NORWALK, Conn. – When the Ponus Middle School expansion/renovation is complete this year, it will be short of space to seat the expected students.
Norwalk Public Schools is talking about installing two portables on the campus in what Norwalk Superintendent of Schools Steven Adamowski referred to as an “almost permanent” solution to the shortage. Additionally, district-wide enrollment growth may scotch the plans to turn the Chestnut Street school into an International Baccalaureate K-5 Academy.
The Ponus expansion into a K-8 magnet school marked Norwalk’s first new school construction in more than 40 years. It’s the first success in a facilities plan inspired by a shortage of 900 seats and the desire to eliminate the notorious portable classrooms at Jefferson Elementary.
In a complicated domino scheme, Norwalk had planned to build two new schools simultaneously and then shift students into them so that two existing schools could be renovated into an as-new condition. Unfortunately, work on the planned South Norwalk magnet school behind the Nathaniel Ely preschool center has been held up by an open space issue. So, the planned-for new seats have not materialized. And the Chestnut Street school construction is also delayed for years.
Portables have been a topic at two Board of Education meetings recently. The Jefferson students are expected to move into the new Ponus wing in September but there’s 500 of them and the new wing only has space for 450, Adamowski said.
Adamowski recently announced, as part of an enrollment report, that three of Norwalk’s four middle schools are overcrowded. That will continue until the South Norwalk/Ely school is built and provides 200 middle school seats, he said Tuesday.
“So, under those circumstances, we’re going to need more or less a permanent solution on the Ponus campus for at least two additional classrooms than what we have now or what was planned,” he said. “That’s an indicator of growth we’re experiencing.”
Norwalk is said to be the only community in the state with a growing school population.
Finance Committee Chairwoman Barbara Meyer-Mitchell asked if the music and art programs could be taught off a cart, so that their classrooms could be used instead of portables.
“We’ve already done that, we’re still two classrooms short, and that’s with relocating the preschools also,” Adamowski replied.
NPS is looking for an alternative site for the Jefferson preschool, Chief Academic Officer Brenda Myers reported.
Meyer-Mitchell asked if students could go to Naramake Elementary School.
“They don’t have to have two empty classrooms,” Adamowski replied.
She had asked last week if they could go to Wolfpit. The Special Education department is using extra space at Wolfpit, NPS Chief Financial Officer Thomas Hamilton informed her.
“It’s just so disappointing because the whole goal of this is to get those children out of the portables,” she said.
When Jefferson is renovated and the students move back in – two years from September – the school’s enrollment will drop to 450 because some of the students will opt into the Ponus program, Adamowski said Tuesday. Ponus’ population overall will include 200 students from the Jefferson area.
“There’s a lot of misunderstanding regarding the Jefferson attendance area, because we don’t have a school in South Norwalk,” Adamowski said, explaining that children who live between the current Columbus Magnet School and Interstate 95 are bused to Jefferson. Even the kids who live in the King-Kennedy complex next to Columbus are bused to Jefferson.
Some of these problems will be solved when Columbus, a.k.a. the Chestnut Street school, is renovated, he said. But, “The reason why we feel we will need these two additional classrooms almost permanently is the fact that the minute Jefferson moves out, Ponus is over enrolled by two classrooms.”
Other options have been exhausted, Adamowski asserted. NPS investigated renting classrooms in three other locations but they needed too much work and it wouldn’t be done when the students need to move in.
Building and Facilities Manager Alan Lo said last week that there are other costs to moving the students elsewhere, such as busing and nursing staff.
Hopefully, progress will be made on the South Norwalk schools, BoE Chairwoman Sarah LeMieux said. “If I were a fairy with a magic wand, I would also make the new Chestnut Street school K-8.”
There’s been controversy over whether the school should be demolished in favor of new construction or renovated into an as-new condition. Either way, you could add to the footprint and create middle school seats, she said.
“That may be necessary,” Adamowski replied, acknowledging that his dream of an IB school may not come to fruition. “Again, things change, and you may need to revisit that in terms of grade configuration and program.”
“For sure,” LeMieux agreed. “A neighborhood school would be amazing.”