McKinley Parents Fret ‘Racial Imbalance’ Solution Puts Brunt on Students it Aims to Help

Parents and students packed into the Fairfield Warde High School auditorium on June 27, 2023, for school board meeting addressing redistricting.


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FAIRFIELD — Patricia Cabelo moved to Connecticut from Brazil two years ago, during the pandemic. She enrolled her daughter, then in Kindergarten, in McKinley Elementary in the middle of the school year. 

“She didn’t know English. She knew 20 words,” said Cabelo. 

But Cabelo said they felt welcomed immediately at McKinley. The principal spoke Portuguese, and so did a psychologist in the district. Today, Cabelo said, her daughter is fluent in English, and was able to help another new student, who also came from Brazil, to get settled at the school. 

Yet no matter which of the three redistricting proposals the school district chooses, Cabelo’s daughter, now a rising third grader at McKinley, will have to switch schools. This will create an extra challenge for Cabelo, whose daughter currently walks to school and will now have to take a bus. Cabelo has questioned whether the before- and after-care programs her daughter participates in at McKinley will be available at her new school. 

Cabelo is one of several parents at McKinley who expressed dissatisfaction with the three scenarios meant to fix both a racial imbalance at McKinley Elementary and distribute the students more evenly throughout the district’s eleven elementary schools. 

McKinley has failed to meet state standard of racial balance since 2007, because only about a quarter of students in Fairfield are identified as students of color, while over half of McKinley’s students fall into that category. 

In June, SLAM, a firm hired by the district to consult on solutions, presented three scenarios for redistricting — one that would close Jennings Elementary School and repurpose it as a Pre-K Center, one that would create “satellite zones” re-assigning pockets of students to new schools, and a more traditional redrawing of school zones that would affect nearly every school in town. 

McKinley parents aren’t the only ones opposed to the current scenarios. In a recent survey that asked about 2,000 parents across the district which of the three scenarios they preferred, about a third of parents said they didn’t like any of the proposals. Another third said they were in favor of the “satellite zones,” which would cause the least disruption by forcing the smallest number of children to move. 

But all of the McKinley parents who spoke with CT Examiner about the issue said they felt that the town needed to start thinking about it as a town-wide problem requiring a town-wide solution rather than focusing all their energy on changing McKinley. 

“I think that the problem that we’re seeing is that nobody wants  to redistrict, but also the one school that has been targeted is McKinley,” said Katie Romeo, incoming president of the PTA at McKinley. “And so there’s so much focus on breaking that up rather than building that in other schools. And I think that is tragic. I think it’s tragic that a place with such a rich community and diversity is going to change.” 

They said the problem reflected a shortage of affordable housing in areas of town that fell outside McKinley’s district boundary lines. 

“Some parts of the town are really huge properties and single family homes, but it’s not as affordable for everyone that would want to come in and establish themselves,” said Sowmya Sankaran, another McKinley parent. 

Town First Selectman Barbara Kupchick said in an email to CT Examiner that the town had set aside a Housing Trust Fund and that more than 80 percent of the money spent had gone to areas outside of the McKinley zone. She also said the town adopted a zoning ordinance requiring new developments to include ten percent of their units as affordable housing “specifically so that affordable units would be dispersed as much as possible.” 

Kupchick also noted that while the town was “actively seeking sites” to create affordable housing, the majority of these units were created by private, for-profit developments. 

Sankaran, whose daughter is going into 3rd grade, said she believed the original boundary lines that were drawn within the district had disparities built into them, with certain areas zoned for schools in ways that didn’t make sense to her. 

But Sankaran and Romeo both noted that in all of the current redistricting scenarios presented in June, McKinley students would be the most affected. Between 95 and 145 current McKinley students would be moved out of McKinley in each of the proposals. 

“In every scenario that has been given, McKinley students will be moved. And so, again, that’s a different perspective from others who feel like, ‘Oh, well this scenario works for me because I’m not touched in the other scenarios,’” said Romeo. 

Yet parent Laura Veneman, who has a son going into 2nd grade and a daughter who will start Kindergarten in 2024, said one of the problems she had with the current proposals was that they only uprooted a small number of children.

“If it was my kids that were being moved, I would want to know that when they’re going into a new school, that they were going to be going in with friends or people that they knew,” said Veneman. 

“A cultural intelligence” 

The likely loss of a diverse community is also a major worry for the McKinley parents who spoke with CT Examiner. 

Ghenet Myrthil’s daughter, who is a rising third grader at McKinley, is another student that will have to switch schools based on the redistricting scenarios that the board presented.  

Myrthil, who is Black American, and whose husband is Caribbean, said that she was worried about her child being the only child of color in the class where she’s placed — particularly if there aren’t any other McKinley students in her class. 

