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NPS looks to pilot virtual high school academy next fall

Assistant Superintendent of Digital Learning and Innovation Ralph Valenzisi. (File photo)

NORWALK, Conn. — Norwalk Public Schools is looking to open a virtual school for high school juniors and seniors this year, thanks to a bill just passed by the Connecticut legislature.

“This isn’t the typical remote option that we were kind of forced to do, because of the pandemic. Kids will opt into this. And there will be criteria, policies and procedures, as there are within another school,” Assistant Superintendent of Digital Learning and Innovation Ralph Valenzisi said at Tuesday’s Board of Education meeting.

Gov. Ned Lamont signed Senate Bill 2 on Wednesday, the State’s website shows. In addition to addressing children’s mental health, the bill requires the State Commissioner of Education to set up standards, not regulations, for virtual learning. It also allows School Boards to authorize virtual learning in grades 9-12 starting next school year, as long as they follow the standards and attendance policies set by the State Department of Education. Part of the attendance policy includes counting a student participating in virtual learning as present if they spend “at least one-half of the day during virtual instruction engaged in virtual classes.”

Valenzisi said there have been weekly discussions for more than a month, a team that includes Norwalk Federation of Teachers President Mary Yordon. Everyone has learned from the pandemic, “there have been some wonderful kinds of positive developments that have come out of this,” and NPS is looking for options to “give our kids the ability to be able to learn, whatever modality they need to.”

“We’ve actually surveyed the rising 11th and 12th graders, and I think about 15% of the population has already kind of put in their surveys and stuff,” Valenzisi said. “Overall …25% of them said that they really like this model. They said that there’s definitely benefits to it.”

They’ve also been asked what kind of supports they need and if they have space at home to attend a virtual academy, he said. “It’s kind of really in the planning stages.”

Learning pods, small groups of children learning together at home (a tactic developed in the pandemic), are a possible strategy and NPS is working with the Center for Public Research and Columbia University leadership, he said. There will definitely be group activities and students will be able to participate in sports, aligned with their home school.

“We’d make sure that they also have the push-in models, support services. So this is one of the things that is critical in this whole process of how we work with our communities to make sure that we never lose touch with one of these kids. And it’ll be important that there is a regular touch point with those students,” Valensizi said.

Yordon has surveyed teachers to check their interest level, and the next step is to reach out to parents, he said.

“I think the seeds are all in place, there’s a lot of work to be done this summer,” he said. “You know, what are the next steps will be, as you do with any other building, we did this with P-Tech, you need to find your leader, like you know, soon. So that’s gonna be one of our next steps is making sure that we have someone that’s going to be able to kind of own that process.”

Board member Heidi Keyes stressed engagement and social emotional learning.

NPS will design a student handbook, “kind of like an operational manual,” and there will be a parent contract and a student contract, Valensizi said. Specific parameters for attendance will be laid out, “as an example, it could be 15 days, if we’re not seeing certain type of engagement and attendance, something else has to happen, you know, so we know that there are going to be trigger points.”

Again, it’s not the same as going remote without a choice. “We’re going to make sure that we want to put the support scaffolds for the students so that they’re successful,” he said.

Board Secretary Godfrey Azima asked about school culture and the role of support staff.

“The support for these students is really, it’s going to be a completely different model than what we’ve done before,” Valensizi said. “…It has to be a village, we have to have other components that are that are going to be there and that are actually well defined so that we can make sure that we’ve actually got a variety of different ways of addressing students.”

Starting with the upper grades allows students with a maturity level and experience with attending high school to shift to the virtual model, he said. The younger kids have transitioned to high school during a pandemic, a “very difficult” assignment, and now wouldn’t be the best time for them to try a virtual academy.

“We are looking at it. And we don’t have all the answers just yet,” he said. “But I know that the social emotional piece, I think, across the board that every one of us have said is that we need to make sure that we keep these kids engaged and keep them, we have a way of connecting with them. And there’s going to be, I call them trigger points, to know that there’s never a time when we’re going to let a kid slip through the cracks.”

Board Vice Chairwoman Diana Carpio asked about an arts component.

“It has come up. I can’t say that we have a final solution to this yet,” Valenzisi said. “They basically have done the ability to be part of that culture of the building they are in.”

Board member Sarah LeMieux said she’s taught for a small school during the pandemic, mostly kids with social emotional special needs.

