A plan that would move the pre-school program out of McKinley School to address a racial-imbalance citation, issued under state guidelines, won approval Wednesday from the state Board of Education.

"I'm overwhelmed," said Pam Iacono, the vice chairwoman of the Fairfield Board of Education. "I'm thrilled."

The amended plan for the Tunxis Hill neighborhood school received broad support from state board members, according to spokesman Thomas Murphy.

"They pointed out that the plan was not just focused on the numbers, but was a comprehensive approach to improving opportunities for children," Murphy said.

He said state board members were "very pleased with the educational aspects of the plan and the sensitivity toward parents, especially moving one program from one to school to another close by."

In advance of the state action, the Fairfield school board had voted Tuesday night to amend its plan to move the preschool program from McKinley to the Early Childhood Center at Fairfield Warde High School and expand the program for low-income children at Burr School in an effort to decrease the enrollment of minority students at McKinley.

Fairfield Chairman John Mitola said the state board hearing went "extremely well" and board members were pleased with the new plan. "They commented that not only was it addressing the racial imbalance, but it's better from an educational standpoint because it's enhancing our program," he said.

"We were before the (state) board for about 10 minutes at the most," he said. "They were very happy with it."

Past efforts to comply with state racial-balance regulations included an "opt out" program for McKinley students, allowing them to transfer to other elementary schools in Fairfield, as well as an "opt in" program allowing students from other schools to attend McKinley.

"I was never in favor of the opt-in, opt out plan because I didn't think it worked," Iacono said. "I voted against that plan for that very reason. It doesn't make a significant difference." This amended plan, however, she said, not only is designed to help achieve racial balance at McKinley but also gives the pre-schoolers a better learning environment and saves the district money.

"I give the superintendent a lot of credit for really thinking outside the box," Iacono said by providing improvements to the program itself and "solving a problem the state says we have." The pre-school program at Burr will expand from 20 to 36 students, hopefully boosting the minority population there.

Four years ago, McKinley was on a list compiled by the state Board of Education that highlighted schools with a 25 percent or greater racial imbalance, under its guidelines. McKinley ranked fourth at 28.74 percent. According to state law, the proportion of minority students in any school must not be more than 25 percentage points above or below a school district's overall average.

Tuesday's amendment to the imbalance plan is Fairfield school officials' latest step to satisfy the state.

Past efforts have included, among other things, approving a limited opt-in to McKinley, and when that failed to yield desired results, giving the go-ahead for a district wide opt-in to McKinley.

There has been slight progress to scaling back the enrollment imbalance, school official say. A recent letter from Fairfield Superintendent of Schools David Title to George Coleman, acting state commissioner of education, noted that McKinley now has an imbalance of 25.89 percent -- less than 1 percent within the state's compliance guideline. In 2009, McKinley's 2009 imbalance ratio stood at 28.7 percent.

In his letter to Coleman last month, Title said expanding the pre-school program at Burr (for low-income children, some of whom may be minorities) is part of an overall racial imbalance plan because students and their siblings are allowed to stay at Burr once they finish pre-school.

"Last year," said Title, "this provision resulted in five of the 20 students staying at Burr. By increasing the number of pre-school slots at Burr, we estimate that 9 of the 36 students would stay." Title said the McKinley pre-school program cannot be fully moved to Burr because of space constraints.

"This move would be educationally beneficial for McKinley students and the students at the ECC," said Title, "because the percentage of minority students at the McKinley pre-school program typically exceeds the percentage of minority students in grades K-5 at McKinley, the effect of the pre-school program at the school has exacerbated the school's racial imbalance. For example, this year 60 percent of the students in the McKinley pre-school are members of minority groups."

In addition to achieving better racial balance, moving the McKinley pre-school program to the ECC saves the district $100,000, as there would only be two, rather than three, different pre-school locations in Fairfield.

"I think it's a win-win," said BOE member Tim Kery.

Title said another good reason to move the pre-school program at McKinley to the ECC is that there is adequate space.

"The space being used at McKinley for pre-K is substandard," he said. "It's a teacher's lounge."