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Opinion: Norwalk schools ‘heading for greatness’

Mike Lyons
Mike Lyons

Mike Lyons is chairman of the Norwalk Board of Education.

The Norwalk Public Schools are heading for greatness. Recent news coverage focused on outsourcing of some custodial services and arguments among some Board of Ed members shouldn’t obscure that reality – our schools are making more progress than they have in decades, and this progress needs to be celebrated. Here are some highlights:

1. The Big Picture.   The Board has adopted an ambitious Strategic Plan that targets reforms for just about every aspect of our school system. Our top goal is eliminating the achievement gap and bringing the overall achievement level of all our students to State Goals (or above) by 2020. Under the creative and highly effective management of our Superintendent, Dr. Manuel Rivera, we believe we can get there.

2. Getting our House in Order. You can’t achieve ambitious reform goals if you don’t have your basic business operations in order. And we’ve put them in order. A few years ago the annual Board budget process was a chaotic frenzy of last-minute actions punctuated by marches on City Hall. Now we’ve gone from running deficits to running surpluses, budgets are planned three years in advance, and a new standard of cooperation has developed between the Board and the Common Council. And the Board budget had the smallest percentage increase of any City department in each of the last two years.

3. Improving Management. Under Dr. Rivera’s leadership, we have greatly strengthened the management of our school system, which in past years had been described as a set of “fiefdoms”, with each school going its own way. Now we have established unified management of finances, human resources, special education, curriculum, and facilities, and Dr. Rivera has appointed top-flight experts to head up these departments.

4. K-5 Literacy – Most education experts have recognized that building literacy skills and knowledge in early grades is the key to success for our children throughout their entire school experience. We are now implementing, this fall, the most extensive effort to improve our children’s language abilities in Norwalk’s history. It includes entirely new books and other reading materials, online resources, and the appointment of Curriculum and Instruction experts at every one of our elementary schools. Along with this, the Board is working with the teachers union on an exciting program called Literacy 4 Parents 4 Children, to help parents help their children with reading at home.

5. Curriculum – We are one of the first school systems in Connecticut to fully implement Common Core-compliant mathematics and English curricula from K-12. Social Studies and Science will be the next curricular updates, coming soon.

6. School Security and Safety. We are in the midst of making $2.6 million in school security improvements throughout our system, and we now have school resource officers from the Norwalk Police Department assigned to all high and middle schools, with rotating coverage for elementary schools. We’ve also implemented new communications systems so we can reach parents by text and email to alert them of any incidents at their children’s schools.

7. Expanding the Range. We no longer view our mission as K-12 education alone. In cooperation with Norwalk ACTS and other organizations, we are working on integrating after school programs, Pre-K, and post-high-school education into our offerings. This year we started our “P-Tech Academy” at Norwalk High School, jointly with IBM and Norwalk Community College, to provide a combined 6-year program for students in high technology.

8. Metrics. It’s great to have goals, but we need to make sure that we have measurable deliverables and metrics to track what we’re doing and allow course changes when needed. Such metrics are now being put in place throughout the system, starting with Dr. Rivera himself, who has proposed to the Board metrics by which his own performance can be measured (based on grade K-3 literacy measures, achievement gap test score measures, readiness of middle school children for high school mathematics, and others). This year we will also implement the new teacher and principal evaluation systems that for the first time will weigh such evaluations 45% on the basis of student test results.

For much more detailed information, please visit our revamped website. We think you’ll like what you see.

Comments

24 responses to “Opinion: Norwalk schools ‘heading for greatness’”

  1. MODERN MAN

    Hi Mike,

    You mentioned that budgets are planned three years in advance. Does this mean that the recent net surplus of 2.9 million dollars resulted from a budget planned while Susan Marx was superintendent?

