Norwalk Early College Academy’s growing pains include ‘deep concern’ from Mellion

A Norwalk Early College Academy classroom on Aug. 21 at Norwalk High School.


NORWALK, Conn. – Norwalk educators are looking forward to creating a template for future success with the just-opened Norwalk Early College Academy (NECA), expressing confidence as a few concerned leaders worry about having enough support for the students.

While Norwalk Public Schools Chief of Technology, Innovations and Partnerships Ralph Valenzisi said at a recent Board of Education Finance Committee meeting that NECA will be used to develop a personalized learning model for all students, Norwalk Federation of Teachers President Bruce Mellion said that, given the makeup of the student body, intensive support is needed. Those thoughts were backed up by Finance Committee Chairwoman Rosa Murray and BoE member Jack Chiaramonte.

“Just because you give them double periods or triple periods doesn’t mean diddly,” Mellion said. “I’m telling you it’s not going to work unless … they need the tutoring, they need real support from real people. They lack certain skill sets to be successful. They have the potential – it’s organization. It’s lots of other things. I did it for a long time. They have the potential but they need a lot, a lot, a lot of guidance, a lot of reinforcement.”

NECA is the first of its kind in Connecticut, the latest outpost of a P-Tech (Pathways in Technology) academy, featuring an academic collaboration with a private corporation, in this case IBM. Four Norwalk High School classrooms have been remodeled to be used for NECA.

There are 92 students enrolled in NECA, which had been open to 100 freshmen with no qualification needed other than an interest in attending and taking on the challenge of an extended school day that includes classes at Norwalk Community College on their way to a combined high school diploma and NCC associate’s degree in six years. There had been 95, but some decided to attend Brien McMahon after going to a five-week summer session, Communications Director Brenda Williams said. They would be leaving their friends behind and they decided to stay with their student body, she said.

Valenzisi said that when there were 95 students, the makeup was:

• 60 boys and 35 girls

• Five Asian-Americans

• 31 black students

• 15 white students

• 38 Hispanic students

He said there were six students that he wasn’t sure about. The socioeconomic mix was also wide, he said. Between 40 and 50 percent were going to need academic assistance, he said, and there were six or seven special needs students.

The ratio of IBM mentors to students is one to one, as 121 IBM employees volunteered, he said.

The premise of NECA is “to do whatever you have to do get these kids to succeed,” he said.

“We want to develop a personalized learning model that will be able to be replicated. … We have a lot of tools to use for it but we need to make sure that we can execute and give the supports that are needed for that. We started that in so many different places here in this district, I think we just need to develop more of a consistency around that,” Valenzisi said.

There have already been inquiries to create future early college academies, he said. The New England Auto Museum, which would like to open an outpost in Norwalk, is interested, he said. That would involve approaching BMW and Mercedes as prospective corporate partners, and working toward offering students two NCC degrees – in finance and transportation systems.

The media communications program is strong at Norwalk High School and could be used as the foundation of a Media P-Tech, he said. “We would need to get somebody like ESPN – we’ve got all these media companies around us that we need to start partnering up with,” Valenzisi said.

“We need a success, we need to show a program that has as good template, that can be replicated with different content,” Valenzisi said. “This program is going to be the impetus of trying to build that.”

It’s great to be creating NECA now, he said, because a facilities utilization plan is being developed and NECA can be factored in.

But West Rocks Middle School Principal Lynne Moore suggested that it might have been better to use this year as a lead-up to a P-Tech academy, as recruitment for ninth-grade programming begins in eighth grade.

“We would have loved to have a year to do this,” Valenzisi said. “It was, unfortunately, the time when the funding and everything came about, we only found out in March and it was we kind of ‘jump onboard’ or ‘we lose the opportunity.’ We wanted to make sure we had this opportunity.”

Moore asked if there was a “no-quit” policy.

Parents were made aware of the challenges and the rigor during the informational sessions, Valenzisi said. There’s also an effort to make the program fun, and one of the reasons the IBM mentors are there is to show them what they can achieve.

“We want students to start thinking about themselves differently than just trying to achieve getting out of high school. If we can change the mindset of a student going in – saying, ‘I’m not just looking to graduate from high school, I’m working with college professors already. I’m actually on track to be able to grow and get into that type of field,’” Valenzisi said.

He referred to a cohort model of education, in which a group of students collectively progresses together, working collaboratively.

“These students are in a cohort model in those double (time) blocks, to make sure the teachers get to know them, that they get to know them to the point that they know what they need to personalize the intensive support that they need for each student,” Valenzisi said. “We have really good teachers. We have to be able to have the ability to give them that knowledge and be able to offer those supports. Our teachers can make these kids get to where they need to be.”

