Norwalk Housing Authority loses School Readiness program

Martha Dumas slams Mayor Harry Rilling on Wednesday for not asking the community for an opinion before taking away the Norwalk Housing Authority's School Readiness program.
Martha Dumas confronts Early Childhood Council leaders Wednesday for taking away the Norwalk Housing Authority’s School Readiness program.

NORWALK, Conn. — The Norwalk Housing Authority has been notified that it will not continue to offer the  School Readiness program. The notification comes five months after losing Head Start.

This was discussed in a contentious NHA Board meeting Wednesday, as about 40 people packed a conference room and shouted questions and protests at Norwalk Early Childhood Council Co-chairwoman Cathy DeCesare and Norwalk Early Childhood Coordinator Mary Oster.

Parents wanted to know if their children would continue to have care come July 1, teachers wanted to know if they had jobs and NHA Commissioners Brenda Penn-Williams and Deidra Davis expressed a sense of betrayal, on behalf of the staff.

Oster and DeCesare had worked side by side with NHA Director of Educational Programs Patricia Marsden-Kish to try to get NHA’s Head Start program back, then turned around and voted to remove School Readiness, Davis and Penn-Williams said.

“There was concern in the community,” DeCesare said. “The mayor raised concern as did some others, that at that time there should have been removal of all the funding from the Housing Authority. We spent lots of time… many people, to try to stabilize what was left of the program.”

“It makes me feel like we were being set up or something,” Davis said. “How do you explain it?”

“I was looking for every opportunity to make this a success,” DeCesare said. “At the end of the day, this is really hard work, challenging work. The conclusion was that, in spite of the good efforts that was needed to happen for the program, was for someone to run it that had really solid early childhood experience.”

There are 156 children in NHA’s School Readiness program, Marsden-Kish told NancyOnNorwalk. There are 56 toddlers in the CDC (Child Day Care) preschool program.

NHA took over Head Start from the defunct Norwalk Economic Opportunity Now (NEON). It has run the School Readiness program since Feb. 2, 2014, Marsden-Kish said.

No one else wanted the programs and NHA was welcomed with open arms and gratitude, Norwalk Housing Authority Executive Director Curtis Law said, in talking to a concerned citizen before the meeting.

This comes as $150,000 has been invested in renovations at the Nathaniel Ely facility and at the Ben Franklin Center, Law said to NancyOnNorwalk.

Law also expressed his unhappiness to DeCesare and Oster.

“Normally when things are not going well with staff someone will pick up the phone and call me and say ‘problem,’” Law said. “I have not received a single call. We spent about an hour and a half, two hours, in a meeting going over a budget. …  The next thing I know we get notification that they are not going to renew this.”

It’s reminiscent of what happened with Head Start, he said.

“I feel used,” Law said. “I think the staff feels used. I think this authority feels used because for Head Start, if School Readiness was on the ropes, I didn’t see any of them looking.”

Martha Dumas was the first community member to unload.

“When did the mayor come down to this community to talk to us to see how we felt?” she asked.

“It seems to me you threw Housing under the bus just so you can bring in who?” Dumas asked. “You can’t tell us who right now because it hasn’t been finalized. So we are not learning nothing from this meeting, but I bet it’s one of your friends.”

Norwalk Early Childhood Council Co-chairwoman Cathy DeCesare and Norwalk Early Childhood Coordinator Mary Oster
Norwalk Early Childhood Council Co-chairwoman Cathy DeCesare, right, and Norwalk Early Childhood Coordinator Mary Oster answer questions at Wednesday’s Norwalk Housing Authority Board of Commissioners meeting in the Leroy Downs housing building.

Oster and DeCesare said they have recommended a new School Readiness provider, but the choice has to be approved by Mayor Harry Rilling and Norwalk Superintendent of Schools Steven Adamowski.

Rilling, contacted by NancOnNorwalk by text, was at a wake and was unable to comment Wednesday night.

The parents need to make arrangements, Davis said, amongst some shouting.

Lunches have not been provided to School Readiness children since May 2, the women said after complaints from parents, because the funding was tied to Head Start. NHA provides breakfast.

School Readiness programs do not normally provide breakfast or lunch, but NEON did it and NHA didn’t want to just provide breakfast and not lunch, so it had been done, Kish said.

“Not to put myself on a high horse, I don’t get any kind of government assistance. I am paying full cost,” a man said from the back of the room.

There weren’t enough teachers to staff the facility on Tuesday, he said.

“In all honesty, I don’t feel like the teachers are dropping the ball, I feel like the administration is dropping the ball,” he said.

He suggested that perhaps he should be reimbursed for some of the cost of the program.

Parents pressed to know who the new provider would be, but Oster and DeCesare said the contract had not been signed.

“For better or for worse, the decision has been made,” DeCesare said. “There will be a new provider. As soon as we know, we are going to call a meeting…”

That announcement should come in a week or two, she said. The questions would be best answered by the new provider, she said.

“We are doing our best to have no gap in services. They will take over; when the Housing Authority ends another provider will begin immediately,” DeCesare said.

Law suggested that NHA might have to pay a penalty to the teachers’ union due to early withdrawal from its contract.

Sarah Zarucha, site director for Ben Franklin and Ely, asked about the toddler classrooms.

“We are in conversations with providers to take over those classrooms,” DeCesare said.

A mother asked if there would be a place for her son.

“Yes, he will have a class,” Oster said. “We are making every effort and I expect that we will have providers in place.”

Someone asked why Housing could not provide School Readiness.

“Somebody mentioned all the teachers not in the classrooms. One of the things that we really feel that we can do with a new provider is to stabilize the classrooms and to bring in some teachers. I know that that is upsetting,” DeCesare said.

A mother said that teacher Shirley Green got her son potty-trained in two days and taught him colors.

Green asked if she’d continue to have a job.

All the teachers will keep their jobs, DeCesare said.

There will be more teachers, Oster said.

Does that mean that tuition will go up?

No, DeCesare said.

“They are not getting more money, they are using the funding differently in order to provide more classroom staff,” she said.

Zarucha asked what the downside would be.

“I don’t believe there is a downside,” Oster said. “There are other way to use the same money as all of our programs do to provide sufficient classroom staff so that you are fully staffed and you have enough staff for contingency when people call out.”


3 responses to “Norwalk Housing Authority loses School Readiness program”

  1. Mike Barbis

    Did any of this have to do with the NHA’s program losing NAYEC accreditation last year??? http://www.naeyc.org/accreditation?gclid=CjwKEAjwyPW5BRCC3JaM7qfW_FwSJACM3jz9oOBsLQV8oL5amsX6y3l_baOUFpCZET20intQJdoK-xoCvuPw_wcB

  2. Rick McQuaid

    Your right Mr.Law, kind of like when you picked up the phone and called me about my appointment. Sad day for NHA losing such important programs.

  3. Mrs. Ruby McPherson

    It’s all a sham, if the BOE is taking it over and shifting teachers and plan on shifting school readiness children, then they need to come and explain to the community. NHA started off on a rockie road and I believe they are looking at it as if it was another minority running the agency.Mary and others felt that the teachers were not professional after getting there CDA or Associate degree and I wonder why?

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