On racial imbalance: School district faces September deadline

Saying that its efforts to racially balance two western Greenwich schools haven’t worked, the state of Connecticut is demanding new action by the Board of Education.

In a letter sent to the district on June 11, the state’s Department of Education said that Hamilton Avenue and New Lebanon schools remain in racial imbalance and that the board has until Sept. 14 to present a revised action plan to address it. The plan will then have to be considered by the Connecticut Board of Education.

The board may also soon have to address additional imbalances as well under state criteria as both Old Greenwich School and Western Middle School have been declared to be in “pending imbalance.” The racial imbalance issue at Hamilton Avenue and New Lebanon are not new. They’ve been known to the district for years because of the large Latino and other minority population in that part of town.

The imbalance resulted in both schools turning into magnet schools with curriculum that was designed to try and attract non-minority students from all over the district to transfer in and address the issue. But the state now says not enough has been done since the plan was submitted in 2010 to correct the imbalance. In addition to the Sept. 14 deadline, the superintendent’s office and the board has been asked to appear before the state board at its Oct. 3 meeting to discuss the revised plan.

All of this is happening as the district enters a time of new leadership. Superintendent of Schools William McKersie is set to officially begin his tenure in Greenwich early next month and this will be waiting on his desk as soon as he arrives. Interim Superintendent Roger Lulow said at last week’s town Board of Education meeting that he had been in frequent contact with Dr. McKersie since receiving the letter from the state and that he has been fully briefed on what steps the district can and will immediately take.

The letter and the impact of it were major points of discussion at the June 21 board meeting, which is scheduled to be the final one before the summer break. Dr. Lulow said he had spoken to the attorney working with the state’s Department of Education that day and that the further use of magnet schools “is certainly not restricted.”

“In fact, I was encouraged by the attorney to make sure that we are aware of what the problems are with the magnet, why it isn’t working and whether it’s the result of programming or the selection of students or the building’s capacity,” Dr. Lulow said. “Dr. McKersie and I discussed this and we felt it was really important to do an analysis of the current program, which will not take a long time, to make sure we can speak effectively as to either why or why not the present magnet program will not solve this problem or will solve this problem.”

Under questioning from board member Peter von Braun, Dr. Lulow said he had not yet received clear direction over whether the state wants the exact plan or the direction the plan is going in by Sept. 14. He said it was his understanding that the state board wanted to know the plan being submitted will have a “high probability of being successful” as opposed to being “we’ll do more of the same and hope things will get better.”

Dr. Lulow said the district will also look at the legal requirements the district has in this case and pointed out Greenwich is not alone in this issue. He said West Hartford faces far greater racial imbalances than Greenwich and that the district there has been able to work with the state to address it. Dr. Lulow added it was far too early to reach conclusions and determine that one potential solution was absolutely the only way to go.

“It would be unwise that either magnets are out of the question or that magnets is the only way to do it or that redistricting is the only way or whatever,” Dr. Lulow said. “There are a lot of options… Dr. McKersie and I believe what we need to do is define the problem first before we generate a list of solutions.”

Dr. Lulow pledged to make biweekly reports to the board members before he departs on July 6 for Dr. McKersie to take over.

With the Sept. 14 deadline looming, Board of Education Chairman Leslie Moriarty said there was a possibility of a short extension, but even if that was granted the board would have to show it was making progress soon. She raised the idea of calling an additional public meeting for the summer to discuss the next steps.

“Clearly we have not yet identified how we are going to get to the ultimate proposal,” Ms. Moriarty said. “It’s too short a period of time to know what the game plan is.”

Former board member Marianna Ponns Cohen spoke during the meeting’s public hearing. A vocal opponent of former Superintendent Betty Sternberg’s Racial Imbalance and Space Utilization and Declining Enrollment (RISE) committee that turned New Lebanon School into a magnet school, it was this issue that first got Ms. Ponns Cohen involved with school politics. Last week she spoke out about it again, saying the letter proved that magnets are not the answer and urged her former colleagues to take up the issue immediately and “not kick this can down the road.”

“As long ago as January 2008 I noted that magnets do not work either to redress racial imbalance or reduce the achievement gap,” Ms. Ponns Cohen said. “Indeed they often end up exacerbating both problems. New Lebanon is a case in point. As I had noted in January 2008, based on available data at the time, turning New Lebanon into a magnet school would not solve the state’s racial balance concern either then or over time. We knew at the time that New Lebanon would remain racially imbalanced even if all open spots there were filled with non-minorities. And as we see today the magnet school strategy failed.”

Ms. Ponns Cohen said in written remarks that were submitted for the board’s record that there were at least four possible solutions in her opinion. She said the board could look at using the charter school model, which would make the schools exempt from state racial balance mandates, redistricting and ending what she called the “gerrymandering” of certain areas of town and closing either Hamilton Avenue or New Lebanon School, which she said had to be looked at. Ms. Ponns Cohen said the fourth option was open choice, but she said that would not be practical and would in fact be an “extension” of the magnet option.

Another vocal opponent of RISE, Anna Povinelli, a Board of Education candidate last year, also spoke and said she was worried that a similar committee would be the board’s response. She cautioned against making this a distraction from the board’s efforts to improve student achievement.

“[RISE] not only divided our town and pitted parent against parent and student against student it exacerbated racial issues in our town,” Ms. Povinelli said. “It was damaging and the wounds are still healing. I implore the board to work for the benefit of the town and the community and please come up with a plan sooner rather than later. Do not drag this out. Do not drag our new superintendent right into this headwind of an issue. We’re finally now focusing on what we should be focusing on, which is the education of our children and curriculum, and not issues that don’t really affect our students.”


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