“The social emotional piece, particularly for kids who aren’t typical kids, who might not be neurotypical, or who might not be socially typical, the social emotional piece was frequently easier and more relieving for those kids to participate in a virtual way, which was a little bit of a surprise that then made sense after that,” LeMieux said. “I think, you know, it’s a non-traditional way of doing things. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a deficit for kids for whom it would work.”
LeMiueux, a musician, said, “There are many, many ways to engage with the arts remotely … I feel like it opens so many more doors than it closes, to have that possibility for kids to work in a digital space. And that’s also frequently where so many employment opportunities in the arts are.”

CTMirror reporter Adria Watson contributed to this story.

8 comments

John O'Neill June 18, 2021 at 12:16 pm

Great idea — The children will become more isolated and pay attention less (in my opinion) Are our elected officials trying to completely destroy the next generation of children?
On a positive note, those that are home schooled won’t have to deal with the disrespect and distractions in the physical classroom.
I find it amusing that on one hand officials are pointing out the lack of participation in on-line learning during the pandemic, while actually legislating for it at the same time.
For a group that considers themselves progressive don’t they realize they are actually WIDENING the educational gap NOT closing it!! What a freaking joke!!

ConcernedToo June 19, 2021 at 9:20 am

In the year 2000, around 28% of students did not pass high school. Since then, spurred by No Child Left Behind, it has dropped to around 14%, meaning the number of students not graduating has dropped in half.

Meanwhile, test scores have not increased at all. Each district is constantly reaching for the next thing that will drive another increase in the graduation rate, and that almost always means lowering standards. Looks like the virtual academy is the next step for Norwalk. Obviously, the virtual academy will be a joke. Remote learning usually means remote cheating.

And you know what? To this cynic, it’s fine. The word will go out: if you want an easy path to a diploma, go to the virtual academy! This will hopefully allow the live instruction schools to have higher standards for those who want them. Employers already know that high school diplomas in the US don’t mean as much as they used to, and that’s not something the town of Norwalk can fix – the best thing we can do for our kids is join the race to the bottom, giving away cheap diplomas just like every other urban district is. So why not create a structure that gives students/parents a choice? If you want to learn, go to the actual high school and get live instruction with real standards. If not, opt out and cheat your way to graduation in the virtual academy. Give the people what they want.

Of course, ideally we would have a school system that actually tried to cater to struggling students who want to learn trade skills etc. instead of attempting to force everyone to go to college, but if we’re not going to do that, might as well do the next best thing and just shuttle those students into a shadow school where they can cheat their way to graduation while everyone turns a blind eye.

Bryan Meek June 19, 2021 at 9:27 am

I did my 2nd Masters on line through Uconn. It required a one week residency ethics course, which amongst other things had a heavy emphasis on plagiarism and student conduct. I had a conversation with the Dean of the school at that time asking why they didn’t extend these opportunities to undergraduate students for distance learning. He told me because it would be a total disaster. That a certain level of maturity needs to take place in a general population of students otherwise the cheating and corner cutting would be rampant. Not that there aren’t a smaller portion of self starters that could manage, but overall it would be bad for the student body as a whole. This was just the opinion of someone who has been doing this much, much longer than NPS. In my opinion, anyone can learn on line if they put their mind to it, but I fail to see how isolating a generation of children will help their social emotional well beings.

Niz June 19, 2021 at 10:18 am

This comment spells it out, “… on one hand officials are pointing out the lack of participation in on-line learning during the pandemic, while actually legislating for it at the same time.…”

The Highest Paid Superintendent? June 19, 2021 at 12:24 pm

How can this be? The superintendent and the board of education told everyone that they don’t have enough money to run the schools, but they are now adding a program.

If virtual learning were a resounding success (it isn’t), or even if it has been fairly successful (it hasn’t), I’d say this may be worth funding. This sounds like another shiny object intended to convince everyone that great things are happening, even if they aren’t.

Where is the data to support this decision, or did it result from a random thought storm? Have parents been clamoring for such a program? Has there been a survey to parents and students?
Is there a plan for how the program will work, or will NPS be building a plane that is in the air?
What are the staffing implications? Will this require yet another administrative position? Will it require additional teaching and paraeducator staff? What about clerical support? What about providing special education and multi-language learner supports?
What about counseling and other kinds of support, since we know that students often had significant social and psychological needs during COVID distance learning?
What about participation is interscholastic and intramural athletics?
What about participation in the arts?
What about participation in clubs and in social activities, such as dances?
What about graduation for these students? Will they be graduating from the high schools they would have attended if they had decided to continue in-person learning?
Will the program require equipment?
Will the district provide internet access for families lack it?

DryAsABone June 20, 2021 at 8:52 am

A plethora of lawsuits, down the road. But the powers have decided it is a great idea regarldless of the damage that will be done.

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