  2. Taxpayer Fatigue

    The city’s budget, excluding the BOE, increased 2.557% or $3,955,205 while the BOE’s budget increased 2.563% or $4,159,001 for 14/15 over 13/14. While the city’s budget increase is slightly lower on a percentage basis, I’d still call it a tie. I certainly wouldn’t be saying that the BOE’s increase is smaller because it isn’t. Given that the BOE’s budget is $166.4M and all of the rest of the City’s budget is $151.1M, comparing the BOE to any of the individual departments within the city’s budget makes no sense – it is just masking the truth of the magnitude of the increases in our taxes due to the budget increase. Half of our increase in taxes this year is directly attributable to the BOE’s budget increase. It is fair for some of the savings to be re-invested in our schools, but it is also fair that some of this money go back to taxpayers, at least in the form of less of an increase for 2015/16.

    We need to see dramatic improvement of test scores in the next few years that warrants all of the investments we are making. The reality is that people make real estate investment decisions based on a particular area, so comparing Norwalk’s test scores to New Britain, New Haven and Bridgeport, is just parsing data to make us all feel better. Unfortunately, people compare us to New Canaan, Westport, Darien and yes, Stamford. Norwalk’s test scores need to be at least in the high 80 percentile range if not the 90 percentile – to have any real impact on property values. At least we are starting to lead Stamford. It is great to see the BOE start talking about Metrics – measuring actual results instead of just talking about how wonderful everything is.

  3. Mike Lyons

    Modern, our first three-year budget was adopted last year, after Dr. Marks departed.

  4. MODERN MAN

    Mike

    Could you please answer my question ? Do you have a problem with that ?

  5. Mike Lyons

    Modern, I did answer your question, it is posted right above your ‘problem with that’ post (?).

  6. Mike Lyons

    Fatigue, my statement that the BoE’s percentage budget increase was lower this year than other City departments was accurate. Our increase this year was 2.56%; by contrast the Fire Department increase was 8.36%, Police increase was 3.61%, Public Works 4.89%, Recreation and Parks 8.02%.
    .
    Overall the BoE budget went up $4,159,001. The City budget increase appeared smaller than that, but the City budget increase was offset by $1,744,302 transferred to the City by the BoE as we paid off our insurance debt ahead of schedule. If you exclude that prepayment offset by the BoE to the City, you get the actual increase in City spending – $5,699,507, or 3.92% – higher than the BoE increase, as I have stated.
    .
    We have reduced the rate of BoE budget increases from its historic 4.5% to 2.56%, through looking at every avenue to cut costs (e.g., custodial work outsourcing, better use of technology, energy efficiencies), looking at alternative revenue sources (private grants) and, yes, spending money intelligently. The biggest chunk of money in our spending proposal for the surplus is for bringing special education students back into the schools — a plan that could save us millions of dollars a year (Norwalk spends $6.2 million on out of district tuition while Danbury pays $2.88 million for a similar SPED population each year). Now we COULD ‘turn that $1 million back to the taxpayers’ this year — and keep taxing them for that extra $3.3 million per year indefinitely. Or we could try to spend the $1 million to solve the problem — and save the taxpayers that $3.3 million per year. I’d prefer the latter approach.

  7. MODERN MAN

    Mike

    You did not answer my question posted at 6:29 pm.

    A simple “yes” or “no” will easily do the job.

  8. Taxpayer Fatigue

    Thanks for clarifying your numbers. The special ed spending proposal – is that part of next years increase or is that what you want to do with the savings you found? So we spend the $1m additional and immediately save $3.3M per year, and will that be used to offset the annual budget hikes or spent on something else?

  9. Mike Lyons

    Modern, my response was posted at 8:36 pm, noting that we did our first 3-year budget after Dr. Marks left.

  10. Mike Lyons

    This is getting fatiguing … Fatigue, I can’t guarantee the savings will occur instantly, and apparently anything short of perfection will not satisfy you.

