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Norwalk BoE reverses course, reverts to 7:30 a.m. high school start time

Jake Bella speaks to the Norwalk Board of Education, Tuesday in Ponus STEAM Academy.

NORWALK, Conn. — The Norwalk Board of Education is turning back the clock on its “bell times” and will be returning to the start and end times it had in 2019-20, effective on Oct. 4.

The 5-0-3 vote at Tuesday’s BoE meeting followed an outcry against the traffic gridlock the start of the school year brought, with the Healthier School Start Time plan in effect while COVID-19 still has life rearranged and road construction compounding the problems. Teenagers spoke to the Board, explaining that the inability for drivers to make it to their destinations counteracted any gain the Board had hoped to give them by allowing them to sleep an hour later.

While advocates had said “the stress was going to go down and everyone was going to be happier,” since school reopened Sept. 30, “between Norwalk High School and Brien McMahon, there’s been six fights, at least six fights, fistfights,” said Jake Bella, a student at NHS and P-Tech (Pathways in Technology Early College High School), one of 25 people to address the Board.

Union leaders unanimously asked that the current schedule be changed.

“Although high school start times were pushed back to allow students or sleep, students and teachers report they have to leave for school at the same time as previously to avoid traffic and arrive before classes begin,” Norwalk Federation of Teachers President Mary Yordon said. It’s toughest on the little kids who need a nap in the afternoon, and, “We have lost good teachers due to the new schedule. When it is changed again, we will likely lose more. We need to do this carefully and cautiously.”

Board members had been prepared to consider two options developed by school administrators, both recommending early start times for elementary and middle school students. But after hearing multiple speakers describe challenges, and in light of 130 emailed comments, Norwalk Superintendent of Schools Alexandra Estrella made a different recommendation.

“One of the things that we might want to consider is, for this year, reverting back to the previous bell time, allowing us the opportunity to re-engage and expand the task force work to further study the Healthy Start Time option, and make sure that, one, first and foremost, that our students are arriving to school on time,” Estrella said. “Two, we do this in a later time, that it will allow us to further look at additional factors that are important. And also it would give us an opportunity, given some of the COVID challenges that we have had, to initiate this at a time where we will have acclimated more and hopefully at that point the pandemic will be at its termination.”

BoE member Mike Barbis, who voted against the Healthier School Start Time plan two years ago, made the motion to revert to the 2019-20 schedule while studying the issue further.

“This isn’t a traffic issue, it’s a bus operational issue, a logistical issue, that we can’t just hope will get better. It’s just that the bus routes as designed, at the end of the day, are not working as planned. And so we have to do something,” Barbis said. The “cleanest, simplest” option was to start high school at 7:30 a.m. and, “I’ve never heard of a school system that changes their start times in the middle of the school year. So this will be a first but it’s something we have to do. We might as well pull the band aid and do it sooner rather than later.”

Heidi Keyes, who helped lead the Healthier School Start Time initiative, was on board. She wasn’t thrilled with any of the scenarios administrators had laid out and thought they’d need time to digest, she said. “But I agree it’s not sustainable. It’s absolutely not sustainable, what’s happening now. So I think we’ve got to figure out what our next steps will be.”

A survey showed 62% of high school students wanted to go back to the 7:30 a.m. start time and “it was an eye opener for me to hear all the comments tonight,” she said, as she worked her way to voting in favor of reverting to 2019-20. While the data backed up delaying the high school start time, “we have to look at it again through a different lens and, and what we need to do that’s going to work really for for all levels for elementary, middle, and high school students.”

Diana Carpio, Suzanne Koroshetz, Sherelle Harris, Barbis and Keyes voted in favor of reverting. Sarah LeMieux, Godfrey Azima and Chairman Colin Hosten abstained. Erica DePalma was absent.

“I keep thinking about that phrase, follow the science and the amount of research that has gone into thinking about healthy start times for older learners, not just here in Norwalk but across the country,” Hosten said. Gridlock is happening nationwide and, “I don’t know that we could solve the traffic issue by going with either the options presented tonight, just because I think there’s so many factors that are involved. I don’t want to make a decision tonight, that then just shifts the gridlock either earlier or later in different parts of town.”

