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Lessons from the field: An interview with former Norwalk Public Schools superintendent Dr. Adamowski

July 24, 2020
by Joanna Meyer and George A. Coleman

Last week, PEER had the opportunity to interview Dr. Steven Adamowski on the occasion of his retirement from public education, including service to the Connecticut State Department of Education, Delaware Department of Education, American Institutes for Research (AIR), and as superintendent of schools for Norwalk, Hartford, and Cincinnati, Ohio. We asked for Dr. Adamowski’s reflections on a variety of topics in education. Excerpts from the conversation follow.

PEER: Across your long and distinguished career in education, what have you learned about the most promising approaches to promoting educational equity for diverse learners—both in terms of access and outcomes?

Dr. Adamowski: In terms of access, I have to start with preschool. Back when I was a very young principal in Connecticut, we thought some kids were developmentally ready for kindergarten and others weren’t yet ready and should just wait a year. What we now understand is that engagement of students in developmentally appropriate preschool will help students progress from one stage to the next.

Second, we need a different model for gifted and talented education that includes high-need students and students of color. A school-wide enrichment model seeks to develop talent rather than viewing talent as something you have or you don’t. If you want to provide access to enrichment and gifted and talented programs, particularly to low-income students, you need to revamp procedures for identifying potential instead of focusing on existing ability.

In terms of outcomes, the most overlooked aspect is instructional time. If everyone gets the same amount of instructional time, the same teacher quality, etc., then achievement will vary by income. In education, we are now at a point of understanding that we cannot close the achievement gap without summer learning. Each year, children make gains during the school year and then lose progress over the summer. A lot of our work in Norwalk has been around summer learning, with Norwalk ACTS as an active partner.

PEER: What have you learned about promoting collaboration with families to support learning for children of color and children from low-income families? What permanent structural supports for families and for schools would you recommend?

Dr. Adamowski: We know that parent involvement has an effect on student achievement. We need to offer a set of learning experiences in the school that builds parent involvement. Kendall Elementary School in Norwalk ran a summer learning program in which every parent had to come in on Friday mornings for instruction and practice on how to read with their child. On the one hand, we don’t build in enough of these opportunities. On the other hand, we underestimate the ability of parents to engage. We need to build structural inclusion of parents into instructional design.

PEER: Right now, we’re seeing a lot of innovation in virtual learning as a reaction to the COVID-19 pandemic. Sometimes innovation sticks and sometimes it doesn’t. What aspects may be important to maintain as we move forward?

Dr. Adamowski: One of the things that occurred in the COVID pandemic is that I went to the Norwalk Town Council and the mayor and said we can no longer be a district without 1:1 technology. Suburban neighbors had 1:1 devices from the start. We had 1:1 for grades 6-12, then for grades 4-5, then tablets for K-2. A device for every student is an absolute necessity. Then we needed to provide Wi-Fi hotspots and internet access through a service contract with Optimum. Today’s students need all that, especially should we have to close school again.

Surveys we’ve done in Norwalk in the middle of distance learning and at the end of school year showed that synchronous learning[i] is best. For the vast majority of students, at least 80%, asynchronous learning[ii] was very problematic, especially for students whose parents are working outside the home and unable to provide supervision and support. Asynchronous learning is also challenging for struggling young learners who are below grade level, because asynchronous learning does not provide the direct interaction and engagement necessary to effectively differentiate instruction. We saw that small group synchronous instruction is more viable. In the long term, we may find that students benefit from summer programs that pair in-person classroom instruction with small-group synchronous learning to extend schooling across 12 months. NPS is one of the few districts with an in-person summer school hybrid model where we run in-person one week and then synchronous virtual learning the next. Anecdotal evidence shows this model is working.

PEER: Over the course of your career, you’ve worked at engaging young educators of color and preparing them to take on leadership themselves. What is your motivation and how do you feel leadership by educators of color can make a difference?

Dr. Adamowski: I see multiple reasons to support diversity in school districts. Just as most diverse species are able to evolve and persist, diverse organizations can change and adapt. If you’re looking at school reform, you accelerate change by making your organization more diverse. But I’ve seen efforts to increase diversity face intellectual and implementation issues over the years. You can’t just have the intention of diversity, you have to have structures that allow it—ways to develop people. Specifically, we need (1) a career ladder in every district, in which we define the steps to pursue leadership at higher levels and (2) a leadership development program. We use Relay Graduate School of Education as the certification program for teacher candidates—by providing professional development through Relay, the district supports minority paraprofessionals who want to become teachers, and then hires them for teaching positions. We work with New Leaders’ Emerging Leaders Program to support minority teachers in assuming leadership roles, like department leaders and Curriculum and Instruction Site Directors, and with Relay’s National Principal Academy Fellowship as the final phase for those who aspire to become principals. No leaders start off great, we need learning experiences. [Working to increase diversity] gives me a lot of joy, satisfaction, and gratification. You know it’s being done for the district, for children, with a social justice orientation. Diversity creates a system that is nimble enough to change and adapt, which is critical in a school reform environment. Different perspectives lead to a better solution.

[i] Synchronous learning describes the participation of students in live instructional activities (for example, in-person or virtual lessons in real time)

[ii] Asynchronous learning describes the participation of students in instructional activities at their own pace (for example, recorded instruction or self-directed experiences)

Submitted by Joanna Meyer on July 23, 2020