Superintendent McKersie: District to address racial imbalance

This is the first in a series of articles from an interview with Superintendent of Schools William McKersie about the challenges that lay ahead for the Greenwich Public Schools.

With less than a month before the new school year begins, new Superintendent of Schools William McKersie says his feelings can be summed up with one word.

Excited.

It’s a word that Dr. McKersie used quite often in an interview this week with the Post. A few weeks into his official tenure, the new superintendent says that he is eager to get to work facing down the district’s challenges and working with the entire school community to bring forth academic progress.

“This is a very exciting and highly energizing position,” Dr. McKersie said. “There are challenges here, but this is a very successful, high performing district. As I come upon the challenges I was advised were here and I’m finding are here, that’s something that stands out. This district has so much and now we need to get what it needs to move forward.”

After he was hired in April, Dr. McKersie, who had been the associate superintendent for academic excellence with the Archdiocese of Boston, did a quick tour of all the Greenwich Public Schools, meeting with principals, staff and students at each of them. And in the few weeks since he officially took over here in Greenwich last month, he said his initial impressions of Greenwich have only been reinforced by what he’s seen.

“We have a very dedicated set of principals here and clearly engaged and committed teachers to go along with lots and lots of spirit amongst the students,” Dr. McKersie said. “There’s omnipresent parents and I think that’s a great strength. I know for some public educators, heavy duty parent involvement is a mixed blessing, but I consider it a full blessing. There’s immense energy that can be tapped and use.”

One immediate challenge that Dr. McKersie will face is what to do about racial imbalance in district schools. Both New Lebanon and Hamilton Avenue Schools continue to be racially imbalanced based on state definitions, since they have far more minority students than white students. Western Middle School and Old Greenwich School are considered to be in “pending imbalance” by the state. Efforts to correct the imbalance at Hamilton Avenue and New Lebanon by making them magnet schools has yet to solve the issue and the district is facing a Sept. 14 deadline to have a revised action plan in to the state. However, it seems likely Greenwich will ask for more time.

Dr. McKersie said he has a meeting next week with Connecticut Commissioner of Education Stefan Pryor and this will be one of several topics they will discuss. He said he will make sure the commissioner is clear about “what is happening in Greenwich,” what is happening with the mix of students and programs throughout town, and that he understands the district’s “deep commitment we have to high quality education for all students.”

“We will make sure the commissioner understands that we as a district, a board and a community are dedicated to tackling this issue,” Dr. McKersie said. “We need to tackle it in a way that has staying power and will have solutions that address this for multiple years.”

In asking for more time from the state, Dr. McKersie said an extension would allow the board to best evaluate the best approaches are. He said this is a reform issue and that he believes Mr. Pryor understands that it takes “quality planning, community and parent input and multiple years.”

The magnet school option, which was hoped would draw more white students to these schools, has not yet delivered results, but Dr. McKersie noted that the schools themselves are very happy with their programs. He said he is not ready to end the idea of magnets and, to the contrary, believes they need “attention and beefing up.”

He said there have to be questions asked about the programs offered at the magnet schools and whether they are the best way to attract students. But that can only be answered through working with the principals and evaluating all options and alternative ideas. Dr. McKersie said he’s “already done some thinking” on that and has asked for input from the district’s science and technology departments to see if more work could be done there.

“There have to be super high quality programs there,” Dr. McKersie said. “That’s something I’m very interested in and I know the board is too. We want to add more innovation in the ways schools are organized. That’s not this year. That may not be two years from now. It may be five years from now. That’s something we’re going to talk to the commissioner about and we think it’s going to be music to his ears to hear about how we want to be very innovative and creative as we come to solutions for high-quality learning for all our students.”

Dr. McKersie said that when it comes to “racial isolation” of students, magnet schools could well be part of the solution and also suggested charter schools, while adding that he wasn’t sure if that was the right solution to Greenwich and that they weren’t a “direct solution” to racial imbalance. He said he had developed charter schools in the past but that only with further evaluation about what worked best for the town could it be determined if it was a feasible option.

“Am I saying we’ll have charters tomorrow? No, but I’m someone who will look at all the options and innovations possible,” Dr. McKersie said. “I hope most people in Greenwich will be excited they have a superintendent who has helped start charters. But I do not race to solutions. I’ve been involved with so many types of schooling.”

Dr. McKersie said that he understands “the neighborhood school concept is very powerful” in Greenwich and that when parents have excellent options in their neighborhood that’s what they will want. He says this is true all over town, even in Hamilton Avenue and New Lebanon where there are test score issues, but parents love the school and are excited to be a part of the community with it. So to get parents to want to put their kids out of their neighborhood schools it would have to be great magnet program. He added this could even be an allure not just to Western Greenwich but also as a possibility for Parkway School where a magnet program could help with low enrollment numbers.

While that idea might never happen and he said it was just “thinking out loud,” Dr. McKersie said it showed that all options were being considered.

“We have to find a way to honor the neighborhood school but also begin to build in ways that there are choice and opportunity so that we may be able to balance off the racial mix as families want to,” Dr. McKersie said.

Before he even took office, Dr. McKersie said he spoke with former Interim Superintendent of Schools Roger Lulow about racial imbalance “at great length” and stressed that it was a “top priority” for the Board of Education. He said there was a “very detailed work plan” in place for the administration to do fact-finding and evaluate options. He said it was important to make sure that whatever is done is the best option for the town.

“If the state forces us into a quick solution on the racial balance issue then it forces into things we want to deal with in a much more comprehensive and systematic way,” Dr. McKersie said.

 

Next: Dr. McKersie discusses Greenwich students’ performances on state tests and closing the achievement gap.

 

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