Details of racial balance plan evolve

classroomAfter what is expected to be a few more nips and tucks, the Board of Education is set to have a plan on paper to discuss with the state about how to deal with racial imbalance in Greenwich schools.

Currently two schools, New Lebanon and Hamilton Avenue School, have been found to be in racial imbalance by the state because of the number of minority students there. The town has been tasked for close to two years now with creating a solution to the imbalance, and the plan appears to be in place. However, once approved by the Board of Education, it is not expected to be formally submitted to the state quite yet, but rather taken to the state first for discussion to see if it is accepted.

The framework of the plan has been worked on extensively over the last few months, with the board approving it on a piecemeal basis. The document that is being looked at now is simply putting all those previously-approved items together for submission to the state, and the go-ahead seems likely.

The key strategy for addressing the balance is centered around the partial magnet programs already in place at the schools by seeking to make them more attractive to parents from outside the neighborhood zones of Hamilton Avenue and New Lebanon, which have heavy minority populations.

Under the current draft plan, the district would implement programs and services throughout the town’s schools while focusing on closing the achievement gaps at Hamilton Avenue, New Lebanon and Julian Curtiss schools. These programs would target kindergarten through third grade reading and use data-driven instruction and increased technology for personalized instruction through the ongoing digital learning initiative. Programs would also work on increasing parental involvement, and the district said the hope is that these efforts will make the magnet programs at those schools more attractive so that more people will come from other parts of town, addressing the imbalance.

There has already been $650,000 budgeted for these programs, and implementation is scheduled to happen during the 2014-15 school year. There will also be a new magnet theme for Hamilton Avenue School, a modification of the rules for existing partial magnet programs to “encourage” more voluntary movement within the district and an expansion of New Lebanon School to increase capacity so both the neighborhood and magnet students could be supported there. Currently New Lebanon has a serious space crunch, making it impossible to take on magnet students.

“This renovation and expansion are key components of the proposed plan,” Board of Education Chairman Barbara O’Neill said in the plan’s text.

In the document, Ms. O’Neill called this a “long-term, sustainable and multifaceted approach” to addressing the demographic trends in town as well as focusing on student achievement. It remains to be seen if the state will agree, though. The current document, which was put together by the Board of Education, is only three pages long, marking a sharp contrast to the original document from the district’s administration, which was 500 pages.

The three-page document is accompanied by eight pages of data and supporting material that is scheduled to be sent to the state. Board member Peter Bernstein questioned if this was necessary, and Superintendent of Schools William McKersie said he believed it was.

“I’ve been up there during this experience and I’ve been told this by the commissioner and by the state board,” Dr. McKersie said. “Ultimately, will that get us through? I don’t know, but if you go up there without showing the context of the 18 months of work, we have held ourselves back a bit. I’m basing this on my actual experience testifying before the state board as superintendent and conversing with them about when our board goes up there, what do you want to see. Context matters.”

The next Board of Education meeting is scheduled for May 22 at 7 p.m. at Parkway School and it is likely that a final vote on this stage of the plan’s development will take place there. At the May 1 work session, there were several small revisions and alterations to the language in the draft without any substantive changes to the proposal. More changes could be suggested at the May 22 meeting before it’s taken to the state.

The discussion of the language at the work session was preceded by a nearly 20-minute discussion that visibly frustrated several board members over whether or not the document was actually considered to be the plan and if a vote was going to happen.

“This is not the racial balance plan,” board Vice Chairman Jennifer Dayton said. “This is a document that enables the board to have a conversation with the state Department of Education so we know and they know that we’re on track to produce a racial balance plan.”

Board member Peter Sherr said he wanted more time to review the document before granting a final board approval for it because they’d had only 48 hours to read the text after 18 months of work. He noted that the document refers to it as “the plan” and worried that all the board members “weren’t reading from the same sheet of music.” Ms. O’Neill also referred to the document as “the plan” on several occasions during the meeting. Board member Adriana Ospina said she feels the board is following the process correctly but perhaps there hadn’t been enough communication within the board about what that process was.

Ultimately a compromise was reached by simply referring to it as a draft of the plan. The board will take it to the state, get feedback and then develop the final plan to be submitted formally. At the end of the work session, the board voted 7-to-0, with one abstention, to tentatively approve the language in the draft with the changes suggested there. Mr. Bernstein was the abstainer, and when asked, said simply, “I think we can do better.”


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