FAIRFIELD — “I can’t urge you enough to just leave these kids alone.”
That was the prevailing sentiment among parents on Tuesday who came out in opposition to the idea of closing schools or transferring high schoolers as part of the town’s redistricting process for the 2024-25 school year.
As board members continued to debate the guidance they would give to the consulting firm SLAM, which will prepare potential redistricting scenarios to solve the district’s racial imbalance, seven parents came forward to ask that their high schoolers be “grandfathered” into the school they were already attending. An additional five asked that Jennings Elementary School be allowed to remain open.
The high school parents almost uniformly pointed to the mental health effects of the pandemic, and said that moving their children would cause greater disruption after they had already lost in-person learning time during the pandemic.
“Our kids need structure. They need consistency … they haven’t had that,” said parent Jen Passeck. “This is the first year they’re getting that real structure and consistency. How can we take that away from them at this critical juncture in their lives?”
“[The grandfathering] must be included as part of the plan. That’s just part of the cost of redistricting,” added parent Jodi Berman, who identified herself as a clinical psychologist. “The stakes are too high with our teenagers.”
Parents warned board members that their teenagers were already struggling with higher levels of anxiety and depression, and that they needed to have strong support systems in place.
“It is … imperative for our students to have principals, teachers, coaches and guidance counselors that they feel comfortable enough to reach out to when facing a crisis. I cannot even imagine the ramifications if our teens need to switch high schools mid-career and lose part of their support system,” said parent Rebecca Press.
Some said they were afraid that their students would lose coveted positions on sports teams and in student government, and that the move would affect SAT scores and academic records. Others said they worried about moving schools while they were in the middle of applying to colleges.
“As we watch our older students start the process to get into college, there’s so much that goes into it — between student recommendations, obviously preparing for tests, working with guidance counselors — the idea of starting a new school junior year and having to make new connections with teachers, work with a counselor who does not know you … it feels very overwhelming,” said Brian Compare, a parent.
Others came out to oppose the possible closure of Dwight or Jennings Elementary Schools, including repurposing Jennings as a one-site Early Childhood Center that would serve the entire district.
Stan Rubenstein said that his daughter, who is in the Complex Learner’s Cohort, started at North Stratfield Elementary School, where the police were called on her as a kindergartener because she was considered “unsafe.” Rubenstein said that moving to Jennings allowed his daughter to find a community and get the support she needed.
“We went from being in a position of crisis to seeing both of my children thrive,” he said.
A fifth-grader at Jennings spoke in favor of keeping his school open for his younger siblings.
“I believe that Jennings does not need to be closed. I think Jennings is a perfect school and it should remain open,” he said. “We have communities at these schools and we don’t want these communities to come apart.”
Martelli Borieux said he moved to Fairfield from Georgia and chose his home based on the district. He warned that redistricting could push parents to consider options other than the public schools.
“You will have parents that pull their kids out of the public school system. You will have parents that send their kids to private [school]. You will have parents that pool their resources together and create small homeschool pods,” he said.
Although Board of Education members have said they don’t believe closing one of the elementary schools will be a feasible solution, members have said they wanted the consultants to run the scenario so they would have data to support their decision.
Board member Nicholas Aysseh said that in a meeting between district administration and SLAM, the consultants suggested taking a “phased approach” where they would first look at possible closures of Dwight and Jennings, and then run scenarios in which the district keeps all the elementary schools open.
SLAM will also consider a variety of scenarios for the Early Childhood Center. In a meeting on Jan. 5, Executive Director of Special Education Rob Mancusi told the board that he projected a need for an additional 9 Early Childhood classrooms and 5 specialized classrooms beginning in the 2023-24 school year.
At the Tuesday meeting, the board approved slight changes to the draft guidance. The board removed language that would instruct the consultants to model what would happen if the district decided to turn Tomlinson into a school exclusively for all the sixth graders in the district. Aysseh said the idea would would require a minimum of 15 additional buses.
The guidance in the current draft also instructs consultants to consider the number of walkers who would be affected by redistricting scenarios and consider grandfathering 5th, 8th, 10th, 11th and 12th graders into their current schools.
The board is scheduled to vote on the final version of the guidance for the consultants in a meeting later this month.