In May, Fairfield Board of Education Chair Christine Vitale told the state Board of Education that redistricting McKinley Elementary School to reduce a racial imbalance in the public schools could actually do the students there more harm than good.
“We don’t view McKinley as the problem… it is our most diverse school, but it is something that we are incredibly proud of,” said Vitale.
But since 2007, McKinley has failed to meet state standards ensuring that schools within a district meet a minimum threshold of racial balance. Currently, 56 percent of McKinley students are classified as minority, compared to 26 percent of students in the district overall.
Fairfield schools have tried several times to change the racial balance.
Creating a system for parents and students to “opt in” or “opt out” to attend McKinley did little. Neither did a preschool program offered at two of the district’s schools that would allow students zoned to attend McKinley to remain at the school where they attended preschool.
In 2016, the district contracted the firm Malone and McBroom to consider how the district could best fix the racial imbalance at McKinley. The firm concluded that the district would need to expand and renovate two other elementary schools, Holland Hill and Mill Hill, for a total of $30 million. But Vitale said that the redistricting plan had been placed on hold while the district scrambled to deal with the COVID pandemic.
Vitale told the state Board of Education that McKinley provided the students with needed support — particularly for English Language Learners — that they might not be able to get at the district’s other schools. She also said that changing the racial balance of McKinley would disproportionately affect the community that sends their children there.
At a Board of Education meeting later that month, board member Jennifer Maxon-Kennelly said that she felt the state was “overstepping” in requiring Fairfield to address the racial imbalance at McKinley.
“I wrote on my paper, ‘Butt out’,” she said.
Her words point to a larger question around the idea of racial imbalance — how much power should the state have to regulate the composition of schools within a local district, and how much should instead be left up to local control.
Groton implements a Magnet Program
As recently as 2019, three of Groton’s schools were teetering on the edge of the state standard — which classifies a school as on the edge of imbalance if its demographics deviate more than 15 percent from the district’s overall racial composition, and as imbalanced if a school enrollment deviates more than 25 percent from the district’s overall racial composition.
Despite the district-wide enrollment split nearly evenly between white students and students of color, a number of Groton elementary schools had enrollments significantly over-representing one population or another.
The demographic imbalance had existed for years, in some instances drawing the attention of the state, before the town rolled out a plan in 2020 to close three of the district’s six elementary schools, construct a new unified middle school for the district, and convert two existing middle schools into elementary schools.
The results tell a larger story about the challenge of reducing racial divisions within a school district which prove enduring, whether because of logistics or a lack of community will.
Susan Austin, superintendent of schools in Groton, said that for years, Catherine Kolnaski STEAM Elementary School and Claude Chester Elementary School were skewed toward a higher percentage of minority students, while Northeast Arts Magnet School and S.B. Butler Elementary Schools had a population that was about 75 percent white. Austin said the district had tried redistricting, and at one point had even moved all fifth graders to one school. None of the changes made a meaningful difference.
The Groton 2020 Master Plan, financed with $184 million approved by referendum, was more far-reaching repurposing of buildings and construction, and redistributing the displaced students into new schools.
In the process, the district converted all of its elementary schools into magnet schools based on themes: STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math), Arts, Environmental and Marine Sciences, “active exploration,” and “discovery” — a magnet that encourages students to explore their own interests.
Austin said that the district already had three magnet schools before the 2020 plan was implemented. She said that efforts the district made in prior years to convert Northeast Elementary into a magnet school had increased the number of minority students in attendance at the school.
“When we did a survey, families wanted their home school, but they also wanted choice. And we saw that with so many going to the LEARN schools and the New London schools, they liked the idea of having magnet choice. So we wanted to be able to offer that even in our own Groton,” said Austin.
Community buy-in was critical in Groton, which first had to approve the funding for the 2020 plan.
Austin said the school district ran community forums, sent out surveys, reached out through Parent-Teacher Organizations and kept the redistricting on the agenda for Board of Education meetings.
“We actually made sure that our families understood this was something worth fighting for and going out to vote for,” said Austin.
