Justice & Equity in Norwalk Education Funding

Justice & Equity in Norwalk Education Funding
Posted on 01/09/2020
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The following remarks were presented by Dr. Steven Adamowski, Superintendent of Schools, at the Board of Education budget workshop meeting on Tuesday, January 7, 2020. 

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In our society, talent and intellect distributes itself equally throughout the population, but opportunity does not. Ensuring opportunity through equity is the job of the Board of Education and other leaders of our City who serve as Mayor, members of the City Council and Board of Estimate and Taxation (BET).

According to State verified data, the percentage of high needs students enrolled in Norwalk schools grew in 2018-19 to a historic 66% of enrollment and has grown further in 2019-20. Currently, virtually seven out of 10 students attending our schools are from low-income families, English Language Learners (ELL) or have special learning needs. Many are in two or three high needs categories and require additional support to receive an adequate education. In virtually all cases, reaching a level of achievement at or above average educational attainment in Connecticut for a diverse student body requires a robust, broad-based, differentiated school program of instruction requiring a higher level of expenditure. The percentage of high needs students attending Norwalk schools is now greater when compared to Stamford – 66% vs. 64% - and is expected widen further in 2019-20.

Despite spending less than $1,200 per student annually than Stamford, for the past three years our schools have managed to improve, eking out a level of student performance slightly higher than Stamford’s that has enabled Norwalk to become the highest performing city in the state as measured by Connecticut’s Next Generation Accountability Plan. With greater support from the City of Norwalk, we have managed to be more efficient, working harder and smarter to leverage the public’s investment. This is a credit to our dedicated teaching and support staff at all levels, school leadership, the leadership of our district, and the governance of the Board of Education guided by its Strategic Operating Plan. 

However, we need to recognize that the continuing increase in high needs students coupled with inequity in resources creates an environment where the current relative achievement level of Norwalk students is not sustainable. The greater and growing numbers of high needs students in Norwalk suggests that our schools need resources at a higher level than Stamford. Tonight, I am only asking that Norwalk students receive the same. 

The budget I am recommending for the 2020-21 school year represents an “equity increase” of $14,319,745, or a 7% increase, which is necessary to match the 2018-2019 per pupil expenditure of Stamford, our closest comparison district. 

It should be noted that the current Board of Education and City leadership do not own the “opportunity gap” of Norwalk students. However, it falls to you to close it. Under Mayor Rilling’s leadership, during the past three years, our budget increases have exceeded the state average, and the City has committed to building new schools and renovating those in disrepair. The funding gap our students are still experiencing is historic in nature. Over at least the past 15-20 years, while other communities invested more in their schools and school buildings, Norwalk’s municipal government was concerned with building its unallocated fund balance, aka the Rainy Day Fund, now the largest of any municipality in Connecticut. Compounded growth is tough to catch; however, based on the economic growth of the City, the progress of our schools and the City’s commitment of the past several years, we are finally at a point where justice and equity in education funding is within reach. 

There is another known inequity within our own school system that must be addressed. That is the crisis at Kendall Elementary School.  For several generations of students, Kendall has been Norwalk’s lowest performing school. Eighty-four percent of Kendall students are in the “high needs” category, four out of 10 students are English Language Learners, all are eligible for free lunch.  Kendall became what Pedro Noguera has labeled “the normalization of failure.” The same program, the same time for instruction, the same staff, the same services and achievement, or lack thereof, have existed at Kendall every year. It has become normal. This year we must challenge “the normalization of failure” by the complete redesign of the Kendall school program to include a year-round schedule. The cost of this is a little less than what is currently being spent per-pupil annually at our highest performing school, the Center for Global Studies, a school with only 34% high needs students.

To close the gap of over $3,000 per student, I am recommending the $1,000 per student intra-district magnet supplement for Kendall students in 2020-21 to enable implementation of the year-round schedule. We are confident that the funding necessary to implement all aspects of the redesign, including programs like Singapore Math, Kodaly Music, an additional hour per day of enrichment, and wrap-around social services, will be closed by donor partners and several Fairfield County foundations. However, the allocation for Kendall included in budget goal #4 is the district’s “skin in the game”’ of this important undertaking and is required before others contribute. 

Like John Winthrop’s “City Upon a Hill,” Norwalk is a beacon to those who wish to earn a better life. It is a great place to raise a family. Our schools serve as the engine for achieving the American Dream of going to college for countless children and their families without regard to race, ethnicity or economic status. Our students have demonstrated that given the same opportunities, they will do as well if not better than their homogeneous, economically segregated suburban neighbors. Talent and intellect are distributed equally in every population, opportunity is not; that is our job and that of every Norwalker concerned with justice and equity for our children and the future of the City. I trust that working together, we will ensure that Norwalk students are valued equal to students in other area school districts and their “opportunity gap” can be closed once and for all.