Charter schools off the table – Racial balance, discussion to continue

The Board of Education now has a timeline to try and address the issue of racial balance in two elementary schools, but what the solution could be is still very much up in the air.

This past summer the district was informed by the state that attempts to fix racial imbalance at both Hamilton Avenue and New Lebanon schools, where there were too many minority students when compared to white students, were not working and that the schools remain in imbalance. Under state law, schools may not have either too many or too few minority students in their populations, and both schools have been considered to be in imbalance for years.

The district had attempted to address this by making both Western Greenwich schools into magnet schools to attract more students from outside the neighborhood area, but those efforts have not yet produced results. At last week’s Board of Education meeting, Superintendent of Schools William McKersie said a timeline is now in place and a plan has to have been acted on no later than the fall of 2013.

“We were told that even if it’s a little bit in 2013, it will be looked on favorably,” Dr. McKersie said. “We don’t need to bring the whole implementation plan in, but they need to see that we are actually implementing something.”

Dr. McKersie said he had recently met twice with Connecticut Commissioner of Education Stefon Pryor and that the state is aware that the district is a bit “between a rock and a hard place” on this issue and, “They want to work with us on this” in a behind-the-scenes fashion.

Greenwich is not the only district with this issue, Dr. McKersie noted, and there were several options listed at the meeting without any decisions made for or against them, from modifying the existing magnet schools to creating new ones or even creating cross-district magnets where Greenwich and Stamford students could go to school together. The options listed were very basic to launch the discussion and included the ideas that would refashion the two schools to be “super attractive” to convince people to go. Dr. McKersie said those solutions would be creating open choice by opening it up to anyone in the district who wants to go, which would mean additional busing in the district.

The possibility was discussed about having a contract school, which is where the Board of Education gets into a contract with a nonprofit or another organization to run the school. Dr. McKersie said that could be regarded as a kind of a charter and he would have to check on the legality of it. He added that he believed Mr. Pryor would be open to it. The idea of a compact school, where the board and a group like the teacher’s union would work together to design and run a school, was also offered.

“The approach that everyone is trying to avoid is redistricting,” Dr. McKersie said. “West Hartford is trying to avoid it. Fairfield is trying to avoid it. We’re trying to avoid it.”

One option that already has interest on the state level, according to Dr. McKersie, is preschool where children would attend preschool outside of their neighborhbood area and then be encouraged to remain at that school through all future levels. He said that is already being done in Fairfield and has been endorsed by the state. Board member Jennifer Dayton, a longtime advocate of districtwide preschool to help academic achievement, said at last week’s meeting that she was not surprised the current efforts at the two schools hadn’t worked, since they were only “partial magnets” that were more neighborhood schools than true magnets.

“The good news is the data shows people are willing to move, and they’re willing to move no matter what their racial background is,” Ms. Dayton said. “I think there’s no question that the state would be certainly accepting of a preschool solution if we choose to do that. Personally I want to avoid a fixation on racial balance without consideration of economic diversity, English language learners and other considerations as we try to remix our student populations.”

Ms. Dayton said she wanted to avoid too narrow a specialization of certain academic subjects when developing any change of potential magnet themes, and with greater parental involvement there could be themes that excite and inspire students, which she said would create more motivated students and higher achievement.

One option that immediately seems to be off the table is the idea of charter schools in Greenwich. Through his past work in Ohio, Dr. McKersie has experience opening charters, but he said that Mr. Pryor had already said that would not happen in Greenwich.

“State-approved charters need to be approved by the state,” Dr. McKersie said. “There’s state law on that. Only three or four new state charters come on line each year. The commissioner approves those and he has now told me twice that Greenwich will not get a charter even if it wanted one. The charters will go to those districts that are substantially low-income districts and substantially districts of students of color.”

Dr. McKersie strongly praised both Hamilton Avenue and New Lebanon, calling them “wonderful schools.” He said one issue that needs to be remembered is that both schools have only a little room to maneuver before they hit their maximum capacity of students, meaning there could not be a huge influx of new students anyway to instantly correct the imbalance issue. He acknowledged that there were test score issues at both schools that had to be handled, but said they would be.

Board of Education Chairman Leslie Moriarty said last week’s meeting was only to begin the discussion about potential options. She added that if the board continued with magnets the members would have to decide “it’s OK to offer different things at different schools.” She said any response would likely have “a little of everything.”

The discussion had been expected to continue at the board’s Nov. 1 work session, but due to the impact of the storm that meeting was cancelled and the discussion will instead resume at the board’s official budget presentation on Nov. 8 at 6:30 p.m. at Cos Cob School.

Several board members expressed displeasure that this discussion had to occur when they wanted to focus on other issues like academic achievement, enrollment trends and facility utilization.

“It’s unfortunate that we’re spending any time on this,” board member Peter Sherr said. “I think this law is archaic. It’s offensive to be categorizing any children in this day and age by race. I personally find it very offensive. The law is potentially unconstitutional and I think it’s morally bankrupt in its intent. … This is just backwards and perverse and spending a dollar on this instead of spending a dollar on academic achievement for kids is just an anathema to this. Nevertheless, as agents of the stare we do have an obligation.”

Dr. McKersie said he understood that frustration and so does Mr. Pryor, who wants the focus to be on academics, not on “moving students around.”

“The commissioner has made clear that the priority with our district is not this issue,” Dr. McKersie said. “He knows the law is here. He knows the statutes are here. But he said explicitly that he wants us focused on a larger set of issues and, along the way please, because it is the law, deal with and address racial balance. He was very pleased that we came forward in both meetings with a larger agenda and trying to frame this as achievement first.”

Mr. Sherr added that he thought it was unusual that Mr. Pryor would remove charter schools as an option before any evaluation even began. He asked Dr. McKersie to clarify that with the state so the board could have more information to give the public. Dr. McKersie said he believed Mr. Pryor was expressing the wishes of the state Board of Education about what its priorities are right now because charter schools are considered “priority reform mechanisms” for low-income and heavily urban areas.

“They are there to reform highly underperforming districts, which we are not,” Dr. McKersie said. “We’re a very high-achieving district.”

Board member Steven Anderson said the “overall driver” had to remain student achievement.

“We’re stuck in something the politicians have created for us in terms of social engineering,” Mr. Anderson said, adding that the problem was an economic one in town and that the board was being asked to focus on race when it wasn’t supposed to.

“The bottom line is we need to look at and figure out how to adjust where you go to school based on your race,” Mr. Anderson said. “But we’re prohibited by state and federal law from discriminating on the basis of race. So you have a conundrum. … We’re being asked to fix socio-demographic problems. I’m a Title I elementary school parent. I’ve been a magnet school parent. I don’t hear a rush of parents saying get me out of this school. They are very happy, by and large, with their neighborhood elementary schools.”

 

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