“Is that going to affect her self-esteem? Or is everybody going to be perfectly welcoming and she’ll be fine? I don’t know,” said Myrthil. “I definitely know that you can feel strange when you’re the only one who looks a certain way in a space.” 

And Sankaran said the McKinley community had stepped up to support the cultural and linguistic needs of students who needed support. 

“My worry is, if they’re going to break up McKinley completely and then put the children in different spots, are those schools equipped enough to support the children who come in? That is my major concern,” she said. 

All the parents said they were happy with the education their children had received at McKinley. The school’s test scores are the lowest in the district, although they remain higher than the state average. Several parents said they attributed the lower test scores to the high number of English language learners in the district. 

“My granddaughter received a fabulous education at McKinley. All of her teachers were excellent,” said a grandmother whose granddaughter went to McKinley. “All of her support services that she received were fabulous. She did not have a single bad teacher or provider. She was in a beautiful state-of-the-art facility with all of the advantages, the most modern up-to-date technologies, the most modern, up-to-date, teaching philosophies.” 

And Cabelo said that other qualities of McKinley outweighed its academic ranking in her mind. 

“I think that what my daughter is learning from 21 different countries that we have there at McKinley, students that are from these countries — it’s much more important for my family. I think that it’s a cultural intelligence — that it opens her mind to the world,” she said. 

Parent Erik Hayden said the diversity at McKinley was particularly impactful for his daughter, who has Down’s Syndrome. 

“At a school where everybody looks different, nobody looks different,” he said. “She’s got friends from India. She’s got friends from different countries in Africa. She’s got friends from different Asian countries … So I think that that diversity, when you’re coming in as somebody who wears their disability on a sleeve and might look a little different than the other kids — it’s helpful.” 

“We’re so past that” 

The parents who spoke to CT Examiner seemed torn in their feelings about Connecticut’s racial imbalance law — they said they saw the value of its intent, but that the way it played out in practice was negatively affecting them.  

“When you look back and realize what the intent of the law is, it’s really about preventing segregation in our schools. And I think that is a good thing to prevent,” said Myrthil. “I think for me, what’s hard is that, the way that the different scenarios are showing up now … McKinley is taking the brunt of it.” 

Myrthil said that last year, the parents at McKinley had a meeting with the Board of Education about whether it would be possible to appeal to Hartford about the law, but said they realized there was nothing they could do to avoid the law. Now, she said, her focus is on making the transition — which she sees as inevitable — as smooth as possible, and ensuring that her child and the other children who move are welcomed into their new school, and get the support they need. Something like a buddy program, or assemblies about how to welcome new students. 

Romeo echoed her concerns. 

“A lot of us who have been following [the redistricting] have really realized that as the town grows, redistricting is somewhat necessary. So it’s just part of that evolution,” said Romeo. “I know there’s people there trying to fight the law. I know there’s people trying to stop any type of redistricting. I think we’re so past that. I just think we really need to make this right for our kids.” 

The parents expressed mixed feelings about a new proposal to turn McKinley into a magnet school. Sankaran said she would support a magnet school — although she felt it should be done in two different schools rather than just one — but Hayden said he felt the district needed to make education equitable across the board rather than creating “a separate educational experience for a percentage of students.”

The grandmother told CT Examiner that she believed a fair way of redistricting would be to wipe away what already exists and redraw the entire district’s boundaries from scratch. 

“It’s a very unpopular point of view. It’s a very painful point of view. But I think it’s the only way that you’re going to obtain equity among the schools,” she said. 

Veneman said she felt that if the district fixated on only changing the composition of McKinley, they would eventually find themselves back in the same situation, trying to redraw the district lines yet again. 

“To have this redistrict[ing] and have there be schools that are not affected doesn’t seem to me to be accomplishing what the state has challenged us to do. It might be checking off a box of saying, okay, we got McKinley down below that diversity point that we needed to, but have we succeeded if we’re not offering diversity in all the schools?” said Veneman. “I personally feel like we’re only going to be back here in a matter of years to be doing this again. And if we’re going to do this, I want to do it once.”

Cabelo said she would have preferred to keep the McKinley community together, but that she felt the ultimate goal of redistricting should be to bring the cultural diversity of McKinley to every school in Fairfield. “I would like to have something similar at the new school for [my daughter] and for our family,” she said. “I hope this new school is open to learn from our experience, from our culture … kind of [an] exchange [of] languages or culture.”  

Emilia Otte

Emilia Otte covers health and education for the Connecticut Examiner. In 2022 Otte was awarded "Rookie of the Year," by the New England Newspaper & Press Association.