  11. Lisa Thomson

    Modern Man: I believe this savings comes from delayed hires, insurance and spending freezes. It’s amazing how it adds up very quickly. You have a point about former superintendent Dr. Marks. She hired COO Elio Longo, who uncovered the $4 insurance debacle and the road to BOE financial reform began. Under Dr. Rivera’s ‘national recognized’ leadership and mangement, coupled with CFO Rich Rudl’s financial acumen, NPSs finances are now pretty transparent, compared to years past. That’s a good thing for everybody!

  12. Taxpayer Fatigue

    Well, we are currently spending over $160M per year for mediocre schools…sorry I guess it is just unrealistic to expect improvements in test scores, reasonable taxes and improved property values – oh yeah, it’s Norwalk, our expectations should automatically be low. Sounds like things are being teed up for a large increase in school spending in the 15/16 budget, with the promise of some distant, immeasurable savings. Sorry to be a wet blanket – I do appreciate the direction we are finally moving in with our schools, but I like many others, are fed up with high property taxes, low real estate values and mediocre to bad test score from our expensive school system. When the BOE repaid the “insurance loan”, at least the city applied it to the budget to mitigate cost increases…

  13. Jody Sattler

    Taxpayer Fatigue: Please do not refer to our schools as mediocre. It is insulting to the students who attend the schools, the staff who runs the schools and the parents who believe in Norwalk Public Schools. I did not send my kids out the door today to attend a “mediocre” school. Also, you always refer to the “bad” test scores on your postings but you never say which specific tests. It’s easy to give generalized criticism of the schools but much harder to step up and provide ideas. Its even easier to criticize when you hide behind an anonymous name.

  14. Mrs. L.

    “The biggest chunk of money in our spending proposal for the surplus is for bringing special education students back into the schools — a plan that (could) save us millions of dollars a year.” (COULD)? How about (WILL) save booko millions of wasted dollars to (for profits). And what is missing in this equation, is the actual SPED students. Outsourcing education for special needs students has always been a major drain to the wallet and has always been contradictory to the best interests of the students. Some bussed students go all the way to New Haven, spending valuable classroom time, as much as 20 hours a week looking out the window at bumper to bumper traffic. Meanwhile the transportation vendor as well as the education vendors all rack up substantial profits, year after year after year. It’s a horrible and extremely costly policy that results do not support and one that should have ceased years ago. Dr Rivera’s common sense, see the problem, roll up the sleeves and fix the problem management skills are having effect. Regardless of the romper room antics from, (all), our elected board members, Dr Rivera marches forward. It is good Mr. Lyons, every other week, points out the movement forward, however, it often comes across more as egotistical gloating than celebrating accomplishments be they large or small steps forward. Instead of gloating opeds, spiced with hidden personal attacks, how about some performance metrics for the board? Perhaps quarterly board performance enhancing workshops will be of benefit.A more informed board with professional working relationships surely will benefit all students and staff.

  15. David

    Mike: The problem you’re having is that you are trying to argue objective vs. subjective. The BOE and our educators are presenting facts and figures by which we are measuring progress. Three year budgets and benchmarks by which Dr. Rivera is holding himself accountable are great examples of that. When people push back against that, they use subjective statements, like taxes are “too high”, property values are “too low”, we “pay too much”, public schools are “expensive” or even “disastrous” as I’ve heard used in the past. All of those statements could be quantified objectively, if some time and thought were put into it, but they’re not.
    .
    So, let me also speak subjectively, while we’re at it. A few years ago, education in this city was in turmoil. Protests outside of city hall united parents from every district to rail against budget cuts. Acrimony within the BOE was go great, there needed to be a civility code enacted!
    .
    It was at that time my wife and I decided there was no future for us in this city. Don’t get me wrong, we love Norwalk, we love living in a city, our friends are here, but our childrens education are priorities 1 thru 10 on our list. We had friends who were of the same mind. We just didn’t think that Norwalk cared about education. It was an expense item, not an investment.
    .
    Now, I feel it was darkest before the dawn. The P-Tech academy *alone* is worth staying in this city for. You think IT jobs are in demand and high paying now? Just wait 10 years. P-Tech is the kind of initiative you build economies around. We have a working Common Core system, while other municipalities are still trying to get up and running. Common core is *vital* to the future work skills of our children, who will be competing ever more in a global economy.
    .
    And you know what else my children get in Norwalk’s public schools? Diversity. You talk to any Fortune 500 CEO and they’ll tell you, in a global world, relating to people who are not you, do not come from your background, is an essential skill. You can’t teach it and you can’t “buy” it in a school system that doesn’t already have diversity.
    .
    Work to do? Absolutely. I hope we’re never satisfied, I hope we always aim higher, demand more of ourselves. But the path we’re on is one that offers hope and optimism that we can continue to be a part of the Norwalk community for many years to come. Please, as a parent of children in the public schools, keep up the good work, keep moving forward and upward.

