State asks Fairfield for action on racial imbalance

The Connecticut State Board of Education questions (from left) Fairfield Board of Education Chair Philip Dwyer, former Superintendent of Schools David Title and current Superintendent Toni Jones on the district's plan to address racial imbalance in its elementary schools on Jan. 4, 2017 in Hartford, Conn.
The Connecticut State Board of Education questions (from left) Fairfield Board of Education Chair Philip Dwyer, former Superintendent of Schools David Title and current Superintendent Toni Jones on the district's plan to address racial imbalance in its elementary schools on Jan. 4, 2017 in Hartford, Conn.Laura Weiss / Hearst Connecticut Media

HARTFORD — To a McKinley Elementary School parent of three, forced redistricting would “tear apart” what makes the school special — a mix of cultures and backgrounds representative of today’s world.

In McKinley’s halls, her children have had exposure to different racial and cultural backgrounds and dozens of languages. Like many of the school’s parents, she referenced the school’s World’s Fair, a celebration of the global traditions represented by many of its students.

The parent, Suzanne Graceffa, spoke to the state Board of Education the morning of Jan. 4. Many parents have recently supported the town’s racial imbalance plan changes, to offer more open seats to Bridgeport students — through the Open Choice program — and relocate a pre-kindergarten program to increase minority enrollment. The parents fear redistricting could dilute the very environment that made them want to send their kids to the school, involve shuffling hundreds of children and deal a blow to the neighborhood essence of Fairfield’s elementary schools.

But state officials told Fairfield they would need to take concrete steps in the direction of redistricting or a McKinley magnet program, showing frustration the district has had an imbalance between its elementary school minority populations for nearly a decade, as defined by state law.

“Hearing things take time when we’ve looked at it for 10 years is highly frustrating,” said state board member Malia Sieve, asking Fairfield to move away from language committing to research a solution and toward a plan of action at the Jan. 4 meeting.

The average level of minority students at the town’s elementary schools hovers more than 25 percentag below one school, McKinley, which is nearly half minority students. The district has gone back and forth with the state for nearly a decade trying to address imbalance, most recently traveling to the state capital Wednesday.

Racial imbalance law has its roots in the 1960s, intended to prevent racial segregation in Connecticut schools. State board members noted the benefit to racial majority — primarily white — students of interacting with diverse students at school.

“You know the spirit of it and the intent of it,” Chairperson Allan Taylor said of the law. “It’s to avoid creating isolated situations that are bad for kids.”

McKinley was initially tagged as racially imbalanced by state standards in 2007.

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Next steps for Fairfield

The town's Board of Education must approve an amendment to its racial balance plan with additional methods - beyond the district's pre-kindergarten program and Open Choice enrollment - to meet state requirements.

The district will also need an action plan, with measurable benchmarks, so the state Board of Education can monitor progress in coming years. Along with the additional amendment, that plan must be set in 120 days.

Holland Hill and Mill Hill elementary school construction projects are in the works, projected for completion several years down the road. Redistricting would then be a possibility to permanently solve racial imbalance. In the meantime, a magnet program at McKinley Elementary School would be considered, a pre-K program could be moved and Open Choice enrollment increased.

Fairfield’s efforts

David Title, Fairfield former schools superintendent, part of the town’s representation presenting the plan, called McKinley truly racially balanced. He emphasized the district has been taking steps toward state-defined balance, as McKinley’s proportion of minority students has continued to grow, and that redistricting would be a last resort for Fairfield parents.

“People love their neighborhood schools and they want to stay in them, and they want us to explore every option,” Title said, “but that’s almost the nuclear option — it may have to happen at some point — but people in this community are very committed to their neighborhood schools.”

The state Board of Education conditionally approved an amendment to Fairfield’s plan to balance its elementary schools’ diversity at its first meeting of the year in Hartford, requiring Fairfield Public Schools to return in 120 days. They will need to bring a revised amendment offering additional methods to balance minority student populations at the schools with an action plan for measurable progress.

