NORWALK, Conn. – Norwalk’s public schools are “independent city states” with their own rules, with a strong faction of staff members who are resistant to change, according to a 2011 independent study by GE Capital.
The report is one of four recent studies (two done by one organization) that strike a consistent note: While there are many upsides to the school system, there are problems with its culture.
The reports, done over a period of five years, stand as a reminder of what the new Norwalk Public Schools superintendent will be up against when she or he takes the reins this summer.
The troubled culture is the reason former Superintendent Susan Marks resigned after two years in Norwalk, Board of Education Chairman Mike Lyons said.
“I think the primary reason Susan left is because she did not anticipate how hostile the powers that be in the school system – starting with the unions – would be toward her efforts to improve things,” he said in an email. “She came from a consensus-driven school system to Norwalk, where everything is a fight, and just decided it wasn’t the kind of environment that fit her.”
It’s an environment that is spelled out over and over in the studies:
• “There appears to be two groups of school administrators – insiders and outsiders. Insiders have been with the district for a long time and are holding on to the ‘NPS way’ of doing things; outsiders are new leaders (and often new to the district) who are challenging the current ways, suggesting new ideas, and calling for common direction, programing and networking across schools,” the GE Report states on page 12. The review was done in preparation to the transition to Common Core State Standards (CCSS).
• “The challenges facing the district are significant obstacles to overcome as the CCSS pushes forward in Connecticut. A number of these challenges are rooted in the very heart of the Norwalk Public Schools culture. We know that culture is difficult to change. Culture reflects the deep and lasting collective beliefs, assumptions and norms for how we need to behave around here in order to maintain the system. One cannot underestimate the power of obstacles and challenges to disrupt growth and forward momentum.” GE Report, page 20.
• The district culture and climate “is regarded by many people in schools, central office, and the community (including parents) as lacking in openness and authenticity. Many staff and parents feel undervalued, dis-empowered, and isolated. District senior leaders need to take action to improve the district’s culture, in part by improving communication as noted above.” Cambridge Education report, page 4, done in 2007.
• “All focus groups indicated that if someone did not agree with the decision of the person who had decision-making authority, they would ‘skip over’ that person and go to someone else who would most likely overrule the original decision. … The practice of shopping for a different decision is long standing, not specific to special education, and practiced by parents, building administrators, and central office staff. While getting the individual what they want, the practice leads to a lack of collaboration and communication and feelings of resentment in those involved and those who observe what they deem to be special treatment.” Capital Region Education Council (CREC) special education report, 2008, page 9.
• Members of the focus group said that sometimes the style of decision making gets them what they want but “overall they are frustrated with the way decisions are made, believing most decisions to be arbitrary, capricious and based on who you know, not what is best for the district or the students in the district.” 2008 CREC report, page 9.
• “The special education department meets regularly with union representatives. Although there is communication we see a lack of collaboration. It is disappointing to see the parties have not sought a ‘middle ground’ given that this lack of movement will hurt the students and staff in Norwalk.” 2008 CREC report, page 16.
• People are reluctant to express an opinion as they fear retaliation. That was true in every group involved, from parents to staff to administrators to the BOE. “Unfortunately when a negative culture like this exists for an extended time it erodes the organization and interferes with the ability of the organization to work together for the benefit of the students.” 2008 CREC report, page 16.
The 2008 CREC report makes a prediction: “Until there is consistent adherence to the lines of authority and better collaboration and support between and among central office, the Board of Education, the union, and the schools, the recommendations in this report have little chance of success.”
CREC returned in 2012 and performed another review. Not much had changed, it said.
“The inconsistencies in process and inequities that exist from school to school are still a problem in the district,” the 2012 report states on page 10. “This has a huge affect on the parents and students who are uncertain of the level and quality of services from school to school.”
Board member Sue Haynie said the culture of the schools isn’t good for anyone.
“I’ve seen this ‘culture’ in action and it must change,” she said in an email. “It negatively impacts students, parents and staff, and the community as a whole. In its current iteration, it is regressive and works well only for the ‘lucky and the brave.’”
As the BOE winds down its search for a new superintendent — expected to be announced on June 25 — Haynie said there is an opportunity to change the culture and put the schools back on track.
“I think a new, clear-eyed, reform-minded superintendent, supported by the Board of Ed, all local Norwalk leadership and an invigorated Norwalk ACTS/STRIVE partnership, can change this toxic mix.”
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