  16. MarjorieM

    Mike, how about the details? There is no CMT anymore. Now can Rivera possibly show achievement in literacy and mathematics without a state-wide test? Many Rivera inherited the Golden Ticket when he became Norwalk’s superintendent. No one can possibly state anything legitimate about achievement without a form of state testing over a period of tat least hree years.

    Furthermore, why not state the truth about who put the three year budget into place? I think it was Daddona as Acting Superintendent. At least give credit where credit is due.

    Also, there are many questions about the six year program, the P-tech Academy. It will take time to see if this really works. A friend in Stamford told me that Norwalk was asked to participate after Stamford turned it down.

    As for the excess funds in the budget, Lisa T, the self proclaimed “expert”, a competent CFO knows about monies accumulating through the year. I’m curious, did the Priority School grants wind up with additional funds? Or did they watch for accumulating funds?

  17. Taxpayer Fatigue

    Not my intent to be insulting – overall test scores in the 60s and 70s to me are mediocre at best. New Canaan, Westport, Wilton, Darien scores all seem to be in the high 90s. There are many good points to our schools but the bottom line is test scores. Ask any real estate agent trying to sell property in Norwalk right now.

  18. MODERN MAN

    Thank you MarjorieM. I wasn’t sure if it was Superintendent Marks or the Acting Superintendent Daddona that oversaw the budget that resulted in the $ 2.9 million surplus. The purpose of my original question was as you say, to give credit where credit is due. Lighten up Mike. I’m on your side.

  19. Mike Lyons

    OK, a few fact checks.
    .
    Marj — First — there are a whole pile of standardized tests we use routinely with kids beyond the CMT — I’m amazed that an expert like you is unaware of these. Along with the SBAC state tests, we will be using DIBELS, TRC and others (you’re an expert, so I don’t have to explain the acronyms). We’ll also be using non-test measures of achievement, such as credits achieved in mathematics and English, gap measures between majority and minority students, etc. I’ll send the report listing all the various metrics we’ll be using to Nancy so she can link it.
    .
    Second — Daddona did NOT put the first three-year budget in place; we adopted it this May, 9 months after Dr. Rivera took office. Tony deserves a lot of credit for steering us through the budgetary crisis of 2012, but I don’t understand this repeated effort of yours to re-write history and give him credit for a budgetary improvement (3-year budgeting) he didn’t implement.
    .
    Your “friend” seems a less reliable source on how we were chosen for P-Tech than the governor, education commissioner and NCC President, all of whom say we were the first choice from the get-go. An un-named source referenced by a person using a screen name shouldn’t carry much weight. Name names, or drop this one.
    .
    And of course it will take time to see if P-Tech succeeds (though it has succeeded elsewhere). How will we know if any efforts to improve education will work without trying them?
    .
    Fatigue, if we switched the teachers en masse from New Canaan into Norwalk and Norwalk into New Canaan, would our scores suddenly go into the ’90’s? Would New Canaan’s drop into the ’70’s? Come on. I suspect that the Norwalk teachers, having learned their craft in an environment not full of privileged children of the wealthy, would do much better in New Canaan than New Canaan teachers would do in Norwalk. Comparing the school scores without considering the socioeconomics is ridiculous.
    .
    Modern Man, I’m glad you’re on my side. But Marks and Daddona didn’t do the surplus budget, Rivera and Rudl did. Facts are facts.

