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Norwalk BoE releases Estrella evaluation

Norwalk Superintendent of Schools Alexandra Estrella at the July 23 Board of Education retreat in the Center for Global Studies.

NORWALK, Conn. — Norwalk Board of Education members are generally pleased with Superintendent of Schools Alexandra Estrella as the district enters its second school year under her leadership, as evidenced in the evaluation they gave her at the recent BoE retreat.

“Overall, the Board of Education is very pleased with the Superintendent’s ability to make meaningful progress on her 2020-21 Entry Plan, especially in the context of the many disruptions and challenges posted by COVID-19. Coming in with ‘boots on the ground,’ Dr. Estrella navigated us through a safe return to school, even as she oversaw deep and rigorous audits of key aspects of the District, including Special Education, HR Policy, a Facilities Study, and the formulation of a comprehensive Strategic Plan,” BoE Chairman Colin Hosten wrote in a letter summarizing the evaluation.

The document acknowledges district turnover, lists positive accomplishments and makes suggestions.

The Board evaluated Estrella July 23 in an executive session that stretched so long that the final item on the agenda was postponed to a later date. The confidential discussion began as scheduled at just after 5 p.m. but the public meeting did not resume until 8:16 p.m. although it was expected at 6:40.

From left, Norwalk Board of Education member Diana Carpio and BoE Chairman Colin Hosten at the July 23 Board of Education retreat in the Center for Global Studies.

“We had a very rigorous discussion,” Hosten said when the Board returned, to the public. Using the Connecticut Superintendent Leadership Competency framework “as a structure to guide our conversation, we were able to have very open, honest, constructive evaluation, which will now be put into one formal narrative by yours truly, and then shared with the public next week.”

Former BoE Chairwoman Sarah LeMieux later attributed the length of the discussion to the newness of many BoE members. “Most of the people hadn’t been part of that kind of process before,” she said to NancyOnNorwalk. “…It takes it takes time to understand what you’re supposed to do.”

NancyOnNorwalk began asking for the letter on Aug. 4. Estrella needed to sign it before it was released and had been on vacation, Hosten said Aug. 10. The document was provided last week.

In addition to the above, it said:

“There is already less of a silo culture and more coordination between departments. Our weekly Board updates are thorough and thoughtful, and Board meetings are more accessible, broadcast online with both Spanish and Creole translations. The recent audit of school libraries has already added more diverse and inclusive literature options for students.

“She has been focused and aggressive about finding alternate funding sources when necessary. (It might be a good idea to highlight more of this to the public.)

From left, Common Council members Diana Révolus (D-District B), Thomas Keegan (R-District D), Tom Livingston (D-District E) and Barbara Smyth (D-At Large) watch the July 23 Board of Education retreat in the Center for Global Studies.

“Her rigorous attention to professional development creates high expectations for educators, and we think there are opportunities to enact procedures that encourage personnel to stay and grow with the District. Many have noted her open-door policy, though perhaps there can be more structures for confidential feedback from teachers and other staff.

“Dr. Estrella is strong in character, especially when faced with making tough or unpopular decisions related to staffing and COVID safety protocols. Her approach to decision-making is always data-driven and puts children first-such as adding student voices to various aspects of school governance, including an equity-focused vision statement for the strategic plan.

“The revamped website is easier to navigate and does a great job of promotion and recruitment for Norwalk Public Schools. It is part of a multi-pronged approach to an effective communication strategy, which is vital to the success of all other priorities. The District has been much more conscientious about using social media and other channels to communicate, but this can be challenging, especially when passionate discussions take off online. The messaging is almost as important as the message. Employing tools such as an FAQ document may help reduce community misinformation. Parents need to feel reassured at the school level, and there needs to be a sense of equal access to information. We should continue to find the right balance between ‘PR’ and earnestness, knowing that it is okay for the District to embrace different levels of vulnerability, and to encourage such practices through the learning community in a systematic way.

“As we look ahead to the 2021-22 school year, it is important to continue to center children in articulating goals and expectations, going beyond the cultural expectations of pedagogical jargon. Addressing learning loss and prioritizing clear communication as the educational landscape continues to shift will be key to success, and the Dr. Estrella has already identified key goals and expectations to help make this happen.”

