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Norwalk Schools: Clustering will benefit all

Annie Zelm • Apr 8, 2011 at 9:07 AM

When Norwalk Schools started talks last spring about re-grouping the elementary schools by grade level, the focus was on improving education.

The cost savings seemed like a nice bonus.

Now, with the district standing to lose about $1.8 million in state funding, the $500,000 it expects to save with a proposed clustering plan is impossible to overlook.

"If ever there's a time we need to be efficient, economize and pull things together, this is the time," superintendent Dennis Doughty said Thursday at a special board meeting.

A dozen district administrators attended the meeting to discuss some of the concerns that about 100 parents and teachers expressed during last week's forum outlining the proposal.

The plan: Instead of having students scattered among three elementary schools, they'd be placed by grade level.

Preschoolers, kindergartners and first-graders would be combined into Maplehurst Elementary School, while second- and third-graders would be moved to Pleasant Elementary School. League Elementary would house all fourth-graders.

School officials say it will allow the district to make better use of its resources.

Much of the savings could come when at least five retiring staffers won't be replaced, including one building administrator who will no longer be needed.

Still, the plan could mean at least a few other layoffs, though details haven't been released.

Parents are worried the frequent transitions will affect their children, who will have to adjust to a total of six new schools from kindergarten through 12th grade.

Some would have to drop off and pick up their children at three separate schools, so transportation remains an issue.

Administrators said the district should be able to get students to and from school without adding any buses. They're considering adding an in-town shuttle to handle more kids with fewer stops, though they're still addressing parents' safety concerns.

Apart from all this, a common theme has resonated among parents: If it's not broke, why fix it?

Janet Broz said it seems the plan is unpopular among parents and teachers.

"About 80 percent of people I've heard from say 'No way,'" Broz said. "The other 20 percent say, 'I'll live with it.'"

But League Elementary School principal Corey Ream said the district is already starting to lag behind in student achievement on test scores, even though it received an "excellent" rating.

The plan would make it easier for teachers to boost student success with a team approach by grade level, he said.

Pleasant Elementary principal Janice Smith said it would also promote unity.

"Because the students would all advance together in K-12, they'd be able to form stronger friendships," she said.

Doughty said he expects the board to make a decision by the end of the month.

The plan could be implemented by fall.

If the district doesn't act soon, it could continue to fall behind as the state raises the bar for student achievement, Doughty said.

And without new taxes, there's no other practical option for balancing the budget, he said.

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