  20. Mike Lyons

    David, thanks.

  21. Jody Sattler

    Taxpayer Fatigure – I disagree, the bottom line is not test scores. You cannot compare our student population with the student population in New Canaan, Westport, Wilton and Darien. Most of those towns do not have enough students that qualify for free and reduced lunch to create a comparison ranking with the state. They have one category of students and you are unfairly comparing students of different socio economic standings when you expect the test scores to be equal. Choosing Norwalk Public Schools means you are expecting classrooms full of different types of students. The district polled parents two years ago and asked what qualities of NPS that are important, the number one answer was diversity.

  22. Bill

    Cheers to Mike Lyons for putting students first and giving the district a surplus. You are to be commended good sir. Hopefully our test scores will continue to improve.

  23. Kathleen Montgomery

    @MarjorieM: “Now (guessing you mean “how”) can Rivera possibly show achievement in literacy and mathematics without a state-wide test?”

    I call your attention to the new and improve NSD website at http://norwalkps.org that contains the testing schedule for the Smarter Balanced Assessments that include Grades 3-8 and 11 ELA/Literacy & Mathematics, the Connecticut Mastery Test Science (CMT) for Grades 5 and 8

and the Connecticut Academic Performance Test (CAPT) for Grade 10. More information about these tests are just a click away. Plus, as Mike pointed out, there is a slue of other standardized tests given to Norwalk students. Data-driven instruction is alive and well in the District.

    Also, click on Curriculum in the pull down menus for District Improvement Plans and School Growth Plans. You will see that the data from these tests are being used to inform instruction with the goal of improving student achievement. This is the primary reason state, district, or school standardized tests are given. I guarantee that Dr. Rivera knows how to use the data from these standardized tests to move Norwalk forward.

  24. Former Norwalk Mom

    A few comments:

    1) Your point (below) is well taken, but does not align with the recent federal mandate that all states must have a plan to distribute teachers. The Race to the Top logic is that low performing districts are suffering from poor teachers, and states must figure out to re-distribute teachers to ensure teacher equity and improve test scores. How will Norwalk handle this?

    “Fatigue, if we switched the teachers en masse from New Canaan into Norwalk and Norwalk into New Canaan, would our scores suddenly go into the ’90’s? Would New Canaan’s drop into the ’70’s? Come on. I suspect that the Norwalk teachers, having learned their craft in an environment not full of privileged children of the wealthy, would do much better in New Canaan than New Canaan teachers would do in Norwalk. Comparing the school scores without considering the socioeconomics is ridiculous.

    2) Amplify’s mClass software is what will be used for the students as part of the literacy program. Are parents aware of the data that will be collected on their children? Has the district complied with the federal COPPA rule which requires explicit parental consent for online programs of this nature?

    3) Are you aware that the Common Core aligned math products (like Investigations) have caused a drop in scores in neighboring towns? Common Core math practices in the earlier grades create a deficiency in student learning. I would highly suggest investigating area towns who adopted years ago, and whose parents supplement with tutors, and budgets have funded math specialists all while SAT scores have declined, Advanced math classes have been eliminated, and CMT Math scores have not kept pace with other towns who were not using it?

    4) Are you aware the SBAC test predicts that only 30-40% of the students taking it will pass? Is Norwalk planning to “teach to the test” by remediating students despite the fact that the test has not been validated as a reliable test instrument?

    I have high hopes for Norwalk. I do hope the flaws of Common Core are being honestly addressed, the data gathering on students being disclosed and the testing implications being considered.

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