Mellion was not convinced.

“You’re putting that prize out there that you’re going to play football at Notre Dame. ‘Oh, great, and I’m an eighth-grader.’ I see a bad disconnect. I am deeply concerned, to tell you the truth, I am. But we don’t have enough support to let them be successful,” Mellion said.

Valenzisi said the guidance counselors are already in the Norwalk High School structure, and one counselor is assigned to the cohort. You don’t need additional counselors as only 35 to 40 students came over from Brien McMahon, he said.

“I also want to make sure that we build programs that are sustainable in the operating budget over time. It’s a fine line to try to figure that out,” Valenzisi said.

Norwalk Federation of Teachers President Bruce Mellion
Norwalk Federation of Teachers President Bruce Mellion.

“The numbers that we have, I don’t think it’s going to work and I want it to work,” Mellion said. “I want it to succeed. I don’t want the black eye, as Rosa said. But I tell you, you’ve got to have it in there. You need the parents, you need the social piece, the social worker. The guidance counselor, the tutoring, the after school, the mentoring, the Saturday morning. You’ve got to have the whole enchilada. If not, it ain’t going to happen. It’s just not – you’re talking about an eighth-grader. Go back and think about what that is. That’s tremendous. You’re going for the moon and that’s great but boy you’d better have all the shoring and all the pickup and all the support and everything in there. It’s real easy for them to fall by the wayside and as Lynn said, they’ll do it.”

Murray suggested that perhaps a parent contract is needed, like the ones parents sign at private schools.

“The thing with private schools, you get people, you get parents that are there, invested and putting a price on their kids’ education, to get the best,” Chiaramonte said.

He went further. “We have got kids that are being pushed along, got to get to high school and they don’t know nothing,” Chiarmonte said, referring to teenagers he met when he operated a SoNo pizzeria, who said they’d be laughed at if they did well in school.

“My son told me when he started high school, I remember this, the first thing a kid asked him was ‘When do we get the makeup test?’ Makeup test,” Chiaramonte said. “We are preparing them for failure. We don’t start at an early enough age. Mentors? You need mentors earlier on. They’re in high school… they’ve already got study habits, the environments that they’re coming from maybe they don’t care, they’re not putting that effort into it. They need to be held on stronger a lot earlier on, but that’s a whole ‘nother meeting.”

Deputy Superintendent Tony Daddona stepped in.

“The teachers who are going to be in this program have to be very unique and very special because a big thing with our students is that there is an individual connection to the teachers in the program, that the teachers really care, that they’re not a number,” Daddona said. “When you talk about personalized learning one of the big components to this program is the training that these teachers are going to get because it has to be a unique relationship.”

He referred to a trip to Brooklyn to see the first in the nation P-Tech Academy, which opened in 2011.

“It was very unique, very special, and that’s what made kids be very successful because they extended beyond what teachers who have a caseload of 130 kids can do. This is very key with the number of people we have there. We have to give the kids the support that they need,” Daddona said.

“Obviously we are all committed to making sure that every single one of those students is successful,” Norwalk Superintendent Manny Rivera said Friday. “We do have four full-time teachers and, in addition to that, students take courses with other teachers. But there is at least a half-time guidance counselor and a full-time director so they will be obviously providing support for them.”

Plus, “There will be opportunity for students to make up credit work or seek additional help through online resources that we are providing to them as well as through … online courses. In addition to that, I know that our students are going to be able to connect with other students from Brooklyn and other P-Tech students with various other kinds of support. But for additional learning and enhanced learning opportunities, we’re going to pay attention to every single student on a case by case basis, and actually we need to do that for all of our kids, but we will do what we need to do to make sure that our young people are successful.”

A Norwalk Early College Academy classroom, under construction at Norwalk High School on Aug. 21. The television will be used, among other things, for conferences and seminars, NPS Communications Director Brenda Williams said.


11 responses to “Norwalk Early College Academy’s growing pains include ‘deep concern’ from Mellion”

  1. EveT

    “You’re putting that prize out there that you’re going to play football at Notre Dame” “shooting for the moon” ??? Mr. Mellion, how is an associate’s degree from NCC such a wildly optimistic “prize”?
    A described, this program puts students on a track to earn a high school diploma and an associate’s degree in 6 years. That does not seem unrealistic by any stretch of the imagination.

  2. Casey Smith

    So, Norwalk can’t win for losing? We were a District in need, and the administration clawed their way out of that mess, adopted Common Core — supposedly the end all and be all of education — and now the District is developing on an advance program but it’s still not enough?
    Here’s a radical idea…why not let the program stand or fall on its own merits?

