Good News about Norwalk Public Schools

Good News about Norwalk Public Schools
Posted on 07/10/2017
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Board of Education Chairman Mike Lyons published this OpEd piece in local media on July 5, 2017.

In the news business, controversy always gets top billing.  That’s why if you had been reading the headlines the last couple of months you would have thought that the only things going on in the Norwalk schools was fighting between the Board of Education and the teachers union (now settled), or contemplation of layoffs (thankfully avoided).  Meanwhile, off the front pages, amazing progress has been going on in our schools, and I want to share just some of the highlights with you. 

1.  Central Administration.  This isn’t a very ‘thrilling’ place to start, but creating the infrastructure to allow forward-looking reforms of our schools started here. We have built a very strong leadership team at City Hall.  Starting with Superintendent Steven Adamowski, it includes Chief Academic Officer Michael Conner, Chief Operating Officer Frank Costanzo, Finance Director Tom Hamilton, HR Director Cherese Chery, IT / Innovations Director Ralph Valenzisi, and Communications Director Brenda Wilcox Williams.

2.  Finance / Budgets.  We have completely upgraded our financial operations and technology, have implemented strong internal controls, and have generated budget after budget that have been brought in on target or with surpluses. We have moved forward with Student-Based Budgeting, which has allowed for increased site-based management at our schools. We have finally made progress in bringing our special education (SPED) budget under control after years of massive cost-overruns, and have managed grants to pull in an additional $1.2 million of SPED funding. 

3. Strategic Plan. Year one of our three year Strategic Plan has been successfully completed.  Among objectives achieved (in addition to those covered under the other headings in this article): reorganizing the HR department into a ‘talent management’ organization; implementing the CT K-3 Literacy Initiative in all twelve elementary schools; expanding summer learning opportunities to include grades 4, 11 and 12; piloting the “Khan Academy” model for SAT test preparation for high schoolers; and expansion of our leadership development program to build in-house talent. We are making major progress in our effort to make ours a “choice” school system, this year with the addition of an International Baccalaureate program at BMHS and a New Media program at NHS in conjunction with CPTV.  These follow the NECA Academy at NHS (jointly with NCC and IBM) and the Health Sciences Academy at BMHS.  We are also beginning a major overhaul of our food service operations to improve the nutritional value and taste of food served in our schools.

4.  Special Education.  The three year, $3.6 million SPED rebuilding program (based on the recommendations of the CREC Report) is one year in. Among other accomplishments – opening the Norwalk Early Childhood Center; adoption of updated Special Education and 504 Manuals; addition of Out-of-District Coordinator and Assessment Coordinator positions; successful ‘in-housing’ of High Roads SPED students at Norwalk High and the LEAP program for autistic children at Wolfpit; and creation of a Parent Advisory Group. We are very close to hiring a new SPED Director, and planning is underway for a major initiative for dyslexic children in the next school year. 

5.  Tiered Interventions. To fill the gap between regular and special education, we have added “Tier II / Tier III” interventions to our educational program.  These began with reading and math interventions in Grades 1-5 and Read 180, Math 180 and System 44 in Grades 6-9. These programs provide group and individualized instruction in these core subjects. Norwalk ranked number one in the nation this year for its rate of closing the achievement gap through these programs. 

6.  Middle School Redesign. Year One of Middle School Redesign is finished, and year two will see accelerated change.  This includes 4 x 4 block scheduling in Grade 6 (expanding to Grades 7 & 8 this fall), Tier III supports in Grades 6-8, “Encore” enrichment experiences and the Teach To One math pilot at Nathan Hale.  Norwalk received an award from the International Center for Leadership in Education for its Middle School redesign efforts.

7.  Curriculum.  K through 5 Mathematics and English language curricula have been fully-aligned to the Common Core; grades 6-8 will be implemented this year (other subjects are now undergoing alignment); the number of standardized tests given to students has dropped by over 50%, while new testing (particularly NWEA) is providing during-the-year feedback to allow adjustments of students’ educational programs on an on-going basis. 

8.  School Organization.  School Governance Councils have now become active at all 19 Norwalk schools. These Councils, composed of parents, teachers, principals, community members and (at the high schools) students, make major decisions on school management and budgets, within broad guidelines set by the Board. They are a major step toward greater parental involvement in our schools. The first joint meeting between the SGC Officers and the Board (in June) highlighted the many initiatives already undertaken by the Councils.  The Board also adopted new policies addressing “Bring You Own Devices," non-residents in the schools, home schooling, electronic participation in meetings, and student nutrition. 

9  Facilities. The City of Norwalk approved the Board’s $170 million school improvement plan, which over the next 5 years will build Norwalk’s first new school since 1971 (a K-8 school at the Ely site in South Norwalk), expand Ponus to K-8, and completely rebuild Columbus and Jefferson Schools. The plan also includes $35 million of repairs and upgrade work at all of our other schools.

Not bad for a single year. This work doesn’t generate the headlines, but it’s what is turning Norwalk’s school system into the best urban school system in Connecticut. We’ll keep working on it.