Austin said that there was opposition in the community as the plan was being developed, particularly from parents who didn’t want just one middle school. But she said the change was necessary if the goal was to unite children from different parts of the district.
“As much as our core curriculum was aligned and we were offering all the same enrichment in all of our schools, you don’t get that balance and get kids coming together like that unless you put them all together at the top of Fort Hill and offer an International Baccalaureate [Middle Years Program],” said Austin, who later said the program is available for all students at Groton Middle School. Groton Middle School.
West Hartford also opted to transform two of its schools — Charter Oak International Academy and Florence K. Smith School — into interdistrict magnet schools. In order to change the demographic balance in Charter Oak and Smith — both disproportionately minority — the district rebuilt Charter Oak and turned it into an International Baccalaureate Magnet School. Smith Elementary was transformed into a STEM-focused magnet school.
“We’ve invested heavily in those schools and we’ve spent time marketing and outreach throughout the community so that people can understand [that] there are two schools that are a little bit different than the elementary schools in town that they can choose to send their children to,” said Thomas Moore, superintendent of schools in West Hartford.
Moore said he believes the state should have a role in overseeing districts efforts — otherwise, he said, “local politics” could derail plans to balance racial composition across schools.
“Local politics plays a role that there are times that I’m frankly deeply disappointed in the decisions that they make,” said Moore.
Moore said that when he first heard the argument about “neighborhood schools,” he was skeptical. He said he thought it might be another code for racism. But working as a teacher in the district, he saw the pride that people had in their local elementary schools and the rivalries that developed between them.
Then, he had his own children.
“I understood that them walking to school with their neighbors and them playing on the playgrounds after school and being in a place that is right down the street from your house, so you know where they are, it’s that kind of … feeling of developing real community within that neighborhood,” he said.
Moore said he felt that redistricting wasn’t the right option for West Hartford, either, because it would cause some students to have to leave Charter Oak and Smith. He said that they allow families to choose any of the district schools, but he added that families districted for those two schools don’t choose to leave.
The solution to this, he said, is to diversify the entire district — not just in terms of student demographics, but also creating a diverse body of teachers and administrators at all the schools.
“The idea that, well, we’re just attracting white kids from other places — that’s not the case at all. And so we have to diversify the whole district to make sure that that’s not a driving force for people so that they don’t think, well, my kid will feel more comfortable there because there’s diversity there, but not within my school,” said Moore. “We’re always trying to make sure we’re conscious of and working to make sure we have staff across the district to look like our kids.”
Moore said that while the magnet school offerings did attract more families from around the district to want to send their children to Charter Oak and Smith, there were other factors that made an even greater difference — leadership and community.
In the case of Smith, said Moore, the school has students in the older grades come and mentor the younger children in their chemistry and physics classes. At Charter Oak the principal, Georgina Rivera, made a concerted effort to engage the community and reach out to parents of small children in the district.
“That culture of family really is something that brought people in,” said Moore.
“I think the school’s segregation — whether by race or economic status — it mirrors the residential segregation almost anywhere,” said Casey Cobb, a professor of education policy at UConn’s Neag School of Education. “[It] could be within the state, across the nation, or certainly within districts because we know districts … will have great variation in their neighborhoods and terms of economic status and maybe the racial makeup.”
State involvement, Cobb said, is necessary to ensure that students receive a public education guaranteed by the Connecticut Constitution.
“The state is responsible for public education by the Constitution and they have the authority and they also have the oversight,” said Cobb.
The problem, according to Cobb, is that the law which dates back to desegregation efforts in 1969 has very little in the way of an enforcement mechanism if a district does not comply.
“Certainly the public reporting of it helps. That’s a layer of accountability with some sort of responsibility on districts to meet the goal. But I’m in favor of incentives, whether they be financial or otherwise, to really encourage schools and, and hold them accountable …” said Cobb. “The oversight has to be more than annual reports – it has to be action, and really strong dialogue between state agency officials and district officials when objectives aren’t being met in a timely manner. So … less about the plans in place and more about the outcomes.”