  3. David

    What I don’t see in here are specifics from Mellion, Chiarmonte, et al, about what *is* needed to be successful. There’s going to be rough patches in starting up, I hope we all expect that – no new initiative rolls out flawlessly. Companies like IBM have a vested interest in seeing this project succeed, have the concerns been shared with them? As someone who is in the technology world, I hear CEO’s talk about the looming “skills shortage” (some say it’s already here). This is how we address that problem. More students with skills that will be in demand.

  4. anon

    Norwalk taxpayers pay ‘Notre Dame’ salaries to the Board of Ed staff, ‘Notre Dame’ results should not be a stretch.

  5. One and Done

    David, the shortage is not a shortage like you are thinking. It is a shortage of cheap labor. By commoditizing tech workers they can pay less and this is just one effort besides paying even more money to lawmakers than PTECH to get more H1B visas here. Still better than working at Walmart or Duchess, but don’t be fooled by the phony altruism here. There are plenty of out of work tech workers right now and at any given time, they just don’t want to pay as much for them.

  6. David

    @One and Done: I don’t think this is altruistic at all. IBM sees this as an investment in their future. I agree that tech companies want to commoditize tech workers, get them for as cheap as possible, but that game is coming to an end. Technology leaders know they cannot simply outsource the skills shortage any more. Initiatives like P-Tech aren’t going to solve the problem overnight, these are long range strategic solutions to problems we KNOW are coming down the road.

  7. One and Done

    Agree David, just know that if they could overflow this country with countless H1Bs, IBM would do it in a heart beat and PTECH would be some afterthought.

  8. Mike Ward

    Really? Anything that can be done to encourage learning should be embraced. I agree with most of the other comments here. All I hear from Mr. Mellion’s mouth is how poorly the Teacher’s Union is treated or how he can gain an extra day off. When was he last in a classroom other than for a visit to observe.

    Th past few school boards made sure to completely decimate the industrial arts programs in this town. Briggs used to be called the Briggs Center for Vocational Arts. That is long gone. Norwalk High had electrical, printing, metal and shops. They are long gone. If it were not for a teacher in electrical shop named Chris Bakes, I would not have achieved what I have. He took boring textbook junk and applied it to real life situations which motivated myself and my classmates. Case in point: Why does anyone need to learn trigonometry if I am just going to be an electrician? – conduit bending is trigonometry. A basic math for both plumbers and electricians.

    Motivate the students anyway you can including partnering with corporations willing to invest the time.

  9. Kathleen Montgomery

    Well said Mike Ward.

  10. Concerned

    Absolutely agree with One and Done – NECA is promising these kids and families the moon, when it’s actually in cahoots with big business to turn tech workers into yet another commodity.

    Besides, what happened to the values, social and critical thinking skills taught by a more well rounded, liberal arts education, including art, music – God forbid – philosophy. Forget the climate change deniers – education is full of ‘neuroscience’ deniers who have no idea how the developing brains works and works optimally. Someone ‘neuroscience’ is outside of their definition of STEM.

    Oh, that’s right we don’t want critical, creative thinkers who become life-long learners, just human ‘widgets’ that can be placed and DISPLACED by big business in mindless jobs. (Go to Taiwan, or the heart of the beast Beijing, and you’ll see what I mean.)

    As for the cohort model, just more mumbo-jumbo for group learning, which any student – middle school, high school, under-graduate or graduate – will tell you is just an opportunity for the less motivated and capable, to jump on your coattails and benefit from the hard work of one or two hardworking individuals in the group. Oh, that’s right – we don’t want workers that are too smart or motivated because they just might upset the big business ‘apple cart’ with their insight and drive.

    As for Mellion’s comments, I’m sure he’s out to benefit the teachers’ union in some way, but I would agree there are a significant amount of disconnects involved with this program – assured parent engagement and support just being one of them. And, what about the kids who don’t have online resources at home, I certainly hope NECA and IBM have made provisions for that – more of an issue than anybody could imagine. Online texts and instruction – phooey!

    As for DUH-dona’s comment, “The teachers who are going to be in this program have to be very unique and very special because a big thing with our students is that there is an individual connection to the teachers in the program, that the teachers really care, that they’re not a number,” … don’t the district’s hundreds of other classrooms have teachers like this, aren’t teachers like this what all students deserve, shouldn’t all students be more than just a ‘number.’ Mr. ($200,000/yr) Foot-in-the-Mouth personifies everything that is wrong with education.

  11. Marianne

    How did this all turn out? How many of these ~100 students received and AA with their high school diploma? How many of the students who required academic assistance graduate with an AA?

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