Solution to racial balance? School board members contend magnets are exempt

How Greenwich is going to deal with being in violation of the state’s mandate to have racially balanced schools is expected to dominate the fall discussion before the Board of Education. But two members say there is a loophole in the law that can lead to a solution.

Two of Greenwich’s schools, Hamilton Avenue and New Lebanon, are considered to be in violation of state balance mandates because they have too many minority students there. Greenwich is tasked with finding a solution to this or face potential sanctions from the state, though it’s unclear what those measures might be. The board and district administration have paired this issue with facility utilization throughout the district and are attempting to find a solution that will address both.

This is expected to be the main focus of tonight’s Board of Education meeting at 7 at Greenwich High School.

But board members Peter Sherr and Peter von Braun say a solution may be closer at hand than people think. In an interview with the Post last weekend, both men say that in the text of the law there is a loophole that would allow both Hamilton Avenue and New Lebanon Schools to be exempt from it because they are magnet schools and therefore are considered “unique schools.” They will speak to the board about this tonight.

They contend that under the law’s implementing regulation, Reg. 10-226e, a magnet school is clearly marked as “unique school” meaning the balance mandate cannot be applied there because the law specifically notes they are excluded.

Mr. Sherr said he believed “the state Board of Education is likely to have a different interpretation of their regulations and will vigorously oppose this.” But he said it was unclear how that would play out. Neither Mr. Sherr nor Mr. von Braun are attorneys, but they said they have consulted with lawyers and believe this proposal should and will be accepted under the law by the courts.

“I would expect the Malloy administration to vigorously defend their vision of racial balance in Connecticut,” Mr. Sherr said. “But that’s not our concern. Our concern is what happens right here in our Greenwich to our children.”

This will be the centerpiece of a plan the two men intend to introduce before the board at tonight’s meeting. However this is not intended as a “do nothing” strategy. They said that efforts will also be made as part of their proposal to address academic achievement, something they say is not being considered as part of racial balance and space utilization. Mr. von Braun said this will “perfectly mesh” with the district’s new program for implementing digital learning. They say not only will it allow for improvements at the imbalanced schools but also allow for parental choice to move those kids to “high performing” but underused schools in the district.

“Our plan centers on neighborhood schools as the primary organizing concept with which to educate kids in Greenwich to their highest potential,” Mr. Sherr said. “We’re going to double down on neighborhood schools.”

Board Chairman Leslie Moriarty said that this approach is similar to an option the board is considering to “evaluate” the law and the implementing regulation. She admitted that the language in the law could be considered “ambiguous” in this area.

“This maybe an option to address the racial balance issue, but it’s not clear to me how it addresses facility utilization or academic achievement,” Ms. Moriarty told the Post. “There needs to be more exploration of this.”

The two board members say those areas are addressed, though.

The plan asks the administration to strengthen neighborhood schools throughout the district and focuses strengthening on New Lebanon and Hamilton Avenue, including their magnet programs. Mr. von Braun said since when Hamilton Avenue first became a magnet program the programs that were promised have been taken away and that only Suzuki violin now is considered a draw, something he said he believed would not attract many from backcountry to bus to the school.

“There’s no reason Hamilton Avenue or New Lebanon could not be the first school in Greenwich with a specialized science, technology, engineering and math program,” Mr. Sherr said. “We can give these kids the best possible science, technology and math education to lift up in society and put themselves in a position to achieve for the highest paying, most successful jobs in the economy. We want to vastly increase the opportunities available to students.”

By providing the choice for kids at Hamilton Avenue and New Lebanon to go to other schools in the district, with transportation included, as a pilot program both men said this would test the state’s theory that kids at those schools are racially isolated and segregated without any hope of movement without state intervention.

“That implies these children are trapped in these schools and that the structure and policies of the school system have left these children racially isolated,” Mr. Sherr said. “That may very well be true, but neither Peter nor I believe that being residents of Greenwich and knowing the neighborhoods.”

“Let’s see how many parents send their children somewhere else,” Mr. von Braun said.

The plan will also call for increased community outreach and coordination with neighborhood schools similar to ongoing efforts at New Lebanon involving the Byram Shubert Library and the Byram Archibald Neighborhood Center.

“Best practices nationally show you that in poverty and non-poverty with students that have a language barrier, particularly Hispanics, you need to bring all the assets together,” Mr. Sherr said. “That means in the classroom and in engagement in a wider community with organizations that can help with adult education and bring parents into a community based around the school. And in most of these neighborhoods we’re perfectly set up to do that.”

Calling this a “pragmatic and practical plan” instead of major changes around the district, Mr. Sherr said this solution has been there the whole time but that it hadn’t been pursued. He said this really came to light when he and Mr. von Braun pushed for an idea to make one of the imbalanced schools a charter school, something the state has indicated it would not allow.

“I don’t understand why the majority of the board have had such an appetite for social engineering and some of these more radical solutions,” Mr. Sherr said. “To me that’s an enigma.”

Several potential solutions have been put forth but none have found widespread support on the board or amongst the public. Radical redistricting plans met with angry reactions at public meetings last spring and parents have strongly opposed busing. Last month, Superintendent of Schools William McKersie put forth a new option where parents could choose to move kids into partial magnet programs at North Street and Parkway Schools, both of which are underutilized buildings, but that met with some skepticism from the board.

While a survey about school choice has been issued to the public and professional market research is being done, Mr. von Braun said he is frustrated that one question is not being asked, “Would you prefer to keep your child in the neighborhood school or go to another school? It’s a pretty straight forward answer. Go read the survey and try and find it.”

Mr. von Braun added, “A plan completely based on voluntary movement with the idea that you can create an entity that’s so incredibly attractive that parents will put their kids on buses in New Lebanon to go to Parkway is fatuous. It’s not going to happen. You have to take that into consideration when you put together any real program. You have to recognize the overwhelming majority of people in this town live where they live, partially for economic and partially for cultural and educational reasons, and they’re going to stay put. If you put forth a voluntary plan, it will fail.”

Instead of trying something again that has failed in the past, as magnet schools have so far not been able to reverse racial balance issues in town, Mr. von Braun said this plan will help “strengthen and reinforce neighborhood schools to serve the need of that community” instead of focusing on “wishful thinking.”

“The board has to step up and look at all the proposals being made and come up with a program that is focused, practical, implementable, can be managed, can be funded and break us out of this cycle of seeing the same performance 10 years in a row,” Mr. Sherr said.

 

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