South Norwalk school may be built one class at a time

Norwalk Public Schools could consider using the current Columbus Magnet School to start the South Norwalk neighborhood school while it waits for a new building to be constructed.

Norwalk Public Schools could consider using the current Columbus Magnet School to start the South Norwalk neighborhood school while it waits for a new building to be constructed.

Erik Trautmann / Hearst Connecticut Media

NORWALK — The incoming class of kindergartners in South Norwalk could usher in their community’s first neighborhood school in over 40 years.

If plans move ahead for a new neighborhood school in South Norwalk, the first students in the school would be kindergartners entering the district. Students currently attending schools in other parts of the district would not be relocated nor would their younger siblings.

“It’s not a good practice to start a new school and fill all the grades at once because it doesn’t allow the school to build culture,” Superintendent Alexandra Estrella told Board of Education members during their meeting on Tuesday.

Instead, Estrella told the board one of the things they would need to consider is whether to start incubating the South Norwalk school at the current Columbus Magnet School building or wait until a new school building is built somewhere else in the proposed South Norwalk zone, presented during the meeting by Michael Zuba, the director of planning for Milone & MacBroom, Inc.

“By incubating the school for the first few grades while the building is being built, it allows the school to start building its character and, when they transition over, it allows us to not have an empty building for a number of years until the building reaches capacity,” Estrella said.

Zuba added the phased-in approach would also reduce the impact of having to redistrict students with the creation of a new school zone.

Zuba and Estrella presented to the board the eighth iteration of planning scenarios that have been in discussion for almost a year. The objective of the scenarios is to enhance equity for South Norwalk students, improve community and family access to neighborhood schools, and increase opportunities and access to preschoolers.

To meet those objectives, the district is looking to eliminate the unassigned and satellite attendance areas in the South Norwalk neighborhood, provide educational options within the neighborhood, achieve enrollment balance at each grade level, and provide a pre-K option at every elementary school.

Zuba gave the example that students living within a quarter mile stretch of the unassigned area along South Main Street “are going five, six, seven or eight different schools” based on seat availability. Cranbury, Kendall and Rowayton schools are each taking in more than 100 students from the South Norwalk neighborhood, according to 2019-2020 enrollment numbers.

The current scenario was presented as two options. Option 8a included middle school grades six through eight, but it left nearly 400 students without a seat in the newly proposed zone. Option 8b was for grades kindergarten through fifth only, and it left about 170 students without a seat in the SoNo zone.

The school district believes the 170 would be easier to overcome with students enrolling in magnet and theme programs throughout the district.

Zuba prefaced the presentation by telling the board that the planning scenario was just a concept and a way to “generate demographic numbers to look at sizing of schools and use of space.” A new school in the South Norwalk neighborhood is “still in the planning stages,” according to Zuba.

The school district has not yet identified where it plans to build a new school in the neighborhood, although Estrella told the board that the district is starting conversations with the potential site. The district must have land control before it can submit its school building grant application, due by June 30.

The board approved the proposal to close out two capital projects with unspent budgets totaling approximately $76 million. The already approved funds would go toward the purchase of the unidentified parcel of land to construct a new 682-seat pre-K through fifth-grade elementary school in South Norwalk.

All of the South Norwalk plans hinged on the board approving the move of Columbus Magnet School to the lower campus at Ponus Ridge School for the 2022-2023 school, which it did with a unanimous vote.

emily.morgan@hearstmediact.com