Many have said that this will be a challenging budget cycle. I do not disagree, but I do feel that we are looking at the challenges we are facing with the wrong lens. In recent weeks, I have sat in on presentations from both the City and the Norwalk Public Schools (NPS). I have read many emails and studied the budget as if I was going to be tested on these materials.
The Common Council has been called out saying we do not understand the full grasp of the concerns that the school district faces. Personally, I take fault in that because not only am I a member of the Common Council, but I also serve as a community service provider within the schools. It is in both of these roles that my responsibility is to not just address one problem or issue but see how we can juggle a multitude of issues.
I strongly think tactics like, making the public think that the Common Council is not in tune with what the many issues in our schools, are used to pull at the emotions of not only us on the Council but parents around the district, but often those emotional pleas are not grounded in what we as the Common Council can do or offered.
In the joint finance meeting with NPS and the Common Council, we were asked to look at the presentation presented by Positive Direction’s Margaret Watts about the situation students face in the school system around mental health and the support that they need. As a responsible legislator I watched the presentation and then participated in another presentation given to community service providers by the same group. My takeaway is that there is cause for concern around not only mental health but also substance abuse with youth in our city.
But my professional and parental mind is screaming for partnership. At the very core of the argument is that NPS is a system, but I argue it is not a net that has to catch everything! Making sure every student has mastered educational basics is a large enough task.
Historically, public school systems are not made to handle and deal with every problem that arises, and that has not changed. So to aid in this work, why not partner with those who have already established mechanisms to answer the need. Norwalk has a wealth of out of school providers and mental health professionals that on day one through partnership with our school district can give services to students both during school and after. Remember my goal is to be solution oriented not provide a quick band-aid. Many of these services are already provided at the school levels through partnerships and through our Community Services Department. Rather than duplicate these efforts, I am suggesting we work together as a city and a school district to determine the needs and create stronger and more partnerships saving the NPS millions of dollars and letting them focus on getting back to what they are meant, trained and hired to do, teaching our children.
I challenge NPS to build on their partnerships. I am aware of organizations like Kids-in-Crisis, FCA, Child Guidance and others that currently pour into the school but if NPS needs more assistance let’s give it to them through providing more partnerships with other providers. Remember the goal should be to answer the need not just respond to the want, so if the need is answered we all as a community should be happy. This mindset of “only a select few providers can help” is really not answering the needs of our child. We celebrate diversity, why can’t we celebrate the diversity of community providers and what they can offer. When we partner, we do not have to provide benefits and an hourly wage, which lowers the school budget and still allows for those students to get the help they need. The Board of Education should be looking at the process the staff has to go through just to refer a student to providers already connected in the school. That process is long and students should be getting help quickly since NPS has identified this as a real need.
Many people want to talk about the increase or the stagnation of the school budget, but I would encourage us as a community to share services and understand that we do not want to duplicate efforts. We also need to understand that one system cannot and should not handle everything. Partnership is key, cost effective, and will provide our children the help they need. It benefits all of us when the school focuses on education and NPS partners with well skilled providers that have eagerly been waiting to access students in the school. Being sensitive to all citizens I know it can help by having providers in the school. The in-school/out of school connection would really benefit so many more families and many of those providers want to do more. We as a community can handle the challenges of mental health only when we partner together.
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