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Chalk Talk: School Choice Means More Options for Middle School Students

by Roz McCarthy

When my now 48-year old son was about to enter kindergarten in Norwalk, Columbus Magnet School (now CMS) was brand new. I knew my son hated rote learning (still does); I knew he hated being told what he had to do (still does). Columbus, with its more hands-on, student- centered philosophy seemed like a great fit. It was.

When my third child was about to enter middle school, I knew that he would do better in a smaller, more-community oriented school than the one he was assigned to. Because a friend offered to babysit for him after school, he was able to attend Roton Middle School as an out-of- district student. It was a good choice.

As a parent, I chose my children’s school to match their learning needs. For the first time, the Norwalk Public Schools will enable 5th grade parents to exercise this type of choice. All children will be assigned to a middle school based on the elementary school they attend, as has been the practice for at least 60 years. However, if parents choose to send their child to a different school, transportation will be provided.

It’s not that special classes will be offered at each school; instead, each school will have a different emphasis and approach. As a result, students can follow their interests, continue their learning from the magnet elementary programs, and prepare themselves for the choices available at the high schools.

Different Approaches Integrated into Core Curriculum “Each middle school has been positioned to provide a specialized slant in terms of learning opportunities,” said Eric Jackson, Principal of Nathan Hale Middle School.

These “slants” are already being integrated into the curriculums of the schools.

Ponus Ridge STEAM Academy has been working since 2019 to create units in which core subjects – math, Language Arts, social studies – are integrated with science and the arts.

For example, studying natural disasters is a unit for some 7th graders. They learn the science of hurricanes and storms, they learn to measure storms in math, they research and write about how storms impact communities, and in art they create pamphlets about storms. At the end of the unit, students make presentations to a panel of experts in the field.

“During these units, STEAM is integrated into their learning across all their classes,” said Damon Lewis, Principal of Ponus Ridge. “In the STEAM units, all the teachers work together.” This year Lewis was able to hire a STEAM coordinator who will help create more integrated units.

Choices to Align with High School Programs School choice means parents will be able to choose middle schools to align with programs already available at the high schools. Two schools, Nathan Hale and Roton, will integrate the International Baccalaureate program into their curriculum.

IB is an international program with rigorous global standards designed to create learners who are inquiring, knowledgeable, and caring.

But students at these schools will not have to choose IB classes; both principals emphasized that it will be IB for all.

“Once you become a Roton student, you’ll be engaged in the IB process,” said Roton Principal Edward Singleton. He said the global emphasis of IB works well with his current curriculum that offers Japanese, Chinese, Spanish and French.

“IB will be intentionally integrated into the curriculum,” said Nathan Hale Principal Eric Jackson. “All students will gain global awareness through project-based learning. We’ll have monthly assemblies to focus on one of the qualities of an IB learner.” Last month, he said, they focused on open-mindedness in an assembly and in the classroom.

At the high school level, students can currently choose IB at Brien McMahon and, in the future, at Norwalk High School.

Similarly, West Rocks Middle School is developing a marine science pathway. Students will not be taking specialized classes; rather a partnership with the Maritime Aquarium will enable all students to have hands-on learning at the Aquarium in addition to classroom lessons.

“That’s the model,” Adam Reynolds, Principal of West Rocks, said. “Create a community partnership, integrate learning into the classrooms, and create authentic learning experiences.” Currently, there is a marine science pathway at Brien McMahon HS that students can choose to attend if the love of marine life is sparked at West Rocks.

Reynolds is following that same model to integrate the visual and performing arts into the curriculum. “We’ll be looking to form a bond with a community partner, have trips to theaters, increase the number of school performances, and provide authentic learning in the classroom,” he said. Norwalk High School has a number of pathways devoted to the arts as part of its offerings.

Choices that Align with Elementary School Programs

School choice means parents will be able to choose middle schools that have programs similar to the magnet elementary schools, even if their child has not attended a magnet school.

Nathan Hale has been integrating the arts into their curriculum, much as Wolfpit Arts Magnet School does. An Arts Integration Coach has been working with teachers to use the arts to improve understanding and make learning more active. “I’ve seen lots of pantomime in science as they act out the earth’s rotation,” said Jackson. “In social studies, kids created a choose- your-own-adventure drama about migrating to a larger city.”

He said that more than 100 students were in the fall play and spring musical. “The arts,” he said, “are alive and well at Nathan Hale.”

All Wolfpit students will be assigned to attend Nathan Hale unless they choose to go elsewhere, but now Nathan Hale could be a choice for students from all parts of Norwalk.

West Rocks Middle School will continue to expand the dual-language program it currently houses. Since Silvermine Dual-Language Magnet School feeds into West Rocks, those students will be assigned to the West Rocks program to continue their language learning.

And, finally, Concord Magnet School (CMS) has had a middle school program for a few years. With the move into a new building next to Ponus Ridge STEAM Academy, CMS will increase the number of kids in their program. “Our small school has a strong sense of community, it’s intimate, and it takes the fear out of making mistakes,” said Principal Medard Thomas. “Our subjects are woven together. It’s progressive, hands-on, and subjects are integrated together.”

All CMS students can choose to continue into the middle school program, but other parents can choose to have their child attend this school as well.

Next Steps Some parents became alarmed when it looked like everyone was going to have to make a choice for next year, but the issue was clarified at a Town Hall meeting on October 3. All children will be assigned to middle school based on which elementary school they attend. However, students can choose to go to a different school and transportation will be provided.

“It’s going to be great,” said West Rocks Principal Reynolds. “We will have bumps on the road. You think through as best you can, plan accordingly, and adjust as you go along.”

Information sessions are being planned at the Family Center for October 11, 19, and 26. A fair is being planned for October 13. Parents must put in an application to enter a lottery if they wish to choose a middle school for their child. For more information, see the Norwalk Public School website.

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