By Lisa Thomson
Red APPLES of Norwalk
NORWALK, Conn. – I attended the Democratic Mayoral Debate on Friday and confess a little disappointment that The Hour asked no specific question regarding the superintendent search or the candidate’s position on reform. While all four identified education as a main priority, more insight was lent to their positions on the driving range at Oak Hills. Because the reputation of our city and property values directly correlates to the quality of our schools, I was a little disappointed.
Many of our students can and do get a good education. Over the past two years, graduates from Brien McMahon and Norwalk High have garnered spots at nationally ranked universities including: Bates, Boston, Bucknell, Carnegie Mellon, Cornell, Colgate, Duke, Elon, Fordham, Georgetown, George Washington, Harvard, Howard, Johns Hopkins, Middlebury, Northeastern, Northwestern, Occidental, Penn State, Princeton, Rice, Skidmore, Smith, St. Lawrence, Tufts, US Air Force Academy, University of California/Berkeley, U-Penn, U- Rochester, USC, Temple, Wake Forest, William and Mary, and many more.
But you know what our students don’t have – a school DISTRICT. The result is inconsistent instruction, when we fail to educate our most vulnerable 47 percent free and reduced lunch students. The perfect storm has been brewing for years. A costly tax structure overly reliant on homeowners, a municipal government paying lip service to reform, and years of individual BoE members, supporting the status quo over student achievement. It’s no wonder we’ve had a half dozen superintendents since Ralph Sloane!
As the current BoE reviews its short-list of superintendent candidates and politicos eye candidates for the fall elections, I’d like to explain 10 reasons why the next superintendent (the highest paid employee in Norwalk) is more important than choosing our next mayor.
1. Change the toxic Culture: Thirty years of experience SHOULD count for something. But when internal political camps short-change students, due to adult power plays, it erodes the reputation of our town and wallets. When advocates seeking change are branded teacher haters, it lends no value to the discussion. Too many have been bullied and washed their hands of the city. This can no longer be tolerated.
2. Insist on Transparency: The shroud of secrecy that dominates Norwalk’s municipal government infiltrated our school system. This must come to an end. One should not need to invoke FOIA measures to gain access to public documents or be chastised for asking questions.
3. Engage students staff and parents: Effective leadership isn’t threatened by outside voices. New state reform measures call for increased parent and student voice to move education forward. Listen to a panel of kids and they’ll set the record straight. The next superintendent needs to embrace this.
4. Repair Norwalk’s weakest link – English Language Arts: Since the 1980s, like the rest of the country, Norwalk fell victim to the watering down of K-8 reading and writing programs. Diagnosing a child’s reading issues early, in K-2 or reinforcing rudimentary skills like vocabulary, grammar and spelling were lost. Students need a rigorous language arts curriculum supported by comprehensive professional development for staff. Trying to fix a struggling student’s reading problem in middle or high school is too late! Norwalk’s 47 percent free and reduced lunch students, and English language learners need intensified instruction at the elementary level.
5. Seek Best Practices: Norwalk’s issues aren’t unique. Across the state and nationwide, 14,000+ districts are struggling to define K-12 in the 21st Century. Only the leafiest zip codes have escaped the turmoil, but even these six-figure households HIRE tutors for their kids! Every competitive nation has longer school days and a more aggressive study calendar than the U.S. Our diverse population would be better served by leadership that looks beyond city limits and seeks best practices, instead of the refrain, “We’ve always done it this way.”
6. Get a handle on Special Ed: Special Ed expenses account for 18 percent of the NPS budget. Or does it? Nobody is sure. Both a line item and embedded in 20 separate budget locations, it was partly the source of the $4 million crisis last year. This needs to be fixed.
7. Collaborate with union leadership but don’t capitulate: One of the most powerful people in Norwalk is the NFT President, who’s successfully capitalized on Norwalk’s political dysfunction over the past two decades. The Vanguard newsletter contributes an atmosphere of fear and antagonism. Superintendents, principals and politicians come and go, but the NFT president remains constant.
8. Review healthcare: Norwalk taxpayers pay ~$28,000 per employee for family healthcare. This is what cannibalizes the classroom. It’s tough to convince taxpayers to pay higher taxes for education, when it really feeds the insurance industry. With premiums increasing each year, how long before it chips away at salary increases? Isn’t it time to pull benefits out from the BoE budget and combine them with the City to gain some economy of scale and ensure that more tax dollars end up in the classroom?
9. Reach out to private funders: The state is broke and homeowners strapped for cash. Waiting for Hartford to send money Norwalk’s way is futile. But corporate funders and foundations WILL invest in cities with a strong leadership team that includes the superintendent, BoE and mayor, supported by a Common Council and union leadership committed to student achievement.
10. Embrace Community Organizations: Norwalk ACTS joined the national STRIVE network, where civic groups and foundations, responsible for Cradle to Career programs have joined forces to align scorecard metrics and local resources to produce better outcomes for kids. The superintendent needs to embrace these outside organizations.
Our school system doesn’t deserve all the flack it gets, but it definitely deserves some. Many children are not realizing their full potential due to adult leadership or lack thereof and it’s impacting the reputation and quality of life in Norwalk. All candidates expressed support for education. I only wished they’d been more specific about reform.
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