Healthier School Start Time report

18 comments

Another NPS Embarrassment September 15, 2021 at 12:01 pm

The superintendent gets paid a huge salary, and she is surrounded by administrators who are also paid very high salaries. Despite this administrative overpopulation, they couldn’t devise a workable plan for the board of education. Norwalk isn’t the only community that has had Covid, so please stop using that as an excuse, and it isn’t the only community that has traffic and road construction. All of these are factors that should have been carefully weighed before the current schedule was approved.

What’s with three board members who abstained? They were elected (one of them appointed to fill a vacancy) to provide oversight, to supervise the superintendent, and to make decisions. An abstention is a non-decision. Then again, they don’t seem to be doing much to supervise the superintendent either.

CC September 15, 2021 at 1:20 pm

I live on Soundview Ave in the delta between Brookside, McMahon and Roton. I can attest that the traffic between 8 am and 9 am weekdays has been a perfect grid lock; many frustrated drivers and mostly empty school busses. It was never like this before the schedule changes. Whatever is changed, please make it better for the commuters and parents.

Mimi Chang September 15, 2021 at 1:50 pm

Colin Hosten? The parents and children showed up and told you what the issues were. As BoE Chair, it’s your obligation to listen to them and have faith in them, and to do what’s best for them. There’s the science, and then there’s the reality of what your constituents need to juggle their daily work/life schedules with their kids’ schedules. Look at how many high school students chose the earlier start time for juggling their own busy schedules. Your statement that gridlock is happening nationwide around schools, an inaccurate generalization, sounds a bit like a cop out.

The past two weeks getting to Brien McMahon have called for a different strategy of navigation every morning, with traffic backing up on Highland all the way to Flax Hill (?!!), cars coming from Soundview jamming up residential side streets to avoid the bottleneck on the main roads, and parents letting their kids out to walk so their cars can get out of the fray. Afternoon pickup has been brutal, with a matter of minutes upon arrival time making the difference on whether you’ll be stuck in the gridlocked parking lot with cars choking up three entries, where you can expect to wait for a half hour until things start moving, and this is with police conducting traffic flow. A vehicle struck my side view mirror the other day rushing to get away from the insanity. My son will take the bus when I can be assured that he won’t walk into his first class 25 minutes late. Until then, I get him there on time by starting out much earlier (!!!) and dropping him near the school to walk, and I coordinate with him via text what congested side road I’m on at pick up. Many parents don’t have the flexibility in their schedules to do the same.

The unfortunate situation surrounding Brien McMahon seems to be due to a perfect storm of issues which were discussed last night: considerably less kids taking the bus than before COVID, with more parents working from home able to drive them; the start times for three schools on the same route too close in proximity; the road infrastructure surrounding a school of 1500 (ish?) high school students not designed to withstand so many vehicles entering the campus all at once; the parking lot design incapable of efficiently flowing the high amount of vehicles in/out (A one entry in, one exit out, semicircle with two lanes, around the outside of the staff parking area, which could have its own entrance/exit, and a separate, out of the way dock for buses, could work…). An infrastructure revamp around both high schools seems necessary. A high school campus on a larger parcel with easier access almost seems necessary after what I’ve witnessed these last two weeks. As more people working remotely and driving their kids to school may be the new norm, as our population has exploded, and as our high schools are busting out of their footprints, their surrounding roadways incapable of withstanding the higher volume, maybe a new high school is in the cards in Norwalk’s future.

Steve September 15, 2021 at 2:26 pm

This issue only came to a head post-Covid- it wasn’t an issue last year. Estrella was not the one who decided this two years ago or was even in the NPS. I don’t know if she’s going to good average or worse, but holding her responsible for this seems like Another NPS Embarrassment has an agenda…

Chris Boyle September 15, 2021 at 4:20 pm

Appalling decision that seems to mostly reflect a lack of town resource commitment and / or imagination. Mike Barbis and others, and those abstaining, why? And can we see the survey and number of respondents of the 62% of students who allegedly voted to start earlier? For any who currently have, or have near-term memory of having, a high school student, you will likely agree that the “science” as quoted in the BOE presentation last night is absolutely true. Teens have a different circadian rhythm and need more time in the morning. And younger children are bouncing off the walls early and are better off going to school earlier. And for those teen athletes, this seems especially hard to manage after school sports and heavy homework schedules with an hour earlier start time. Was there a consideration for more buses? How about actual traffic directors on site? How about setting up a car lane for BMHS where buses go now and sharing that access point? We are going backwards against the science and it will hurt our children.

