Carving a pathway to success

March 23, 2017

Scroll Down to See More

When Novelette Peterkin assumed the role of Executive Director at the Carver Center in 2004, many were doubtful that she would be able to realize her vision for the neighborhood community center.

“There was a lot to do,” explained Novelette. “But from the beginning, my goal was to give Carver kids access and opportunities so they could be just as successful as their more privileged counterparts.

Today, with a $3.5 million budget, Carver has become a shining example of what is working in our community, and the largest provider of after-school programs in Norwalk, serving close to 800 elementary, middle and high school students.

Novelette began the transformation with a “strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats (SWOT) analysis,” a skill she learned while working on Wall Street. Her team focused on small, high-impact changes as a way to strengthen Carver’s traditional programs and athletic leagues, as well as galvanize Carver’s client base and make everyone more accountable. She also began looking at data in a new way.

“Basically we started peeling back the layers to understand the needs of our students,” explained Novelette. She discovered that after-school was the biggest gap in the city; students needed an extension of their school day. They also needed caring adults in their lives, noted Novelette, so she literally extended the school day by hiring certified Norwalk Public School teachers who believed in the students and knew the NPS curriculum.

“I tapped into the best and the brightest,” she added. And it has paid off. Since 2005, 100% of Carver’s seniors have graduated on time and nearly 100% of Carver graduates have gone on to college.

Q: How does data play a role in Carver’s success?  
A: According to Novelette, data plays a critical role in all decision-making at Carver. For example, Carver’s K-5 after-school program (CASPER), uses Lexia Reading Core5, a personalized literacy software program with activities designed to meet individual student needs. It can be used after school or at home and features an embedded assessment system that collects student data with every click of the mouse.

“By checking progress along the way, we can help students with small group intervention and keep them on track,” notes Novelette.

Carver also provides summer learning programs including Summer Enrichment for 5 to 13 year-old students at two Norwalk sites; Freshman Summer Success Academies for graduated 8th-grade students transitioning into 9th grade at Norwalk and Brien McMahon High Schools; and Summer Learning Experience for 5th grade students transitioning into middle school.

On of Norwalk ACTS’ community outcomes focuses on ensuring that students have a positive transition from elementary school to middle school. Current data indicates that many Norwalk students do not have the necessary skills to successfully transition from 5th to 6th grade.

Further, The Program on Education Policy and Governance Working Papers Series at Harvard University states, “Students moving from 5th grade  into middle school show a ‘sharp drop’ in math and language arts achievement in the transition year, which plagues them as far out as 10th grade, even risking or thwarting their ability to graduate from high school and go on to college.”

Novelette, a member of Norwalk ACTS’ 5th to 6th Grade Transition Workgroup, as well as Co-Chair of the Norwalk ACTS’  8th to 9th Grade Transition Workgroup, agrees that transitions can be a critical turning point for students, adding that ideally, a summer transition program should be offered to every Norwalk student entering middle school and high school.

Carver’s Summer Learning Experience helps students learn the basics of navigating their respective new schools by offer individualized instruction, parental involvement, small group learning experiences, diverse enrichment activities, as well as free transportation, and full-day activities, a plus for working families. By all accounts, the programs are having a positive effect on the incoming 6th graders.

Q: What does the data tell you about your programs?
A: The staff at Carver uses RIT scores (Rasch Unit) to estimate a student’s “instructional level.”  A RIT score has the same meaning regardless of the grade or age of the student.  Some people consider RIT to be a ‘readiness’ level, for example, if a student’s scores a 235, then he/she is “ready” to learn algebra.

This past year, according to Novelette, the percentage of students achieving “Proficiency” (a RIT score of 205 – 235) in reading is 14% higher for the Carver Academy students (78%) than the Comparative Group of students who did not attend a summer program (64%).

“In general, we have been successful in leveling the playing field for our students. The data shows that these and other Summer Transition programs help to ‘plug gaps’ and get students to the starting gate,” explains Novelette.

However, she warns that a 5-week summer program will not necessarily make students College and Career Ready, but it’s a start. It is crucial now to move these “average” students from the 50th to the 70th percentile in CCR assessments and many other National tests over their 3-year middle school career, she adds.

“Imagine if these students were enrolled in a Carver program after school for four years or if they attended a summer academy throughout all three years of middle school?” notes Novelette.

Q: What other measurements or data points do you track?
A: Academics are just part of a successful transition, says Novelette. Soft skills, such as self-confidence, the ability to communicate, self-advocate and stay organized also play an important role.

“We have the data that shows us this program is having a positive impact on the kids’ performance,” says Joseph Velucci, principal, Roton Middle School.

“Look at the suspension data – the rate is down. Academics are up. They’re here learning, they’re more involved … The bottom line is that this program simply helps kids do better.”

Q: What are the most important skills Norwalk children need to be College or Career Ready?
A: In many ways, today’s students are preparing for careers that have not even been created. That’s how fast our world is changing, notes Novelette.

“We also know that students achieving average proficiency are not necessarily College and Career Ready (CCR). In fact, the “average” student likely will not pass the new National assessment (Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC), nor will he/she be CCR. To be truly well prepared, a student must score well above the 50th percentile, according to Novelette, in fact current research shows that CCR levels are closer to the 70th percentile.

Q: How are you preparing students for careers in STEM?
A: Another area of focus for Carver is Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) education; problem solving, analytic thinking, collaboration and communication and other skills required to succeed in 21st Century jobs.

Five years ago, GE invested in STEM education at six Norwalk sites, including Carver Center, Side by Side School and Norwalk’s four public middle schools. This was the beginning of a robust after-school program which includes a robotics team, collaborative design projects and field trips to Datto, NBC Studios, King Industries and other tech companies.

But according to Novelette, this that is was just the beginning. In December, the new Charlotte Naomi Horblit Technology Center opened on the second floor of the Carver Center, thanks to a $472,000 donation Mark Feinberg made on behalf of the estate of his late aunt, Charlotte Naomi Horblit and an additional $28,000 which came from an anonymous donation.

Every day after school, students can’t wait to jump into the bright green chairs and get to work on one of the 24 new PCs, eight iMac computers with Retina 5K displays or 3-D printers and 3D scanner and video conferencing software, all designed to support STEM learning.

In March, middle school students proudly displayed their computer programmed robotics, architectural models, bridges and other STEM projects at a community-wide Interactive Showcase at Carver.

Q: Why is it so important for your community to give back?
A: Giving back has always been another key to Carver’s success. In fact, it’s a requirement for students who are awarded college scholarships. They come back to Norwalk, work as counselors, talk to the kids about their futures and serve as true role models.

Mark Feinberg was born and raised in Norwalk and attended Brien McMahon High School. During his freshman year, his science teacher encouraged him to work as a camp counselor at the Carver Center, teaching science. It was an experience he never forgot.

Feinberg went on to graduate from St. Luke’s School in New Canaan and to pursue a career as wealth management adviser for Merrill Lynch after graduating from Boston University. When his aunt’s will requested him to name seven charitable beneficiaries of her estate, Feinberg recalled his summer camp counselor job three decades ago, and chose the Carver Center as one of the seven.

“Giving back has always been part of Carver’s mission,” said Novelette. When Carver students go on to achieve their dreams, they know it’s important to come back and help the next one in line.