Nearly everyone in Norwalk is fully aware, I have no doubt, of the new Middle School Choice program that has been announced for the 2023-24 school year. This piece aims to consolidate some of the valid arguments already thrown about on social media and beyond.
For starters, NPS states:
"Middle School Choice is an opportunity for students entering Norwalk’s middle schools to choose a choice program that closely fits their interests. Each program will allow students to explore further their interests and help them decide what they want to pursue in high school."
On the surface I don't think many people are against the idea of empowering children and their families; allowing kids with unique, defined interests - developed at an early age - to pursue these in depth at school. This is why people go to arts school, or trade schools, or delay (or opt out of) college to enter an apprenticeship.
The issue lies more deeply in the NPS FAQs:
"If a family wants their child to attend the middle school closest to their family home, the student must rank the choice program at that school as their top choices on the application. This will not guarantee them a spot at that school, but it will give them the best opportunity to be placed at that school."
This implies, quite explicitly, that there is no clear preference given to those that want to continue their schooling in what has traditionally been designated as their neighborhood school. This is what's gotten everyone all wound up.
There are a few very valid reasons for concern I think are worth mentioning:
Communication. While I appreciate the need to efficiently make hard policy decisions and consolidate items for expediency, particularly in this political climate, this policy change is much too substantial to let slip through. While aspects of this policy proposal made it into a March meeting of the BOE, it was hardly as encompassing as what we're reading currently. This needed a public forum to discuss ideas and vet options in a setting where we were brainstorming as a community, not reacting to a decision.
Stability; friend cohorts and the post-Covid impact. I have seen first hand, as likely all parents have, the intense, and at times desperate, need for stability our kids have made evident throughout the pandemic. We were forced, by pandemic and policy, to make incredibly difficult decisions about our families, our relationships, our jobs, and our mundane day-to-days in ways we never had to face as kids. Our kids and their friendships have been critical to whatever social-emotional stability they could muster during this time. This is true in pandemic times and not. Risking those by not offering some predictability in their ability to continue these school friendships, is worrisome at best.
Logistics; domestic and citywide. A month into the school year and some schools are still facing bussing issues, whether they're related to routes, road work, or the fact that Norwalk doesn't own their busses. Data and traffic studies aside, as a practical matter (and considering current fixed issues as they are), it is hard to imagine a system by which the entire district's middle schoolers zig-zagging across the city runs smoothly. In fact, there is existing evidence that the district will not be able to muster a system that doesn't create a domino effect that leads to an exasperation of issues that severely squeeze family morning and evening times, not to mention the dozens of after school extracurriculars. Because of this, it's easy to imagine stressors that directly impact a child's education and well-being.
What did you know about your future when you were 10 or 11? Listen, I think exposure to unique programming is wonderful. I really do. But from a personal standpoint, I am skeptical that a fifth grader is fully prepared to pick a focus such that their entire middle school selection, and subsequent three years, hinges on it. And, if that doesn't work out, it's easy to imagine the chaos of a now sixth grader trying to figure out what to change to. Ultimately, if you have a kid with a unique interest - say performing arts - and don't get into West Rocks' program, then where does that leave you? Just getting whatever is next on the list, which is supremely counter to the perks of a choice system.
The solution here is: let choice be an option, but guarantee a spot at their currently assigned neighborhood school. Give kids a chance to stay with their friends, for parents to keep their carpools and bonds with their school-friend families, and for the logistics of the day-to-day to be predictable and routine. But, likewise, give kids with unique interests and gifts a chance to pursue those in their middle school years in hopes that it'll capture their true sense of self and carry them into wherever their dreams take them. This is truly a choice system.
I don't know how the logistics work. I really don't. That's above my pay grade and purview. But, I can say that the logistics are a bit of a boondoggle either way: fully choice or choice-choice - both require thoughtful discussion, logistical agreements, and experimentation. Wherever this goes, I hope NPS and the city undertake this conscientiously. I'd like to be confident in that.
In the end, as this is a lottery, I'm going to play the betting man tact here and say that NPS sees the light. As someone who routinely tries to support public schools, I hope NPS follows the cardinal rose here. Norwalk doesn't unite much behind education-related issues, but they seem to have done so on this one. A blind squirrel gets a nut once in a while.