Housing is a key factor for a school district like Greenwich, which has seven schools that fall short of the state thresholds for balance or close to it.
In 2015, Greenwich began a project to expand and renovate New Lebanon Elementary School to accept more magnet students. The new building opened in 2019. While the school’s imbalance has declined by seven percentage points from 2017 to 2021, it remains 72 percent minority in a district where about 4 in 10 students are students of color.
In the district as a whole, 17.5 percent of students are eligible for free and reduced lunches, 22.5 percent are Latino and 9 percent are of Asian descent.
Data provided by Greenwich Public Schools shows that even allowing for magnet school enrollment within the district, 89 percent of students attend the school in the neighborhood where they live.
In response to a query from CT Examiner about the district’s plan to meet state thresholds for diversity, Jonathan Supranowitz, the district’s director of communications, provided a presentation to the state Board of Education including a list of pending affordable housing developments located in different school zones.
“Until the developments are built and rented, we will not know the exact effect,” Supranowitz told CT Examiner. “We will follow trends over time, but Greenwich housing is being diversified from east to west.”
In its racial imbalance plan, the district notes that redistricting is not considered an option for Greenwich, both because of the increased cost of busing, but also a lack of community desire.
“There is little or no support within a community that strongly supports neighborhood schools for redistricting to achieve racial balance or optimal facility utilization. This is as true in Hamilton Avenue and New Lebanon communities as it is in Riverside or Parkway,” according to the plan..
A Matter of Testing
More than just a matter of integrating schools, the state Board of Education noted in its meeting with Fairfield’s school superintendent and board of education chair, that racially unbalanced school districts usually also have imbalanced test scores.
Fairfield’s McKinley Elementary School, with its high percentage of minority students, also consistently scored a few percentage points below the district as a whole in its math and language arts scores in the years before the pandemic.
“We … frame the argument all the time as ‘this is where these students are the most successful’ because of all the supports we put in place for them. And yet the data shows that they really are not that successful academically. The attendance rate there is among the worst in the district,” then-superintendent Michael Cummings told the Fairfield Board of Education in May.
In Greenwich, schools with a higher population of minority students as compared to the overall district — New Lebanon, Julian Curtiss, and Hamilton Avenue — have lower performance in state assessments in English Language Arts, Math and Science than in the district overall, while schools with a greater portion of White students — Parkway, Old Greenwich and North Street —- have higher test scores than the district average, according to state data.
The International School at Dundee is an exception to this rule — it has a larger percentage of students of color than the district overall — driven by a high population of Asian students — and its students have consistently scored higher than the district average in math and reading.
Nevertheless, in both Greenwich and Fairfield, every school – whether disproportionately White or with a population disproportionately of people of color – tests above the state average.
In Groton, students at Northeast Academy Elementary School and S.B. Butler Elementary school, both majority White schools, had higher scores across the board than their counterparts at Claude Chester Elementary School and Catherine Kolnaski Magnet School, which were majority minority.
Speaking generally, Moore explained the disparity as a matter of income, family struggles.
When you have low-income students, Moore told CT Examiner, there will be more challenges to raising test scores given the struggles many of these families are facing outside of school.
“Anywhere where you have free and reduced lunch challenges, that means you have poverty challenges,” said Moore. “For a family of four to be making less than $40,000 a year — you’re going to have issues with education.”
Drilling down to the classroom level
Given the suspension of state standardized testing during the coronavirus pandemic, little data yet exists to compare before and after the Groton 2020 plan was implemented, though Austin told CT Examiner that the district’s internal assessments showed “student growth at all levels and in all disciplines.”
But Austin said that Groton also found that racial imbalance not only at the level of individual schools, but in individual classes.
The Black Student Union at Fitch High School, lead by Carmita Hodge, a history teacher, has been working on bringing more minority students into Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate and college-level courses.
“Our students were saying, ‘There’s not enough kids who look like me in my upper level classes,’” said Austin.
Hodge told CT Examiner that students in the Black Student Union put out a survey to see why students weren’t taking the higher-level classes. The results, she said, “weren’t favorable.”
