Updated, 1:14 p.m., letter of support from Mayor Harry Rilling.
NORWALK, Conn. – Plans to use the South Norwalk Community Center as an after school learning center next fall are “heaven sent,” according to one area grandmother, but a center spokesman sees resistance in the community.
“It appears that the actions of some of the community leaders are not in sync with the needs of those they should be serving,” center Deputy Director Pat Ferrandino said. “Self-interest is taking more precedence over the acceptance of positive programming for all the children of the community.”
The plans drawn up by Norwalk Superintendent Manny Rivera will be voted on at Tuesday’s Board of Education meeting. Board Chairman Mike Lyons declined to say if he expected resistance to the idea.
Under the Memorandum of Understanding under consideration Tuesday, Norwalk Public Schools would provide educational program oversight and management, instructional materials, a site coordinator (five days a week, three hours a day), childcare staff (four days a week at two hours a day and one day at three hours) and snacks. Two certified teachers would also support the program, giving a similar amount of time. Outside enrichment is also budgeted at $3,200, which would pay for two art classes and two music classes a week.
That’s all music to the ears of Georgiana Scott, a Chestnut Street woman who, less than two weeks ago, stood in the neighborhood school her daughter attended — the school her grandson cannot attend — decrying the state of affairs to Mayor Harry Rilling and others in the latest Mayor’s Night Out.
“We have the South Norwalk Community Center there … it is in the neighborhood, why can’t it be utilized for education and entertainment? It’s there, it’s available, the neighborhood,” said Scott.
Told Sunday night that Rivera is planning just that, she said, “I’m delighted. It gives me hope for the children. I will do everything I can to make sure that it’s successful. I am so honored and pleased that we have such a great superintendent.”
She did, however, indicate that she knew people are pressuring Mayor Harry Rilling not to have the program at the South Norwalk Community Center, which has shared the building with the troubled Norwalk Economic Opportunity Now (NEON). The two agencies engaged in a very public feud last year over financial and space arrangements. Some people have a perception that NEON serves the black community while SoNoCC is therefor the Latinos, but both agencies are set up to serve all people in need of the services they provide.
Rilling did not respond to a Sunday night email asking him if he supports the idea. On Monday afternoon, Ferrandino provided a March 18 letter of support from Rilling, attached below. “I endorse and fully support your collaboration with Dr. Rivera and Norwalk Public Schools in creating a Learning Center at 98 South Main Street,” Rilling wrote in the letter. “The Learning Center will provide an extraordinary opportunity for the children of District 99.”
The plan for the center is for an expansion of the school system’s existing After the Bell program. The satellite site would serve Title 1-eligible students living in District 99, which is bordered by Interstate 95 to the north, West Avenue and Dr. Martin Luther King Drive to the west, the Norwalk River on the east and Belle Avenue/Grove Street/Burritt Avenue and Mack Street to the south. The students would get 10 to 11 more hours of learning time per week at a cost of $98,719 to the school system.
The center would provide 4,000 square feet of pro bono space, general liability insurance, building security, and would arrange to use a part of Ryan Park and the playground. The center is also responsible for “social service case management wrap around services,” the MoU states.
The children would be able to walk to the center, or a new bus stop would be arranged.
Rivera also intends to expand the After the Bell program to at least one more location, if not next fall then in 2015-16. Lyons said he doesn’t know yet where that might be.
Ferrandino said building security would be no problem after Phase I of the renovations funded by a Community Block Development Grant (CDBG) are complete. That should happen this summer, in time for the fall opening of the new satellite school.
The children will be “totally segregated” from other activities in the building in the space that will be created when the renovations are complete, Ferrandino said. No one will be able to get in without a pass, he said.
But there’s another CDBG wrinkle in this plan. While Common Council members are planning to grant the center an additional $100,000 in federal funds through the CBDG program for Phase II of the renovations, they are not at this point planning to grant a $50,000 request for services at the center. That request was put in to fund the wrap-around services planned for the after-school program, Ferrandino said.
“This (MoU) wasn’t shown to the Planning Committee, but rather a summary,” he said. “We have suspicion that the wrap-around program was not included in it. The Planning Committee didn’t not understand what our request was for.”
But, “We do have a grant writer on staff,” he said. “We are going to be initiating a Renaissance capital campaign.”
The center already has liability insurance, he said.
The District 99 kids go to eight different schools, the MoU states. Scott said children who are just a short distance from her home are not in District 99 and go to Brookside Elementary School. She was angry when she found out that her grandson had to go to Silvermine, she said.
District 99 was explained to her thusly: The South Norwalk kids get the leftovers. People in other areas get to choose which school their child will go to first, and the District 99 kids get what is left.
“How disrespectful,” she said. “How uncaring.”
She is raising her grandson, who is now in first grade at Silvermine, but she can’t attend many of the activities there, she said. He’s doing well and is “not part of the achievement gap,” she said, but, “That has to be number one, number one, number one. We have to close the gap. We should be ashamed.”
Rivera is a “breath of fresh air” who doesn’t care about politics, she said.
“All I am interested in is how we can help the children,” she said. “This is a lovely idea. If anyone is concerned about it not being fair, then come out and get involved. Just help out so it will be fair.”
“As we forge ahead we just need to filter out the noise,” Ferrandino said. “I am confident the Board of Education will understand and embrace the vision of our superintendent.”