Tysen Canevari September 15, 2021 at 4:34 pm

It doesnt help that there is a new high rise apartment building on every corner of Norwalk. What road do we think those people drive on? This isnt the Jetsons where you can fly in your space buggy! We waste so much money that the kids could benfit from. Common sense is free people.

Mimi Chang September 15, 2021 at 6:48 pm

Fights in both high schools, and all boys’ bathrooms except for one on the lower floor at McMahon are closed this week because evidently they were being vandalized, which is just unreal. Young men who know how to behave properly now have to be inconvenienced to go downstairs to use the one bathroom. Seriously. What is going on?

Elle September 15, 2021 at 9:04 pm

It seems everyone was on planet earth that night except for Colin and Sarah. It wasn’t only obnoxious, it was a slap in the face to the students, parents, and staff who spoke in favor of reverting bell times back to what had a 95% success rate.

John O'Neill September 16, 2021 at 9:42 am

I’m traveling this week and really don’t have time to comment, BUT it’s impossible not the chime in — This whole situation borders on the absurd.
1) More than anything else this proves the Board of Education is out of touch with reality — Do any of these people actually live in Norwalk? As much as people dislike Mike Barbis he seems like the only adult in the room.
2) To the 3 members who abstained — Shame on you. You’re either naive or not paying attention to the world you live in? Holy Cow — What evidence do you need that the time change is a joke. “Follow the Science” — Stop with the intellectual BS and Follow the Common Sense..If Columbus followed the “Science” back in 1492, we’d all be living on other continents..
3) Fist-Fights Breaking out at Schools — Let’s “Follow the Science” – If you don’t expect discipline and accountability of your students what the heck do you expect as a by-product. Here’s a piece of advice: Get your head out of the sand and try to understand how a young adult thinks. That’s obviously missing in your “Science”.
4) The Democratic Party is currently controlling Norwalk Politics – It’s obvious to anyone who follows the “Science” that their vetting process needs as much tinkering as this Bus Schedule…These High Schoolers should learn from this experience – They should understand how important it is to actually understand who they’re voting for before pulling the lever.
5) COMMON SENSE — Is it too easy and too inexpensive for these Board members to understand.

In conclusion, it seems that many of these Board members are following Science Fiction and not the Science. My biggest concern is that many of our students don’t know the difference. That’s the real tragedy.

Rob September 16, 2021 at 11:07 am

Stop all the dang crying! I sit in traffic everyday to go to work. Should I tell my boss that the company should open up at an earlier time so I don’t have to sit in traffic everyday!! How ridiculous! You are a parent and in being one you need to put your children first, not yourself. The health of your child is at higher risk for obesity, diabetes, injuries, poor mental health, problems with attention and behavior, and even suicide! This is data from decades of evidence based research! Wake up people! Let’s take care of our children!! Since most parents work from home, put your children on the school bus instead of driving them in and you won’t be sitting in any traffic!! No commute to the school or work! Come on people!

Sarah September 16, 2021 at 12:46 pm

I don’t ordinarily respond to comments on social media or news articles, but I feel compelled to say that the tone of parents attacking board members for their views or votes, actual or perceived, is a terrible example to set for our kids. No one is slapping anyone in the face because we disagree or hold a different view on how to solve a problem — or would like some time to consider options.

We are nine human beings, with different backgrounds and views, all passionate about and committed to volunteering extensive time and energy to make the world a better place for children in Norwalk. None of us gets anything out of this for ourselves. We are not paid. There is literally no personal benefit to doing this, and in fact, often personal detriment. Not only that, but the range of decisions we are actually permitted to make, due to state and federal regulations, and budget constraints, is actually quite narrow. Nevertheless, we do our best, and sometimes we disagree.

In any case, if you think any of us is the main problem hindering the school system, you might do some reading about education funding in America, and how municipal governance works. Then you might consider volunteering yourself. It’s not as easy as you might think to try to improve things here on planet Earth – but by all means, please give it a try. We need all the help we can get.

