‘The perfect home’: New Norwalk center forges connections with families

NORWALK — Stepping into the new Family Center for Norwalk Public Schools, executive assistant and office manager Donald Burr greets everyone with a smile. If they don’t speak English, he immediately directs them to a small sign to his left that lists the top 20 languages spoken in the city.

The list and the translation phone line that accompanies it is just one way the district’s new one-stop shop hopes to better engage and connect with families of Norwalk students.

“Under our strategic plan, one of our priorities is to make sure that all families are informed, engaged and feel welcome in our school communities. Norwalk’s commitment to engagement, inclusion and access now comes to life through this family center for both current families and those new to our city,” Superintendent Alexandra Estrella said at the Family Center’s grand opening this week.

Estrella cut the ribbon on the center alongside Mayor Harry Rilling, state Sen. Bob Duff, State Rep. Lucy Dathan, Board of Education members, Norwalk Public Schools staff as well as students from the Norwalk Next Steps 18-22 Transition Program, which is housed at the center, and Wolfpit Integrated Arts Elementary School.

The center began serving families over the winter and will be open year-round to provide access to a variety of services such as kindergarten registration, multilingual learner assessment, workshops for families to learn more about the Norwalk education system, and other supports for families.

To accommodate working families, the center is offering evening service hours on Thursdays.

Board of Education Vice Chair Diana Carpio grew emotional during her remarks, which she delivered in Spanish, when speaking of the opportunities now available for working parents and immigrant families, like her own parents, who may have trouble navigating the system due to a language barrier.

“As the daughter of immigrants, I know the difficulties of accessing resources for those families,” Carpio said afterward.

In a typical year, Norwalk Public Schools enrolls more than 1,500 new students who come from a different country or a neighboring state, Estrella said. Of those students, 900 are entering kindergarten and approximately 1,450 are multilingual learners. During this school year, the district has welcomed new families from Afghanistan and Ukraine.

The family center is staffed by Norwalk Public Schools employees and was funded using federal COVID relief money. The center houses multiple district departments, including transportation, food services, health services, and the technology depot, where families can obtain necessary student devices or find support services for those devices.

Norwalk Next Steps moved into the building two years ago. The program’s students will work alongside the center’s staff to gain real-life work experience and “to make our center what it should be, a place that feels like home for our families,” Estrella said.

“One of our students said, ‘This looks like a giant house. It’s the perfect home.’ And it has been,” Veronica Lenzen, the administrator for specialized learning and student services for Norwalk Public Schools, said in a speech read on her behalf by Jessica Ireland, the transition coordinator.

The NPS Family Center shares the space at 1 Park St. with the Human Services Council. Executive Director Anthony DiLauro thanked the school district for the energy it’s brought to the building, working everyday to help families in Norwalk.

“That’s the most important thing,” DiLauro said, “that families and children get what they need so that they’re healthy enough to learn so they have the support from us from the leaders to make sure that kids get what they need so they can learn and go on and take over this city and make it even better than it is today.”