021 at 10:08 am

The CMS community and the Ponus community were advised at the same time and the administrations of both schools had time to meet and discuss with each other.

This is a creative, cost-neutral plan that preserves existing communities and makes room for a school where one is needed most. While it’s unfortunate that a new STEAM elementary school won’t begin a process of enrolling students this year, this move uses resources wisely to serve the needs of existing students, particularly in South Norwalk, where the community has been without a neighborhood school since 1980.

Alex Kemeny November 12, 2021 at 10:45 am

I would think that a decision such as this would be decided by more people than 9 members of our community that happen to be on the Board of Ed. and a Superintendent that doesn’t live in our city and is not a member of our community. The use of our limited Covid government money has been designated to fund a Welcome Center for Parents instead of the CHILDREN of these Parents who are thrown into a classroom not speaking a word of English and many of whom have never attended school in their home country. Teachers who are dealing with the backslide of Covid (distance learning) and trying to bring their students up to grade level, now have to deal with students thrown in their classrooms who don’t speak, are disoriented and confused! This is not a win, win, win!What’s the matter with the Board! The money should go to improving our schools not making life more comfortable for the parents. A pod of Jefferson school should be used to acclimate our newest students to their new surroundings. Evaluate their needs, teach them what responsibilities they have as students before you “dump” them in a classroom hoping they catch on and holding they others back as they try to catch up for a year lost.This Covid money is being used to pay for a lease on a property (1 Park St.)not owned by the city and Covid money being used to renovate the space for the parents! Give the parents a large room in Jefferson (a city owned property)to gather and collect information.What’s going on? Wake up, Norwalk! Who’s running this City?!

Tony P November 12, 2021 at 5:37 pm

The comments from our current BoE member are par for the course and why her comment on this thread last week about people who post here was so on brand for her and her party. Barely a week removed from the election and more sketchy decision making processes on full display. Compare that to the common sense suggestions from Alex Kemeny demonstrate the one party, group think leaders currently on the BoE vs the new school, common sense candidates that we COULD have had on the BoE.

John O'Neill November 12, 2021 at 6:50 pm

Let’s see if I understand this cost neutral stuff. Since Biden has said over and over again his Build Back Better Plan won’t cost Americans a dime I’ve become skeptical..
So instead of two schools funded for $80 Million we will have one school built for $80 Million? Huh?
Or looked at another way we just spent roughly $50 Million on the Ponus expansion which will now be used for Columbus and will now spend $80 million for downtown school for a total of $130 Million…Is that correct?
Are we using Biden’s Bites to sell this to the public?
If my numbers or logic are incorrect I’m all ears..
In my opinion Estrella is the bandleader and she’s doing pretty much whatever she wants, without much pragmatic oversight from the Board…
But hey, what do I know. I think Biden’s BBB will actually cost money.

Sarah LeMieux November 13, 2021 at 2:10 am

Tony P – I’m actually not a current BoE member. I’m out 🙂

Now I can armchair quarterback with the rest of y’all in Nancy’s comments.

Niz November 13, 2021 at 7:26 am

So basically it’s conform: )behavior that is the same as the behavior of most other people in a society, group, etc.) mindless conformity it is in Norwalk. Or so it seems.

MyTwoCents November 13, 2021 at 5:19 pm

So the STEAM academy that was planned is now defunct? Interesting, seems like dismantling a part of Adamowski’s legacy. I’m ok with that because Adamowski was all about creating tons of different small carve out programs and I didn’t like that (prefer generalized education k-8 in neighborhood schools with a comprehensive high school), but I’m just mentioning it because it’s the same depressing pattern – we hire a hero superintendent, they start a bunch of things, then leave and the next superintendent starts over, as the board allows the superintendent parade to lurch from one idea to the next with abandon.

Piberman November 13, 2021 at 11:52 pm

Missing from public discussion of a new school and in the recent election campaign as well are suggestions on how to improve student performance in our City public schools. Here the data from CT’s Dept of Education is quite disturbing. Namely most City grads fail to meet CT Edu Dept standards for math and the sciences. And most City grads will not secure 4 year college degrees. In contrast virtually all grads in our surrounding towns do meet those standards and secure the requisite college degrees.

Over the decades the City has generously met BOE demands to match teacher and administrators salaries with the surrounding high performing wealthy towns. As if matching salaries was all that ought be done. How to explain the wide disparities in performance ? Is it a function of the increased transient nature of our City where renters are now about 42% on their way towards becoming a majority over homeowners ? Is it acceptance of just doing the best we can in our transient City where most school grads leave for other locations to pursue their careers ?

For those of us who came from modest circumstances, went to superb big city public schools and secured the American Dream the lack of public interest in improving student performance remains troubling. Similarly the lack of interest in securing a 4 yr college for Norwalk – CT’s only city without one.

Reportedly CT’s public school teachers are the 4th highest paid in the nation. Collectively CT’s Gold Coast public schools are outstanding. But in CT major cities we have student performance issues with most not securing 4yr college degrees or meeting CT Education Dept standards.
As long as our community doesn’t publicly address these issues and demand that our BOE frontally address with appropriate remediation them the ones that most suffer are our kids. Why shouldn’t we move heaven and earth to secure they receive the best public education our City can provide. And at the very least have most of our grads meet CT Edu Dept standards and secure 4 yr college degrees.