“The one major focus that we drew from the survey is, definitely, there were students who did not take those classes because there was no one else in those classes that looked like them,” said Hodge. “So it wasn’t about ability. It was that they didn’t want to be the only ones in those classes.”
After getting the survey results, the BSU decided to make an effort to work with the 9th grade class. Hodge said the BSU students helped the 9th graders study for PSATs, and then encouraged them to take more advanced courses when they were enrolling in classes. Hodge said the number of students in AP U.S. History, the only AP course that 10th graders can take, has increased, although she doesn’t know the demographics.
Hodge said she felt that having students take the lead on getting other students into these classes has made a big difference.
“Their peers are more receptive when they see someone their age talking to them versus an adult,” said Hodge. “So I think it’s been huge.”
Hodge added that the students plan to continue their efforts going into next year. She said they want to improve on a video they created of BSU students interviewing students of color who decided to take high-level courses. She said they are also fixing up a powerpoint they made for the 9th graders outlining all the different course options they can take.
“The students — they were going to do it with or without me. So … since I’m the BSU advisor I said, Okay, let’s go. Let’s do it,” said Hodge.
“Trending in a positive right direction”
Even with the shift to magnet schools in West Hartford and the restructuring plan in Groton, the changes haven’t perfectly balanced the district’s schools. Charter Oak’s imbalance has decreased substantially over time — the school is currently 68 percent minority, down from 76 percent in 2012-13. This decrease, combined with an increase in minority students in the district overall, was just enough to get Charter Oak off the state’s racial imbalance list.
Moore said the district plans to continue with what it has already been doing at Charter Oak and Smith, keeping an eye on the thematic offerings at the magnet schools and possibly changing them in the future to fit the desires of the parents and students.
“[We’ll] keep making sure that those schools are enticing schools. And as you undergo leadership changes at those schools, make sure that there’s new life and vitality and that recruitment continues and that we’re offering something people want to choose,” said Moore.
In Fairfield County, Greenwich’s racial imbalance plan similarly predicts that the imbalance will continue to decline at New Lebanon and Hamilton Avenue Elementary Schools, as it has over the last five years. Fairfield Public Schools will be required to present an updated racial imbalance plan to the State Board of Education in September.
Greenwich Superintendent Toni Jones told CT Examiner that the district was “trending in a positive right direction.”
“Our strong magnet school program has received a great deal of interest and energized the community. It is also clear that our middle and high school students attend school with a very diverse population,” Jones wrote in an email to CT Examiner.
In Groton, Northeast Academy Magnet School went from 73 percent white to 70 percent white over the last five years, according to state data. Catherine Kolnaski STEAM Magnet went from 64 percent minority students to 67 percent minority students over the same timeframe, although that has decreased from 73.5 percent minority students in 2012. (The district has also seen an overall increase in its percentage of minority students).
While the racial demographic shifts at the existing elementary schools are small, the newly built schools, Thames River Magnet and Mystic River Magnet, have demographics that are much closer to the district’s overall distribution. This, combined with the closure of Claude Chester Elementary School, which had a high percentage of minority students compared to the overall district, has caused the district’s overall racial imbalance to decrease — from 14.8 percent in 2012-13 to 11.1 percent in 2021-22.
The result at the middle school is also obvious. Closing Cutler and West Side and merging the students into one building has created a school with a 50 percent white, 50 percent minority student population — mirroring the district’s demographics exactly.
Austin said that the district obviously still has work to do in getting the schools in line with district demographics. Lonsdale, the district’s data manager, told CT Examiner that he felt that once the lottery system — implemented for the first time in all the five elementary schools last year — had a chance to really work, they might see greater changes in the schools’ racial compositions. The key, he said, was convincing more families to join into the lottery system, and drumming up interest for the differently themed magnet schools.
Even so, Austin said she thinks the Groton restructuring has already moved them closer to their goals.
“I think it is the beginning of a real success story,” she said.
Clarifications: The International Baccalaureate Middle Years Program is available for all students at Groton Middle School. Also, the Claude Chester School Elementary School was closed, not the Charles Barnum Elementary School.