Bryan Meek September 16, 2021 at 2:10 pm

Where is the one paid member of the BOE? MIA for the meeting. Completely MIA on the issue and probably gloating over the fact it is being laid at the feet of 9 unpaid volunteers. Who is responsible for 10,000 new housing units in town? What if the vote had been 4-4 with the absence of one of our volunteers? Where’s Waldo?

John O'Neill September 16, 2021 at 5:40 pm

@Sarah – You have my sympathy. That being said there’s no reason not to take constructive criticism from the people. Isn’t that what a good democracy is all about.
Maybe I’m wrong but Norwalk schools need student discipline and accountability. It doesn’t cost much to demand respect from students but that doesn’t seem to be where the School System is currently. Let’s start with the inexpensive basics and go from there. I bet if there was a referendum to that effect it would pass broadly…

Mitch Adis September 16, 2021 at 8:44 pm

So much for the study and following science….yet again…I want to know who forgot to consider traffic? No one is ever accountable at City Hall. No wonder we keep making terrible decisions. There’s no incentive to think.

Nora King September 16, 2021 at 9:31 pm

Sarah,

I find your comments laughable. You held Mike back from being on any Committees. What happened to the BOE under you chairmanship and Colin’s is bad. The BOE has lost touch with reality. There are lots of people who want to run for the BOE. I don’t know how the Republican side works but I have seen how the DTC side work and it is not good. You have members who care more about people pledging their loyalty to the mayor than our kids, parents and taxpayers. The BOE has fallen apart under your leadership and Colins. Of course this is my opinion but I think many other parents feel this way as well. So shame on you!

JustMyTwoCents September 16, 2021 at 9:36 pm

Sarah, it’s not intended to be personal, but in my opinion there has been a real issue with Norwalk’s school leadership over a long period. The schools have been in a constant state of turmoil for many years now as a result of an overactive board constantly searching for moon shots that will “fix” the system. People come in with good intentions and try to shake things up, and it’s so, so counterproductive. As a result of these good intentions, there’s insane administrative turnover as the board hires “visionary” leaders who make big promises, implement a bunch of half baked initiatives, find a way to claim quick success, then leave before it becomes obvious that they’ve failed to deliver on impossible expectations (recent example: two or three years ago in June, Adamowski was on this site claiming that 90% of that year’s graduates were going to college to great acclaim from commenters – yeah, that didn’t happen, when the state published actual numbers later it was 70% like always, but now he’s gone so no one notices).

This bus issue is the latest example of a failed initiative implemented in a half baked way, and the fact that a board member described the opinion of high schoolers on this topic as “eye opening” illustrates the disconnect between idealistic board members, who are too quick to jump on the latest fad, and the community in Norwalk (a similar dynamic occurred on a smaller scale when there was the recent shift to March vacation, which was also quickly reversed due to near universal community disagreement). Most of the community was opposed to this start time initiative from the get go – regardless of the traffic issues. Yes, I believe the research on circadian rhythms, but that concern is trumped by practical considerations for most of us, like access to sports, jobs, or childcare issues.

Norwalk is not a community that has resources to waste, and it is frustrating to this member of the community to see the amount of experimentation that is almost endemic to Norwalk schools at this point.

Obviously, I’m not saying that the board is the source of all that is wrong with Norwalk, but I wish we had a board that was able to recognize the reality of our limited resources and focused more narrowly on doing a few things well, instead of doing a ton of things poorly. Failed initiatives come with real costs that Norwalk students regularly pay, and I think the board needs to be far more aware of that and much more deliberate in the future, focused on effectively accomplishing the core mission of the schools instead of “shaking things up”. The board is steering a big ship and doesn’t have a ton of gas; it’s counterproductive to keep changing directions. For a school board, it’s usually better to do nothing than to do something badly, or to just hire an effective administrator who makes sure the trains run on time instead of a “visionary”.

Yes, it is a thankless job, and it feels cruel to be telling you that I think things have been managed poorly. But just like you, there are many of us who just want what’s best for the kids, and keeping quiet when things are consistently going wrong isn’t going to do it.

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