NORWALK, Conn. – An attempt to get parental input on formulating Norwalk Public Schools budget priorities Monday night turned instead into a free-ranging discussion that touched upon racism and special education before landing on the topic of expanding parental involvement.
The last in a series of NPS focus discussion groups to develop priorities in multi-year planning drew only a small group of the usual suspects to Grace Baptist Church as Veterans Day drew to a close, so Superintendent Manny Rivera allowed the group to use the “intimate” gathering to give him an “earful on a bunch of other topics.”
Angela Harrison, a vocal parent who regularly attends Board of Education meetings, talked about school busing being unfair to African American students, calling it a “huge mistake” as the children attend schools with students who are unfamiliar and not part of their neighborhood. Brenda Penn Williams, vice chairwoman of the Democratic Town Committee, said Rivera needs to recruit black teachers, which Carolyn Fuller said is especially necessary for elementary school students.
“I think sometimes these kids need to see people who look like them,” Williams said, drawing comment from West Rocks Middle School Principal Lynne Moore, who said one of the challenges is that hiring happens late because of budget cuts. BOE member-elect Shirley Mosby suggested getting a diversity hiring committee back into place.
Rivera said he didn’t believe the schools have a major recruitment budget but that he was on the same page.
Fuller, who works in special education, also said the identification of special education students needs to happen sooner, that parents are not aware of the issue and the opportunities for help.
“When a teacher has 24 to 25 kids in a room, how is she really going to pick, to see who (needs special ed)?” she asked. “… If they get can individualize some special treatment, these kids can soar, they can really go. It’s just the whole process of getting them into it. Plus I know the budget.”
Rivera said special education is a big issue that has drawn a lot of discussion.
“One of the things that we have to absolutely be certain about … is that he or she is getting the kind of intervention and support that they need. There is a concern and intention on our part to what I call proper intervention,” he said.
He’s been informed of inconsistencies from one school to the next, he said. “I think we need to as a district grapple with the issue of quality control,” he said.
Harrison said sometime black children are put into special education erroneously, and shared news of a study recently completed by Yale University of the Windsor school system, where, she said, well-off black children have not been doing well.
The key, she said the study showed, is parental involvement.
Rivera said that the Rochester, N.Y., chool system, where he was previously superintendent, sent children to a private school that was primarily for students with disabilities. In 2006, its director informed him that “at least 50 percent of the special needs students, who all happened to be black or Latino, never should have been labeled students with special needs.”
The school was very successful, he said, as most students went on to college. That was because the school got the parents involved as part of that educational team.
“These are kids who, if they were left in the system, would have been set up for failure,” Rivera said. “I say that for an example because when I think of parent education and involvement, I’m not thinking about PTOs, I’m not thinking about necessarily parent involvement – I love PTOs, but that’s my level of real meaningful parent involvement is when parents are connected to the school around the education of our children. That is what I would love for us to be able to get at, to connect on a more routine basis with the families, with homes, around parents, in understanding their children, their children’s educational needs and what they can do in the home to support the learning of their children.”