NORWALK, Conn. — Norwalk’s growing school enrollment might necessitate another new school.
Enrollment is up 215 students as of Oct. 1, when the state certifies statistics for the school year, Norwalk Superintendent of Schools Steven Adamowski said at Tuesday’s Board of Education meeting. It grew by 53 students in November, of whom 47 were English Language Learners.
The latter might mean that the $1.2 million special appropriation requested by Norwalk Public Schools to expand ELL services won’t last the school year, Adamowski said. The former may mean that Norwalk needs three new schools instead of two.
A school population is about 400 students, he explained. Plus, while NPS has an additional 215 students, its ELL population is up 237 as of Oct. 1. And of the 53 students who enrolled in November, 47 were ELL.
Add the 53 to the 215, and you’ll see that Norwalk Public Schools has 268 more students as of Nov. 1 than it did on Nov. 1, 2018. The raises the shortage of seats from 900 to 1,200, Adamowski told the Board of Education.
“When we began our building program, we needed 900 seats in order to get rid of portables and reduce overcrowding in our schools. And we have yet to complete a school building,” Adamowski said. “…We are no longer talking about two schools in order to meet our enrollment. We’re talking about three.”
Buying St. Philip’s?
The Board of Education in 2016 developed a plan to build a new school behind the Nathaniel Ely Center in South Norwalk, and then renovate the existing Columbus Magnet School. It also planned to expand Ponus Middle School into a K-8 magnet school, and then renovate Jefferson Elementary.
The Ponus plan is on track. The Ely plan is stalled.
Adamowski, responding to Board member Sherelle Harris, explained that the Ely plan hinged on using open space. The state requires that the open space be replaced with open space elsewhere in the city. Although most of the open space behind Ely is unusable, the community has objected, resulting in “somewhat of a stalemate” as far as state approval goes.
Harris asked what other sites were considered in South Norwalk. Adamowski said that there had been a comprehensive study of every single city-owned parcel of land in South Norwalk; the Ely site was “literally” the only one big enough to meet the footprint required by state regulations.
Back in 2016, there was talk of buying the St. Philip Roman Catholic Church property and using it to expand Tracey Elementary, at a cost of $75.6 million. Adamowski said Tuesday that this is back on the table.
It would be used as “swing space” for Columbus Magnet School, he said, mixing up the terminology a bit. Swing space refers to putting students in a school while their existing building is renovated, and then moving them back. Although Adamowski described Ely as swing space for Columbus, the plan has been to move Columbus into the Ely school entirely, and then renovate the existing “Concord Street school” into an International Baccalaureate Academy.
“We desperately do need the schools in South Norwalk because most of our immigrant students are our residing there,” Adamowski said.
All of this will have a significant impact on the 2020-21 capital budget, according to Adamowski.
Mayor Harry Rilling on Thursday said, “We’ll continue to discuss options and make adjustments to the facilities plan as necessary.”
Norwalk’s 2019-20 enrollment is officially 11,716 students, the count on Oct. 1. The racial breakdown is:
- 52% Hispanic
- 26% White
- 15% Black
- 5% Asian
- 3% Other
- Special Education – 15%
- English Language Learners (ELL) – 18 % (six schools more than 25%; one school more than 30%)
- Free or reduced lunch eligible based on income – 61%
- High Needs Students – 66.2%
- The total enrollment on Oct. 1 2018 was 11,501 students, with 1,810 ELL
- The total enrollment on Oct. 1 2019 was 11,716 students, with 2,047 ELL
- The total enrollment on Nov. 1 was 11,769 students, with 2,094 ELL
The Special Education population is stable at 15 percent, and has been for several years, Adamowski said. But ELLs are growing; “25 percent is considered the tipping point for school in terms of number of students who cannot speak English.”
Because the state considers free-or-reduced lunch eligibility as a category of high needs, the increase in low income students means that Norwalk has grown from 62 percent high needs to 66.2 percent, making the district’s percentage higher than Stamford’s.
In addition, the state’s funding is based on the Oct. 1 figure. There is no state mechanism for increasing funding if enrollment grows.
ELL special appropriation
The Norwalk Board of Education recently requested a $1.2 million special appropriation to cover the costs of an unexpected boost in immigrant students. “We are at a point where we have exhausted all of our current services,” Adamowksi said in October, and ELL Specialist Helene Becker explained that most of the new high school students are classified as Students with Limited and/or Interrupted Formal Education (SLIFE).
The special appropriation has been approved by the Board of Estimate and Taxation (BET) but not yet voted upon by the full Common Council. The Council Finance Committee moved it ahead early this month.
Adamowski has been assured by Rilling that he’ll get it and has already hired staff, Adamowski said.
The $1.2 million request was based on a projection dependent upon historical trends, but the students keep coming this year, Adamowski explained. The spike in September, which was unprecedented, has been followed with continued growth, and if it continues the $1.2 million will have been spent in March.
“This is something that we have to we have to monitor very closely,” Adamowski said. “These are required services. They are required by state and federal law. We happen to do a better job at this most districts in the state… That’s what we aim to continue for all the new students registered with us.”
ELL students cost one-third more to educate, Adamowski said. Connecticut does not have a grant to cover ELL costs. There’s a bilingual grant and a Title III grant, which total $400,000, NPS Chief Academic Officer Brenda Myers said.
NPS Chief Financial Officer Thomas Hamilton said Monday that he thinks NPS spends about $5 million a year on English Language Learner services.