 

The previous Board of Education used a numerical scoring system to evaluate former Norwalk Superintendent of Schools Steven Adamowski. Asked about the generic style of the document, Hosten on Monday said:

“We decided to go with the Superintendent Leadership Competency Framework as developed by LEAD Connecticut and recommended by the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education (CABE) for a number of reasons:

  1. “It is intended to focus specifically on effective leadership practices, rather than going through a numerical checklist, which can sometimes feel more transactional and less intentional about growth and improvement
  2. “It represents a larger shift towards thinking about the District as an inter-connected whole, rather than individual discrete elements to be checked off a list.

“It also allowed us as a Board to have a more in-depth and thoughtful conversation about the Superintendent’s performance in executive session, which is not quite supported by a more transactional numerical scoring system. Checklists and scores tend to focus too much on the ‘What;’ the LEAD Superintendent Leadership Competency Framework allows us to delve more into the ‘Why’ and ‘How’ and ‘What’s next?’”

Supt. 2020-21 Board Evaluation FINAL

Evaluation_of_the_Superintendent

LEAD_Turnaround_Leadership_Programs_Flyer

Updated, 11 p.m.: PDFs and links added.

16 comments

Is This a Clueless Board of Education? August 24, 2021 at 8:17 am

COVID has been a problem throughout pre-K – 12 and higher education in this and other countries, but it shouldn’t be used to obscure what is happening to NPS. The superintendent has charged that there were “silos” in NPS, a charge that lacks substantive evidence, but in response, she has created silos, representing the incomers from New York City and the pre-Estrella people who had built this into the top performing urban school district in Connecticut.

Does the report make reference to significant district turnover? Does it conclude that the superintendent has badly demoralized some excellent long-term district employees? Does it even mention of the number of former colleagues from New York City that she has hired? Does it mention dysfunction in the HR department? Does it make any reference to the number of district administrators now, compared the the much smaller number before this superintendent’s arrival?
Does it make reference to her campaign to weaken the influence of the district’s highly successful School Governance Councils? Does it say anything about the fiasco(s) surrounding the replacement of principals at three NPS schools this month?

I have no respect for this board of education.

Mike Lyons August 24, 2021 at 10:09 am

We on the prior Board set up a numerical system for the superintendent’s evaluation (on a wide range of criteria) because it is the most effective way to evaluate management. As noted in the Harvard Business Review, “If we want to change what [CEOs] care about, we should change what we measure. It can’t be that simple, you might argue — but psychologists and economists will tell you it is. Human beings adjust behavior based on the metrics they’re held against. Anything you measure will impel a person to optimize his score on that metric. What you measure is what you’ll get. Period. This phenomenon plays out time and again in research studies.” So now the BoE will cease measuring achievement, and will get fluff instead of progress. See https://hbr.org/2010/06/column-you-are-what-you-measure.

Kevin S. August 24, 2021 at 2:14 pm

Any feedback on budgets? overall spend? turnover etc? Seems like lots of executive level positions created but not clear on the return from creating these roles. What real metrics are being used to measure her performance?

While each year parents put pressure on politicians to “fund our schools” blindly, it’s interesting how little they actually care how the money is spent.

I am so worried for Norwalk’s Future August 24, 2021 at 3:29 pm

If this board can honestly say that they feel that this superintendent has done a good job last year while running out highly qualified staff then I am seriously scared for the future of Norwalk. Estrella has been a disaster and there is no hope of things better with her as the leader here. Parents need to start questioning every dollar spent and every staff member who walked away from our district for greener pastures. Every board member should be ashamed. They allowed themselves to be muzzled by the person that they were supposed to be supervising. They now have no idea what is happening in our schools or our community. The superintendent has outlawed staff speaking to board members and board members speaking to staff.

No one with a brain would think that getting all of your information from the person you supervise is a good way to maintain checks and balances. But this board seems to think that is okay. Clueless is the most appropriate title for the NPS board. CLUELESS

Just a Taxpayer August 24, 2021 at 3:29 pm

Is there more of this assessment that will be released or is it just this summary? Sounds like the BOE has rose-colored glasses on, but I think we’ve known that for a while. Glad some are up for election this year – time to get some truly objective voices on there that will break the echo chamber of praise. I wonder if any feedback was solicited from key constituents? Teachers, parents, community partners, etc. From what I hear and the press I see, public sentiment is not quite as rosy.