Fairfield’s plan involves offering 36 more Open Choice seats, an attempt to add racial diversity to the district. It has been a contentious solution among some town Board of Education members and Fairfield residents, spurring concerns taxpayer money could be sunk into the program.

Others have showed strong favor for the option, which is state grant-funded and directs any extra costs, such as special education, are at least in part billable to a student’s home district. Fairfield offers spots in classrooms that are below capacity to avoid adding teachers or other large-scale expenses. The district enrolled 62 Bridgeport students, as of the 2011-2012 strategic school profile.

A second change involves moving a pre-K site from Dwight to Stratfield, an elementary school closer to McKinley, aiming to attract some families to the program in which cost is based on what parents can afford. Children can then continue at the elementary, hopefully drawn into that school’s community.

A magnet program accommodating up to 50 students from other areas of the district at McKinley, similar to a measure used in Greenwich, and redistricting were floated in Fairfield as possibilities to keep on the table. The state board asked for definitive steps toward those permanent solutions to the imbalance, many frustrated by the nearly 10 years during which Fairfield has failed to move solidly into compliance. A study showed redistricting could not permanently balance the town’s elementary student diversity until two school expansions wrap up, projected for 2020.

Fairfield Superintendent Toni Jones said she would have liked approval for the plan as it was, but she found the state’s request reasonable. The district will put together a timeline and focus on its proposed immediate measures to adjust the imbalance. Jones will explore the idea of a magnet program and continue to look for ways to avoid redistricting, a measure residents have been “loud and clear” in rejecting.

“Ultimately it is up to the town,” said Jones, who led the presentation Wednesday a month after joining the district. “It’s up to Fairfield to decide how we approach this issue and how we will handle it going forward. Their responsibility is to say, here’s the law and we want you to comply.”

At the Hartford meeting, board members received a PTA-led petition and letters from local elected officials urging acceptance of the intact plan. Jones offered a similar view — of McKinley as an international, thriving school, a situation that does not warrant a dramatic fix.

“I really felt like Fairfield had one voice,” she said, “and it was speaking together.”

“We are family”

For Fairfield parents, the prospect of redistricting spurs fears of losing the town’s sense of neighborhood schools. McKinley parents in particular have turned out to district meetings — and in Hartford — asking district and state officials not to redistrict, espousing the school motto, “we are family.”

McKinley PTA President Michelle Gurner helped launch a petition at Superintendent Jones’ suggestion that garnered more than 400 signatures in less than a week, calling on the state board to accept Fairfield’s plan.

“McKinley shows what the world is. The world is not one kind of person,” Gurner, a parent of two. “We want to keep that intact. No one at McKinley’s complaining.”

Some families have chosen to send their children to the elementary school as part of an “opt-in” program, a previous effort to adjust the imbalance. One parent, part of a multi-cultural family districted for Osborn Hill Elementary School, learned of the program by chance and, on a visit to the school, was won over when she saw a diverse mix of students moving through the halls, engaged with each other, and sensed the community has fostered a respect for differences.

“We obviously said yes to McKinley,” said Anna Wood, whose home is a 15-minute drive from the school. “It’s a microcosm of the real world.”

Sally Connolly, a McKinley parent of four, traveled to Hartford and spoke as a “non-minority” member of the school’s community, praising the education and friendships with students of diverse backgrounds her children have gotten at the school. As the board conditional moved toward conditional approval, she said in an interview she hopes some Fairfield parents will appreciate what McKinley has to offer, as a diverse, tight-knit school offering a thorough education.

“In my understanding, given the fact that the Fairfield community values its neighborhood schools, I think that it’s time for the entire community of Fairfield to stand behind McKinley,” Connolly said.

Voluntary support for a magnet program at the school, she hopes, combined with Open Choice enrollment, could still prevent redistricting as a necessity.

Joseph Vrabely, state board member, said the McKinley community sounded wonderful, but emphasized the town still needs to show definite progress toward meeting requirements.

“That’s a beautiful thing,” he said, of the diverse environment concentrated at McKinley, “but it’s not the law.”