NORWALK, Conn. – A consensus emerged in a recent online survey: Norwalk’s next Superintendent of Schools needs to foster a positive, professional climate of mutual trust and respect among school staff.
Second on the list of priorities was sensitivity to the needs of a diverse student population. Feedback from in-person focus groups mirrored these sentiments, Judy Ferguson of HYA (Hazard, Young, Attea) Associates said Tuesday to the Board of Education.
HYA was hired to develop a profile for the next superintendent and then recruit candidates, Ferguson explained. The community outreach was the first phase of the process.
Nearly 1,000 people responded to the online survey, including a highly unusual number of students.
Ferguson congratulated the Board for a good response compared to other school districts and called polling 603 students a “great idea” that no one has ever done before but warned that the student body has skewed the results. But parents were the next largest group at 19.5 percent of respondents and faculty came in third at 11.9 percent.
Plus, “We always caution people that (a survey is) not scientific. People volunteer to respond. They aren’t necessarily representative of the whole community,” she said.
For in-person opinion gathering, HYA come to the district 12 times between Sept. 19 and Nov. 11, meeting with union leaders, School Governance Councils, Parent Teacher Organizations, Special Education parents, community funders, partners, school administrators and Central Office staff, she said. There were four open forums that anyone could attend, half in English and half in Spanish.
The forum turnout was also unusual, at 300 “the largest I’ve ever seen,” she said.
So first was to gather thoughts on the state of the district. The survey showed this list of strengths:
- Technology is integrated into the classroom
- The district engages with diverse racial, cultural and socio-economic groups
- The district has high standards for student performance
- Teachers, administrators and support staff are effective
- The schools are safe
While the in-person results listed:
- District’s reputation as progressive and innovate
- Success in reducing the achievement gap
- District’s standing among Connecticut city school districts
- Community engagement in the schools
The kids say they love the diversity because, “We’re going to be prepared throughout the world because we live in the world,” according to Ferguson. But, “It’s a challenge because there are needs that come with that.”
She continued, “People are worried. They’re worried, ‘How are we going to manage to do all that we have started to do and want to do and need to do? And where are we going to get the money to make this happen?’ That’s gonna be a challenge. It’s a challenge for all school districts.”
For the online survey, respondents were given a list of 12 statements and told to pick four as their top priorities in a new superintendent. “Fostering a positive, professional climate of mutual trust and respect was chosen by 42 percent of the respondents, by five of the six groups.
- 14 administrators
- 25 community members with no children
- 114 faculty
- 187 parents/guardians of students
- 603 students
- 16 support staff
Only the administrators didn’t choose the “climate” statement.
Second on the list was “understand and be sensitive to the needs of a diverse student population,” with 38 percent of the respondents choosing it, and four of the six groups. Tied in terms of percentage was “provide a clear, compelling vision for the future,” but only two groups chose it, including the students.
Also thought important were:
- Demonstrate a deep understanding of educational research and emerging best practices, 34 percent
- Provide transparent communication, 32 percent
- Be visible throughout the district and actively engaged in community life, 31 percent
The in-person commentary developed a draft of desired characteristics, which include:
- Ability to inspire and motivate staff
- Appreciation for diversity
- Collaborative leadership and shared decision-making style
- Political astuteness
- Proven track record of leading effective school change
Ferguson invited the Board to criticize freely, telling them she had no pride of authorship in the voluminous materials, and “I will not be insulted if you tell me to start over.”
Board member Erica DePalma noted that there wasn’t anything specific to Special Education. Ferguson said it’s in the complete report but agreed it should be listed as a challenge.
The next superintendent needs to balance the diversity in high needs subgroup because groups could potentially be pitted against each other when it comes to funding, DePalma said.
Board member Barbara Meyer-Mitchell said the biggest feedback she’s gotten concerns teacher morale and asked if the “collaborative leadership and shared decision-making style” characteristic suggested encompassed that concern.
Ferguson offered to change the language, as might be suggested.
“I think that leadership style and decision making are separate from morale,” Board member Sherelle Harris said.
“If you look at some of the other bullet points on this, there’s a lot of issues that all deal with morale and team building and getting buy in for a mission, those kinds of things,” Mayor Harry Rilling said. “So, there’s a lot of that in here. It is critically important, mainly from the faculty standpoint where perhaps they want to make sure that they’re going to be heard that they’re going to have input and so forth.”
Meyer-Mitchell suggested language to include “a track record of healthy faculty morale and successful special education implementation.”
During public comment, Norwalk Branch NAACP President Brenda Penn-Williams charged that the NAACP had not been invited to speak with HYA.
“I am tired of Norwalk Public Schools excluding us. We’re here to stay, we are not going anywhere. So, I think that we need to have a voice in the new superintendent,” she said.
Rilling later told NancyOnNorwalk that NAACP education liaison Shirley Mosby had been invited.
Diane Lauricella told the Board that “the superintendent’s role should include having a timeout.” She spoke of the “disjointedness and anger” in recent months, due to tensions between the NAACP and former BoE Chairman Mike Barbis, and, “I’m sure a lot of discussion may have happened behind the scenes with Dr. (Steven) Adamowski and others, but it did not appear – I know the superintendent works for the Board, but a superintendent is a professional who’s been in other districts and also has probably witnessed and participated in discord. It seemed like this discord just went on way too long, and a lot of, almost rotten cancer from within, for far too long.”
She also wished the next superintendent would work on environmental sustainability issues.
In beginning the discussion, Ferguson cautioned the Board that its superintendent search should be confidential. The finalists “will definitely be known” but the pool of candidates should be secret, to enrich the possibilities, as some highly successful people would hesitate to apply if their current school district were to know about it.
If that happens, “you become a lame duck superintendent,” she said. “And that’s, that’s not fair to that candidate, and they aren’t going to apply if they think that will happen. So that’s why it’s important to cast the net widely and welcome people in, but respect their privacy.”