Many decades ago Norwalk had a good reputation for its strong performing public schools. It’s why we located here. Our son received a strong public school education with the assistance of 2 professional parents. Back then many of our City school teachers actually lived in the City. Good schools were one of the attractions. The compelling difference back then was that parents, voters and most all the BOE demanded strong student performance.

John O'Neill November 14, 2021 at 8:23 am

@Piberman — The current situation for teachers is this:
1) They are overwhelmed with paperwork demanded by current central office
2) They are evaluated for social work as much as teaching success
3) They are afraid to discipline for fear of reprisal
4) Minimum grade of 50 for students who would be getting a -0- in the real world.
5) Students are moved along rather than promoted

I can go on and on but the above should give you a picture of the obstacles our teachers are up against..In my opinion the Central Office cares more about the “Messaging” than the “Teaching”

MyTwoCents November 14, 2021 at 11:16 am

Piberman, it’s no secret why Norwalk is lower performing than its neighbors. Norwalk has a substantial high needs population.

On the most recent 8th grade SBAC, Norwalk’s black, hispanic, and white students all score above the state average for their group. Overall, Norwalk is below average because it has a higher proportion of groups that tend to score lower.

As for why teacher pay is higher – cost of living in Fairfield County is higher, that’s not rocket science.

The big concern is how current educational policies focused on getting everyone to college result in de facto segregation in Connecticut. Educational policies dictate that every town must create a single unified curriculum for its entire population until high school, which doesn’t work with a town as diverse as ours. Advanced kids are bored, and kids who are behind just continue to languish as the curriculum passes them by in 3rd or 4th grade and they get socially promoted until they graduate. As a result, parents of advanced kids move away to Trumbull (or Westport if they can afford it), because their kids aren’t learning. So now surrounding towns are still 90% white, and Norwalk is what, 75% minority at this point?

In Connecticut, the educational policies push districts in one of two directions – they either become high performing, 90% white districts, or low performing, majority minority districts. There’s no room for the diverse middle class district, which is what Norwalk used to be, and in my opinion should aspire to return to.

George Ignacio November 15, 2021 at 9:54 am

@Sarah Lemieux

Remember when certain past (…conservative/republican..) BOE members were condemned for wanting to build a school in SoNo? And they were accused of “racism” for that reasonable idea? NoN, feel free to link the articles I am unable to find them on your page.

Now that an all Democrat BOE and Council want a school in SoNo it’s “helping the community.”

Oh please. Also, yes you are not part of the Board any longer. Thank God. Now you just get to complain here like the rest of us, while Norwalk goes down the drain..

Alex Kemeny November 16, 2021 at 9:37 am

Just want to post that I’m so impressed by the responses above. Piberman, John O’Neill,,My two cents,George Ignacio -Why can’t everyone understand and agree with what you say? It’s all true.

Eric Niederer November 17, 2021 at 7:20 am

Sarah, when were Ponus families advised? I was the Ponus SGC parent co-chair just coming off of term and my wife is the VP of the Ponus PTO. We knew nothing other than one email a few days prior to last night’s vote of the POSSIBILITY of CMS coming to the building, and a second email DURING the vote meeting last night (8:45 pm) again talking about the POSSIBILITY of CMS coming to the building with a parent meeting on that POSSIBILITY to be conducted now a week after the vote last night. Dr. Estrella said last night in the recorded meeting that she told the Ponus SGC IN CONFIDENCE about the possibility…in confidence? So, there is clear intent to hide this? Claims of everyone is in favor? Who is everyone and who was asked? CMS? Even NoN quotes in this story demonstrates the less than handful of Ponus parents asked expressed disappointment, lack of knowledge and late of information and timely information. Not cool. I am working of the forensic timeline because that’s all that is left…forensics as this rushed issue without discussion with stakeholders was already voted on. I couldn’t be at the meeting as the P-Tech open house was during the meeting and my parental duty is to get info and aid my son in his school choices…you know, learning about opportunities and making an educated choice including discussions with stakeholders and those in positions of authority before a quick vote to act. You want to know what questions are out there but was there time for those asked and answered. My wife asked for information on the POSSIBILITY and got no response before the vote. Should I ask questions to you now or is it wasting both of our times as the vote is in. Prospectively, what is the expected discussion period for parents to get educated, ask questions and get responses…are we in a 3-7 day cycle on major decisions? Should we now assume possibility means it’s going to happen and we as parents need to develop intelligence gathering capabilities to discover information relayed to only a few IN CONFIDENCE. We are not the NSA and this is not national security at risk issue. Nonsense the way this went down and erodes trust which is so desperately needed in this City and with the BOE. Call me if you want to discuss further 203-246-1650. So much disappointment in District A BOE rep, principal, Dr. Estrella, etc. Truly sad (maybe not the result because it could be positive on balance depending on answers to questions (don’t know as I have not been given the opportunity to have that discussion as a Ponus parent), but the way this went down).

Eric Niederer November 17, 2021 at 7:21 am

Where now is the STEAM vertical integration going to come from now? Busing with associated costs and toll on the kids?

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