FAIRFIELD — The Board of Education was presented with three potential school redistricting plans on Tuesday night to address an unresolved fifteen-year-old issue of racial imbalance at McKinley Elementary School.
The proposals include repurposing Jennings Elementary School as a Pre-K Center, creating “satellite zones” that would re-assign pockets of students to new schools, and a more traditional redrawing of school zones that would affect nearly every school in town.
Last May, the district presented an updated plan to the State Board of Education with an agreement to approve a redistricting plan no later than October 30, 2023. The plan is scheduled to go into effect for the 2024-25 school year.
Michael Zuba, director of public education master planning for S.L.A.M. Collaborative, an architecture and planning firm, explained to board members on Wednesday that some of the neighborhoods that feed into McKinley have a minority population that is 40 percent higher than the district average. And while only about a quarter of students living in Fairfield are students of color, at McKinley that number rises to 55 percent.
In a May 18 letter to Department of Education Commissioner Charlene Russell-Tucker, Fairfield Superintendent Michael Testani attributed the continued racial imbalance to factors like affordability, the cost of housing in the area and McKinley’s “positive climate and culture.”
“I cannot stress enough how much I have heard from families about how the school’s culture has contributed to them seeking to move into the district specifically to enroll their children at McKinley,” Testani wrote in the letter. “Families do not see a racially imbalanced school but rather an inclusive school community where their children are learning and growing.”
But former superintendent Michael Cummings expressed concern to the Board of Education last year about the math and reading scores at McKinley, which were consistently lower than the other elementary schools in the district.
In January, the district hired S.L.A.M. Collaborative to formulate a variety of options for redistricting, including the possible closure of one of the district’s elementary schools.
The firm was also asked to look at utilization, or how much of the space was being used in each of the schools. Currently, five of the district’s elementary schools are below 80 percent of their capacity, and two are above 90 percent of their capacity. Zuba said at the meeting that their estimates would aim at capping class sizes at 21 students.
Proposals for school redistricting have already elicited strong reactions from the community, including a protest on Sherman Green against the possible closure of Dwight Elementary and multiple parents who have asked that high schoolers and children who walk to school can remain at the school they currently attend.
Zuba said that one of the approaches SLAM used in the past for addressing racial imbalance involved pairing together elementary schools with a large minority population with others that had a low minority population. That approach, he said, generally meant spreading neighborhoods with large minority populations across three elementary schools, or creating smaller zones within a neighborhood that are then districted to other schools.
Scenario 1a: Pre-K at Jennings
One of the proposals would convert Jennings Elementary School — one of the schools with the lowest number of students in attendance — into a district-wide Pre-K Center. Gallagher said that the elementary students at Jennings would be split between Burr Elementary and McKinley Elementary, with students from those two schools being moved to other schools in the district.
Gallagher told the board that this scenario would have a “broad impact” on nearly all of the elementary schools, affecting about 18 percent of elementary school students.
“When you’re consolidating a facility, it really is a comprehensive redistricting that you need to look at,” said Gallagher.
This redistricting of the elementary schools would also affect the middle schools: about 1 in 4 middle school students would have to shift schools under this plan. It would also change which elementary schools fed into which middle schools moving forward.
Gallagher said the firm had considered converting Dwight into a Pre-K Center rather than Jennings, but it would not have solved the imbalance, and that the school was geographically isolated compared to the more centrally located Jennings.
Scenario 3: “Satellite zones” for McKinley and Stratfield
The second option carves out small areas in the neighborhoods serving McKinley Elementary and Stratfield Elementary – known as “satellite zones” — and sends students living in those areas to other elementary schools in Fairfield.
According to the proposals, this scenario would have the narrowest impact on students, requiring only 9 percent of elementary school students — mainly at McKinley, Stratfield and Mill Hill Elementary — to change schools. It would not impact the middle or high schools.
It would also expand the number of Pre-K classrooms from four to nine, spread across Holland Hill, Stratfield and Jennings.
Scenario 4: Re-drawing the map
The third option was what the consultants referred to as “traditional redistricting” that would redraw the boundaries of all the elementary schools. Gallagher said this would affect about 15 percent of the elementary school students, seven percent of middle schoolers and five percent of high schoolers.
“In order to balance McKinley, you have to shift students out of McKinley and into McKinley. And there’s only certain facilities that have the space to accommodate shifts. Otherwise, it creates this domino effect where then you’re kind of impacting one school, which then impacts the next school, which then impacts the next school,” explained Gallagher. “And so this ends up being kind of a comprehensive redistricting scenario where just about every facility and part of Fairfield would be touched in some way, shape or form.”
The consultants ranked this scenario as the least favorable, mainly because of the large number of students that would be affected and it would not change the racial balance problem as efficiently as the other two scenarios. They also noted that it would cause a sizable number of students who currently walk to school to need transportation.
Board members react
Members of the board largely asked for more time to review the options, and committed to a more in-depth discussion at their next meeting on June 27.
But some members expressed more immediate reactions.
Board member Jeff Peterson, said that “there are things I like in each one of these, and the things that frighten me in each one of these, and it’s probably what I should have expected all along.”
Board member Jessica Gerber said she’d like to see a more close-up view of the redistricting, since she anticipated that parents would be looking to see how their streets would be affected.
But board member Jennifer Maxon-Kennelly said she appreciated that the firm had presented the zones as a rough area on the map, rather than getting to street-by-street zoning changes.
“This is going to come down to – what are we philosophically going to support?” said Maxon-Kennelly. “I actually appreciate that this is at the 30,000 foot level because we ultimately have to decide, which approach do we want, and then boil it down.”
Zuba noted that a transportation audit would still need to take place before they could break down the zoning areas at a street level, to make sure that the plans would also work for busing. He said the firm would continue refining the plans in July and August.
Board Chair Jennifer Jacobsen said the Board planned to hold the June 27 meeting at Ward Auditorium in order to accommodate more people, and that there would be a virtual community conversation about the different scenarios on July 25.