FAIRFIELD — The State Board of Education on Wednesday approved an agreement requiring Fairfield Public Schools to develop a redistricting plan that addresses a racial imbalance at McKinley Elementary School exceeding state guidelines. Under the agreement, the district administration must recommend a plan to the Fairfield Board of Education no later than June 2023.
Earlier in May, the state board had expressed frustration at the lack of progress toward addressing the imbalance and the lower academic scores at McKinley compared to other schools in the district. According to 2021 data, McKinley is 56 percent students of color, compared to just over a quarter of students in the district as a whole.
An earlier plan, adopted by the Fairfield Board of Education in August, includes five components: outreach to the community, equity workshops for school staff, a school climate review, redistricting of the elementary schools and consideration of an intra-district magnet school.
At the State Board of Education meeting, Fairfield Board of Education Chair Christine Vitale described the timeline as “aggressive.”
“When we were before you in May, we heard you loud and clear that you wanted some more definitive dates for when we planned to move our plan forward,” said Vitale.
Vitale said that Fairfield has tried in the past to address the racial imbalance, first by allowing parents to opt in or out of attending McKinley Elementary School, and then by creating preschool programs at two other elementary schools in the district. Neither did much to change the racial compositions of the schools, according to Vitale.
According to the new plan, the superintendent will bring in an outside consulting firm in December to create potential plans for redistricting, which the administration and Fairfield Board of Education will review and discuss. The board will approve a redistricting plan by the end of June, which will go into effect the 2024-25 school year.
Vitale said that the district also wanted to take into account the utilization rates at different elementary schools — she said the utilization rates at the district’s eleven elementary schools are uneven, with some of the schools over 90 percent capacity and others at 65 or 75 percent capacity.
“If we’re going to be moving students out of their home school — where everybody loves their school — we want to make sure that we potentially will not have to move them in a few years because of space issues,” said Vitale.
Vitale said that the district received updated enrollment projections from the SLAM Collaborative, a demographic firm, in late June, but that the estimates came “with some caution” because of the fluctuating real-estate market.
“We’ve seen a lot of movement of children into town as well as children within districts,” Vitale said.
The plan also includes equity training for district staff members and a district-wide “equity review” that will look at instruction, availability of support services, student assessments and the access that students have to advanced courses. According to the plan, the equity review will take place prior to Feb. 1, 2023.
Digna Marte, the district’s director of diversity, equity and inclusion, told the state board that Fairfield schools planned to put out a request for proposals for an equity review audit before the end of November.
Michael Testani, the district’s new superintendent, pointed out an update to the District Improvement Plan saying that the district would work on recruiting and retaining a diverse group of teachers and administrators.
“It is something that I’ve prided myself in my previous district — to ensure that we are able to provide students with access to teachers and administrators they can emulate and look up to. And that is going to be a commitment that I have now here in Fairfield as well,” said Testani, who was previously superintendent in the Bridgeport Public Schools.
Part of the plan also includes considering the creation of an intra-district magnet school. Dr. Steven Tracy, former interim superintendent in Fairfield, told the State Board of Education that he had recommended to the board that the magnet school idea be a “tentative” idea rather than a fixed plan.
“It became clear, at least to me, that to move youngsters from attendance area to attendance area, and then in the same breath, or the very next year, invite parents to move their children again, would be very difficult to pull off and might not result in the number of youngsters that you need to make a magnet program sustainable,” said Tracy.
Vitale said the district was looking at a potential International Baccalaureate and a Dual Language program for the district. She said the district already had a dual language program at McKinley Elementary, but that if the district was planning to move some of the students, they needed to make sure they have it at another elementary school.
State Board of Education members praised the district’s diversity, equity and inclusion work, including the hiring of Marte last year.
Malia Sieve, a member of the state board, said she thought the plan Fairfield presented was the most integrated one and the best she had heard so far from the district. She also praised the district for its thoughtfulness and commitment to a rapid timeline.
“After somewhere between 15 and 20 years of this, aggressive is absolutely what is needed,” said Sieve.
Sieve said she was also very much in favor of the Fairfield Board of Education having regular three-month check-ins with the Commissioner of the State Department of Education.
“I don’t want to leave my comments without elevating words that we heard from folks in Fairfield: Not just that they feel safe at McKinley, but actually they feel safe at McKinley because they don’t feel safe in other schools,” said Sieve. “And so I want to make sure that we all have heard that [those are] the feelings of at least a handful — but I would guess more — within Fairfield. So I really look forward to you all making progress, and aggressive progress, on your plan.”