There’s a lot to unpack in the BOE statement, but I’ll only mention a few. The superintendent continues to get accolades for the handling of the pandemic. Where is the same for the teachers, the support staff, the custodians, the building leaders, who showed up every day and made it work for our students despite unclear and sometimes illogical direction from central office? Open door policy? I wonder how many teachers, or better yet, union reps, would say the same. I’m sure its open to board members and the new hires she’s brought in from out of town making six figure salaries. As for staff turnover, I’d expect some when there’s new leadership, but this has been excessive. As someone else mentioned on here, would be interesting to see what those folks would say about the leadership and environment under this superintendent. Reducing community misinformation with an FAQ? I think it will take more than that. Seems like the larger issue is a lack of information being shared. Transparency and collaboration may be great within Central Office, but when it comes to families and the larger community, it’s sorely lacking as evidenced multiple times throughout this last school year.

piberman August 24, 2021 at 4:36 pm

Two useful metrics in evaluating School Supts are proportion/numbers of graduating students meeting CT Edu Dept standards for math and science. And proportion/numbers of students securing 4 yr college degrees.

Neither of these well known metrics are used by Norwalk’s BOE. That helps explain the noticeable lack of improvement in our City. A community where most graduating students fail to meet CT Edu math and science standards and fail to secure 4 yr college degrees is unlikely to encourage new homeowners. Nor encourage current residents to retire here. Nor encourage major firms to invest here an provide good jobs.

Tysen Canevari August 24, 2021 at 10:11 pm

Well she is certainly compensated well for an underachieving school system. I noticed a brand new Maserati in her spot while at city hall the other day. $300k plus a year will buy that for you. Maybe she can donate to pay the bus fees for middle schoolers to play inter school sports. Oh thats right, the BOE cant afford it

John O'Neill August 24, 2021 at 11:04 pm

I hope Estrella succeeds… Good for the kids and Good for our City…It seems to me she will either succeed or seriously go up in flames..Her reputation coming in was one of shaking things up and Board of Ed fell in love with that. Kudos to them if she succeeds. If she fails they need to apologize and resign. Along with Democrat Town Committee that nominated them..We will know by this time next year.

Georgie P. August 25, 2021 at 10:21 am

This is hardly an honest evaluation, just a bunch of praise in the 1st document, where is the constructive criticism? Why is the rubric in the 2nd document blank? Where can we find it? Ask any teacher Estrella is a mean person, very bad super.

RE: John O'Neill August 25, 2021 at 11:27 am

I don’t know her reputation before moving to NPS, but I fail to see the benefit in moving to someone who shakes things up because Dr. Adamowski had finally put the district onto a positive course. But then, this board of education doesn’t seem to have its collective finger on the pulse of the district.

Vote them out in November.

Anyone who is paying attention would be worried August 25, 2021 at 9:01 pm

When Dr. Estella arrived last summer, I thought she would be good for Norwalk. Her focus toward diversity/equity was the reason the board brought her in. But now I see how she says whatever she needs to say to endear herself to whoever she is talking to. All of these expensive consultants were hired to review the departments at NPS? Is the hiring of consultants to state the obvious in a report supposed to count as some kind of brave act of leadership? Shouldn’t a superintendent be able to make some assessments herself without throwing away buckets of taxpayer money and wasting time waiting for costly report after report?

It’s obvious that the board are either not informed by her about what is actually happening, or they just don’t understand what her job actually is. Possibly they truly are not (as someone wrote earlier) permitted to talk to anyone who works inside City Hall or in a school. Her actions reveal a complete fraud when it comes to diversity. 4 or 5 principals have been placed at schools since June. All Caucasian. From Greenwich, Stamford, Florida……All the talk about students having a principal who looks like them? The talk about recruiting for diversity? Nope. Not in real life. As CT’s number one city school district you can’t tell me that we have no Norwalkers qualified to be principals here.

The superintendent has had control for a year. How are our students doing under her management? Is the graduation rate really down 15 percent for non-white students? Is there a new model of ESL in the schools like she promised? Is our staff more diverse? Are the ten people that she brought from New York really making making over $200,000/year each? Is the culture as toxic as people are saying? No one on the board is asking any hard questions.

Two experienced African-American female principals with excellent reputations were targeted last school year. Harassed to the point that their worklives became so hard that they fled their schools for other jobs, for less money. Both of them were confident and smart women who were spoken about poorly by the superintendent to NPS staff, including teachers I know when she was at their schools. By the account of the teachers, her consultant was sent to critique them and to micromanage them. Theresa Rangel helped Tracey to win the federal Blue Ribbon honor. She certainly did not need a micromanager. I don’t know about the other principal but the pattern’s there repeating itself. People say that the superintendent is out to get another successful, experienced female African-American principal too. BOE, wake up!!!

