School board approves racial balance strategy, more details expected in April

classroomThe Board of Education is looking to have a clear strategy toward dealing with the state over the two elementary schools considered to be in racial imbalance, but what specific form that strategy might be remains to be seen.

At its Jan. 23 meeting, the board approved the framework of a strategy, but the details of what exactly will be submitted as a response to the state is not expected to come until April. At that time, Superintendent of Schools William McKersie is expected to present to the board a response, which will then have to be approved.

The framework is designed to work with the state to reach a solution over Hamilton Avenue and New Lebanon schools, which the state has declared to be in racial imbalance due to the heavy minority populations there. Greenwich is required to submit a plan to the state to deal with this or face a penalty, but what that penalty actually would be has never been clear. As part of the framework there will be an evaluation of new magnet themes for Hamilton Avenue School with a focus on academic achievement to try to attract additional magnet students.

Additionally, there will be an evaluation of programs and services focused on the district’s achievement gap for all students at New Lebanon, Hamilton Avenue and Julian Curtiss schools with a target on kindergarten through third grade reading, technology for personal instruction, and parent involvement. The district said it hoped those steps could help make the schools more attractive to magnet students. There will also be the addition of an International Baccalaureate (IB) program to Western Middle School as it becomes a partial magnet school in the district. New Lebanon and the International School at Dundee already serve as IB elementary schools.

Space in the district has also been an issue throughout the discussion and this plan will move renovation or expansion designs for New Lebanon School forward. This could potentially create more magnet student spaces, and there will also be an evaluation of the rules surrounding the district’s current magnet school programs to try to encourage more movement within the district. But the details of what these evaluations will find are not expected until April.

Discussion of what kind of response Greenwich should have to the state dominated the school board’s discussion through much of last year, including several heated and lengthy public hearings, particualrly after Dr. McKersie proposed making North Street School an open school of choice to attempt to open seats at New Lebanon for its magnet program. By contrast, the Jan. 23 meeting featured only a few speakers on the topic. Kim Blank, co-president of the North Street PTA, said parents supported the framework the board approved, which did not include any changes to North Street’s current structure.

“We’re glad to see the board is ready to move forward and take action with regard to racial balance,” Ms. Blank said. “We know this has been an arduous and, at times, a contentious process, and we are very grateful to you and your predecessors for your hard work that you’ve put into this. We believe that you have arrived at a solution that truly takes into account the needs of all stakeholders. Correctly, the plan puts academic achievement first while respecting the wishes of the majority of parents who can continue to send their children to their neighborhood school.”

Ms. Blank predicted that the plan would satisfy the state’s concerns while still “working for Greenwich.”

One parent, Harry Fisher, a former vice chairman of the town’s Board of Estimate and Taxation, said the town should be fighting harder against the state’s racial balance mandate.

“I suggest that this is a totally arbitrary situation,” Mr. Fisher said. “New Canaan doesn’t have a problem. Darien doesn’t have a problem. If Old Greenwich and Bryam were individual towns, there would be no problem because the schools in those towns reflect racial diversity. I think it’s time to stand up to the state and say no. We should absolutely say no especially because this does nothing for achievement. Moving kids around does nothing for achievement. We should put achievement first and concentrate on those aspects that bring achievement and forget about the arbitrary nature of the racial balance law.”

There were echoes of this argument during the board’s vote. While the framework was approved by a wide margin, it was not unanimous, as board member Peter von Braun, a strong advocate of the idea that New Lebanon and Hamilton Avenue are exempt from the racial balance mandate because they have magnet programs going, voted against it.

“I find that the racial balance law has no educational virtue and we should focus on improving the educational achievement of the minority kids in the community and not perpetuate the silliness of thinking that moving kids on a percentage basis is going to have any benefit whatsoever,” Mr. von Braun said.

When questioned by board Vice Chairman Jennifer Dayton about where he found what he objected to in the document the board was approving, Mr. von Braun said he was against the process iteself.

 

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