Putting aside Estrella’s hypocrisy about diversity, the turnover rate of principals is shocking. We have 20 or 21 schools? 4 or 5 new principals in her first year? Hurts our students. Blindsides the teachers. Everyone who managed to still be employed must be stunned into silence. The negligence of the BOE in managing the situation… Do the math and notice that a fourth of NPS principals or maybe more are gone and replaced. Someone please take action to stop the targeting of African-American female principals. And please take action to hold this Superintendent accountable.

Here is a theory August 26, 2021 at 12:07 pm

I wonder if the issue is that this superintendent was simply never a good fit for Norwalk, and vice versa. She was the person in charge of a community district that isn’t that much larger than Norwalk, but there is much more to a district than its size. Norwalk isn’t a miniature of NYC; it is a city with a different history and with a different way of running both city government and its school system.

Dr. Estrella didn’t help create the culture that led to Norwalk’s becoming the highest performing urban district, a designation that she has continued to promote, but she then began to change the culture of NPS by bringing in a large number of NYC Department of Education people to be administrators in NPS, while also getting a good number of NPS people to leave, a good number of whom didn’t want to leave. The problem with this, aside from the unfairness to some very good NPS people, is that the district then lost the experience and knowledge of some of the people who did some heavy lifting for the district for years, replacing it with the experience and knowledge of people who have never worked in a similar kind of district. Dr. Estrella, these former NPS people mattered when they worked for the district and they still matter, but you don’t seem to recognize that.

It is my sincere hope that the superintendent re-thinks her choice regarding professional employment in Norwalk, although she probably never dreamed of a salary as high as hers, and so I don’t expect her to want to leave. I still think she ought to consider moving on to a job that is better aligned to her experience and to her management style. Barring that, the board of education ought to help her make that decision.

Disgusted Parent of a Student Athlete August 26, 2021 at 2:03 pm

@Tysen

Your comment is so unbelievably telling in so many different ways it is scary. Estrella in no way deserves the $300k plus she is getting especially when all she wants to do is spend more money on pet projects. The fact that kids have to pay to play sports while an overwhelmingly underachieving superintendent presiding over consistently poor performing schools makes over $300k per year should make every parent in this city disgusted.

If that wasn’t enough proof for you to vote some new blood onto this board come election season than the fact that they essentially dumbed down the evaluation process should be. Norwalk is rapidly becoming a total disaster.

Sarah August 26, 2021 at 2:16 pm

I am just wondering how many of these commenters have children in the schools, or have had an actual conversation with Dr. Estrella. She has done, and is continuing to do, amazing, thorough, thoughtful work as a leader. Norwalk is deeply, profoundly fortunate that she is here working with us — and you don’t need to vote me out in November, I’m not running again 🙂

Tysen Canevari August 26, 2021 at 9:53 pm

@ Disgusted I cant stress enough how important it is to have the middle school children play sports against other schools. When i attended West Rocks it gave us a sense of pride when we went to Roton or Nathan Hale to play them in soccer, basketball, baseball, etc… With the money that is wasted in the school system it is nothing short of a shame that we cant afford a bus for 2 hours. I made life long friends playing kids across town. It is also an incentive for students to perform in school if you want to participate. The smartest two groups in town are the high school bands. They are run as non profits aside from the nonsense at school. They are well run and a great sense of pride for all that participate. Its amazing that the parents can figure it all out but our elected officials cant. The real problem is we are too consumed about being the soup kitchen for all of Norwalk. I am all for those that need it but the abuse that is accepted could fund many programs for the kids. Why not promote or hire someone from our own system instead of always going out of town. Then you will have an administrator with a background in Norwalk Values. We allow the mayor to appoint an assistant to do his job for $130,000 a year! Imagine all the baseballs, footballs, referees, buses,art supplies, and many other items that could provide? Anyone that has lived here a long time and has children feels this pain. Also, how quick we forget that a member of the board of ed made racist comments and gets to stay on board because of technical jargon. If you cant tell the disgust in me runs deep for the BS i see in my hometown. 90 percent of the mayors donors are from out of town! Case closed

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